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Is Hawaii Worth It?

Four local families talk about the price of paradise—and whether they’re willing to pay it any longer. Also, check out some eye-opening stats on the cost of living in the Islands.


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For Susanna Ok, Hawaii will always be home. She’s just not the type of person who needs to live at home. In May, Ok and her business partner plan to open Hapa, a ramen restaurant in San Francisco.

photo: memoire studio photography

The place ended up being San Francisco, a nonstop flight away from Oahu, but far enough for a much-needed change. While volunteering at a street-food festival, Ok met Richie Nakano, who runs Hapa Ramen, a ramen stand at the bustling Ferry Plaza market. The two hit it off and, this May, Ok and Nakano, now business partners, are opening Hapa, a brick-and-mortar ramen restaurant on Fillmore Street. The two have been featured in positive media stories and decent Yelp reviews. Ok, whose Twitter handle is The Noodle Cook, says she loves where she is at, professionally and socially.

10 Safest U.S. Cities

Source: Forbes

“The city has been really good to me; I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve made a lot of friends, people find me interesting,” she says, adding that, unlike here, San Francisco has been especially good for her dating life. “I’ve met a lot of boys here,” she says with a laugh, but she has a no-dating-in-the-industry policy.

On the other hand, the city has been hard on her wallet, not that she’s particularly worried. “I don’t make a lot of money right now,” she says. “It’s an expensive city,” she says, estimating that Hapa’s opening costs will be around $600,000. “But living and working in Hawaii, it’s expensive there, too. So it’s not something I don’t know how to do.”

Ok rents a one-bedroom apartment for $1,425, and says she feels lucky to have found that—there’s a lot of competition, she explains. She doesn’t have a car—her trade-off for living in the city—and catches the bus to and from Hapa Ramen, a 1.5-hour commute each way.

At a Glance:


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010

Does Ok miss anything back in Honolulu? “No,” she says flatly. While her two younger sisters, one of whom just graduated from a San Francisco university, and the other, who goes to school in Washington, might end up back in the Islands, Ok—who hasn’t been back in two years—says she’ll probably only return if there’s a big family event, such as a wedding or a funeral. “I can’t imagine having grown up anywhere else and I have great pride for being from Hawaii, but it’s not where I want to be as a person,” she says. San Francisco gives her a sense of freedom, she says, whereas Honolulu doesn’t. “It’s the ability to get up and leave. Should this city not work for me today, I could pack up and take off tomorrow for somewhere else.” Just not Hawaii, she adds.

Looking Abroad

Gary Fontaine is looking forward to traveling and working on a few long-overdue side projects. Fontaine has been a professor in the School of Communications at UH since 1982, and is retiring at the end of this semester, in May.

“I think it’s time to explore some other parts of the world,” says the 66-year-old, who grew up in Washington. “I’ve been in Hawaii a long time, but I imagine I’ll come back and forth. It’s been 30 years, there are other things to see and do.” Specifically, Fontaine is helping further develop international studies programs for university institutes in Shanghai and Singapore. While it’s not an official retirement—he says he’s not quite ready for that—Fontaine is looking forward to relocating to Boracay, “the Riviera of the Philippines,” he says. He and his wife, Lorna, have a home there they built and paid for. She’s already there: Last year, Lorna opened the Bridge of Paradise Restobar, an indoor/outdoor restaurant in Aklan specializing in Filipino cuisine with Hawaii touches.

The Daily Grind: Ever feel like  you’re just scraping by paycheck-to-paycheck? “Generally speaking, by category, people make less in Hawaii than they could make elsewhere,” says Randy Roth, UH law professor and editor of The Price of Paradise books. “If you’ve got enough people willing to pay that added paradise tax—not just the high cost of living, but making less money—that supply and demand will help explain the income disparity.

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Honolulu Magazine February 2019
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