Field Notes: This Local Steampunk Group is Bringing Victorian-Era Fiction to Life
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Steampunk Hawai‘i.
What it is
Photo: Courtesy of Stanley Yamada
A subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring aesthetic elements inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machines and technology, “steampunk” was a word first coined by sci-fi author K.W. Jeter. In a letter to Locus magazine in 1987, he used it to describe the style of stories that he and similar authors were creating at the time. These were stories of speculative Victorian-era fiction, similar to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, where steam power remained in mainstream use.
Thirty years later, the genre is strong as ever. Steampunk Hawai‘i is a local group of customers, craftspeople and other enthusiasts united by a shared interest in steampunk culture and fashion. On Facebook, the group has more than 900 members.
“Various members of the group had been meeting since around 2010. Artists like Friston Ho‘okano and Won Park, who make intricate steampunk-inspired jewelry, had occasional meetups, but we wanted to host regular events,” says Tracy Chan, one of the group’s organizers. At least once a month, members of Steampunk Hawai‘i will put on their favorite retro-futuristic ensembles and go out for luncheons, fi lm screenings and photo shoots at stylish spots including the Hawaiian Railway Society in ‘Ewa, Foster Botanical Garden and the Honolulu Museum of Art. Anywhere from 50 to 70 people might turn out to take photos and participate.
What to wear
If you’ve ever seen an assemblage of people wearing Victorian articles of clothing such as frock coats, corsets, high boots, bowlers and top hats—and adorned with various industrial accessories such as brass gears or goggles—it’s a safe bet they were members of Steampunk Hawai‘i.
“There are photographers in the group who don’t actually dress up themselves but they love the look and want to take photos and be part of it,” says Star Lavin, another Steampunk Hawai‘i organizer. “Although if anyone’s interested in dressing up but they don’t have gear, I’m always ready to whip open my trunk and offer top hats,corsets, anything.”
The group’s members are an eclectic assortment of engineers, scientists, lab technicians, teachers, men and women in the military and magazine associates (disclosure: this includes Chan, who works as digital media manager for HAWAI‘I Magazine, one of HONOLULU’s sister publications). “We have a retired Army dentist in our group. There’s also a literal cowboy who works in the stables,” says Lavin.
“We have two members on Maui who are super cool and are basically steampunk hippies. They do ’60s-style tie-dye. flare pants, the works,” Chan says. Other participants incorporate their personal heritage into their wardrobe; one Native Hawaiian member has a decked out lauhala top hat.
Every time the group goes out, they come across one or two more people interested in joining, although some become intimated by the mistaken notion that they have to buy elaborate get-ups to fit in. Chan says that many everyday outfits and clothing can be considered steampunk: “We’ll go buy curtains from Ross and make bustles out of them. You can make goggles using baby bottle toppers painted gold or silver. We’ll take scrap metal being thrown out and put that together. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”
Fun fact: Steampunk in film dates back to the 1902 French silent movie, A Trip to the Moon.
STEAM PUNK FILMS
➸ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
➸ The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
➸ Wild Wild West (1999)
➸ The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
➸ Van Helsing (2004)
➸ The Golden Compass (2007)
➸ Hugo (2011)
➸ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
MEET THE PUNKS
Tracy Chan, 33
Digital media manager, Makiki
“I love seeing the amazing creativity. The stuff people come up with and how each person brings their own style to steampunk, it’s incredible.”
Star Lavin, 38
Forensic scientist for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, ‘Ewa Beach
“I used to get in trouble for taking things apart and repurposing them. My grandfather came home one day and the lawnmower was all over the backyard.”
Chuck Little, 57
Civil Service for the U.S. Marine Corps, Makiki
“I’m drawn to steampunk because of the uniqueness of the personas that the cosplayers create and the latitude that gives me in creating photos.”
Photos: Courtesy of KAVEH KARDAN, STAR LAVIN and CHUCK LITTLE