Afterthoughts: Beyond Beauty

Hawaii wants to be loved as more than just a pretty face.

Illustration: Allan Aquino

The more things hange, the more they stay the same. We recently spent time combing through the archives of HONOLULU and Paradise of the Pacific, pulling together materials for a new book of covers. It was a fascinating exercise, because for every weird relic of a bygone era, there was an item that might as well have been written last month.

Take this bit, from the June 1946 issue of Paradise: “Hawaii’s current attempts to convince the rest of the country that she is ready for statehood are beset with the difficulties that would be experienced by a woman known only for her beauty and pleasant disposition who suddenly wished to be known for her progressiveness, business acumen and social consciousness.”

Sound familiar? Sixty-six years later, Hawaii is still battling to be seen as something more than a shallow beauty. We throw millions of dollars in tax credits in front of tech, movie and aerospace companies, but the diversified economy we’re chasing never quite seems to materialize. We built a $200 million, state-of-the-art convention center to woo business travel, and yet any Mainland professional association that dares to schedule its convention here risks being slammed for frivolous, boondoggle spending. We know why you’re really going to Hawaii, leer the cranks.

Year after year, Hawaii tops lists such as “best beaches,” “best weather,” “top tourist destinations,” and year after year, we languish near the bottom of all the lists having to do with “real” life: traffic, cost-of-living, home prices, business-friendliness. It’s enough to make an island chain a little defensive, especially when all we want is to be taken seriously.

Earlier this year, people got all huhu after Hawaii Five-O actor Scott Caan appeared on Chelsea Lately and said, essentially, that it’s too slow in Hawaii, and the food sucks, and he didn’t much enjoy living in the Islands. You could almost hear the outrage wash over Honolulu. How dare he not love us for who we are on the inside?

I was mostly amused at the overreaction. C’mon, Hawaii, you know your food is delicious. Who cares what the Caan thinks? But I’m hardly immune from the same defensiveness. I felt it popping up even as we brainstormed our big collection of ideas for this issue’s cover story. Why do we love this place? Some people listed the spectacular white-sand beaches, the frequent rainbows, the perpetual blue skies, the mangoes. Of course, I love those things, but I felt myself wanting to talk instead about our city’s culture, our cuisine, our quirks. We’ve got amazing artists and musicians and entrepreneurs, promise! We’re not just a vacation!

Like the Caan-haters, my reaction says more about me than it does about Honolulu’s coolness as a city. We’re never going to rival New York City as a creative hub, and that’s OK. We’re deep in ways that no other city can touch. The complexity and beauty of Hawaiian culture alone qualifies us as more than just a pretty face, even if not everyone appreciates it.

But of course we’ll keep striving to catch up on the stuff at which we’re not as great. And that’s a good thing. Hawaii might be a beautiful woman, but her day job still involves working at a hotel. Who wouldn’t aspire to be a scientist, a business owner or an artist instead?