Astounding Honolulu

Weird, strange and intriguing things you didn't know about our Islands.


HONOLULU Magazine editors seem to love to put me to the test. Go out and find the zaniest collectors in Honolulu, they said. And I did. Do a piece on the funniest people in Hawai‘i, living and dead. Are you kidding? How far back do you want me to go? King Kamehameha’s court jester? I feel like Dano when Steve McGarrett would say, “Dano, go count every noodle in Chinatown.” And Dano would say, “Yes, Boss” and off he’d go. This time the editors outdid themselves. “Charley, go find out all the weirdest, unusual, salacious, secret, interesting things in Honolulu, like the heaviest person in the city.” Heaviest person in Honolulu? I’m a former investigative reporter but that one stumped me.


How would you find out who the fattest person in Honolulu was? And even if you did, you’d put him in the magazine? That would make his day. I know who the heaviest organized crime hitman was in Honolulu. I met him once. He was Ronnie Ching. He weighed about 400 pounds. Pleaded guilty to killing four people, including a state senator and the son of the city prosecutor. He’s dead now but when I met him he seemed to be a nice guy. I mean, he wouldn’t kill you. Unless he was paid to.


So like Dano, I hit the streets, books, Internet, everyone in my Rolodex and occasionally strangers on the street to create a sort of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not of Honolulu. A project of this scope is necessarily subjective, elective, derivative and certainly not definitive. Trade-offs have to be made. The editors wanted to know how much concrete went into the H-3 freeway. It took 30 years to build that blasted freeway. Was someone counting the bags of concrete? I know why sometimes Dano sobbed in the corner of his office. I did find out that the H-3 freeway was the most expensive freeway on a per mile basis ever built in the United States: $80 million per mile. As far as how much concrete was used, like projecting the national deficit, just about any number will do. Let’s say 400 billion pounds of concrete went into the H-3 Freeway. That sounds about right to me.


But there were a lot of questions that I found myself wanting answered. Like, who was the first idiot, I mean person, to jump off the Makapu‘u cliffs with a kite? Who would jump off a perfectly good cliff? But someone had to be first. Someone had to be going though Waimānalo, see the 1,500-foot high deadly, jagged cliff and say, “You know, I think I’ll jump off that bugger. With a kite.” And I not only found out who that person was but found a photo from the first jump.


So what follows are the fruits, nuts, bolts of my labor. Some items are amazing, some are sexy, some are just interesting. And some are, frankly, silly. But I think Dano would be proud.


[For a more detailed look at Memminger’s sources, please look here.]

John Walbert in 1973. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Van Dorn

John Walbert jumped off a cliff with a kite.

It happened in 1973. Walbert made the leap of aero-dynamic faith off a cliff near Makapu‘u with a “water-ski” type of kite from Australia called a Rogallo Wing. Unlike hang gliders today, he didn’t hang around in the air, surfing the wind currents. He was more interested in landing than flying. So he waited for a day without wind so the kite would deliver him safely to ground in a steady glide slope. And it worked. Pretty soon all kinds of crazy people were jumping off cliffs near Makapu‘u with kites. The first person to actually hang glide in Honolulu was Bob Wills in 1972 above Hanauma Bay. He just climbed a hill above the bay, held the kite up and the wind swooped him up to the famous snorkeling  beach where he landed, presumably to the shock of beachgoers.


How many hookers are in Honolulu?


Photo: istock

A lot. And despite tough economic times, prostitution is recession-proof. Honolulu police arrest about 500 hookers a year. But it’s estimated that for every one hooker on the street, there are 10 more either working out of “massage” parlors or “escort” services or freelancing on the Internet. And they aren’t shy. HBO did a documentary special called Downtown Girls: The Hookers of Honolulu which featured four of downtown’s busiest transvestite hookers: Barbie-Q, Juici, Saellah V. and Delicious. For the record, Honolulu’s best known hooker and madam was Jean O’Hara, who ran a legal brothel on Hotel Street before and during World War II. She was thrown in jail, not for prostitution, but for trying to buy a house in Mānoa. Prostitutes weren’t allowed to own property.



Which well-known hill in Honolulu is actually hollow?


Red Hill. True story: In 1940, the military began a huge project to build giant fuel storage tanks inside Red Hill. The work continued after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Today there are 20 enormous fuel tanks, hollowed out of volcanic rock and sheathed in steel, 100 feet in diameter and 250 feet high. The facility can store more than 250 million gallons of fuel used by Navy fleets around the world.  The facility was top secret for many years but now it’s on Wikipedia, so, well, there you go.


Road Rage

The most dangerous roadway in Honolulu is one of the most seemingly benign byways in the city: the lovely, tree-lined Kapi‘olani Boulevard. A Honolulu Advertiser study showed more serious accidents happened in a half-mile stretch of Kapi‘olani Boulevard between Ke‘eaumoku Street and Kalākaua Ave. than anywhere else. A study by State Farm Insurance found that the most dangerous intersection in Honolulu was at King and Punahou Streets. So, if you want to get from Downtown to the University of Hawai‘i, go by way of Hale‘iwa.



Photo: Courtesy of Gerry Lopez

Goofy-footed grommet grows up.

Gerry Lopez, champion surfer, king of the Banzai Pipeline and one of the pioneers of tow-in surfing, caught his first wave at the age of 10 at a Waikīkī surf spot known as “Little Queens.” He told me he didn’t think the wave was even a foot high. Who was the first person to actually surf the Banzai Pipeline? Phil Edwards in 1961 on a homemade surfboard he called “Baby.”


Rich Man/Poor Charley

The richest person in Hawai‘i, a man for whom I hope to one day become an adopted son, is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. He’s worth about $5.3 billion, give or take several million. Omidyar, who graduated from Punahou School, and his wife have given away more than $900 million to various charities and nonprofit ventures. But even with his bucks, Omidyar is a piker compared to Honolulu’s previous richest person, Barbara Cox Anthony. An heir to the Cox media dynasty, she was worth $12.6 billion when she died in 2007 at the age of 84.


Sinatra Sat Here?

Matteo’s Italian Restaurant in Waikīkī was opened by Matty Jordon, Frank Sinatra’s touring chef, after Sinatra stopped touring. It originally was named “Cheese Cannoli In Paradise.” Just kidding.

Weird fact: Matteo’s original owner and chef Matty Jordan went way back with Frank Sinatra. He was, in fact, delivered by Sinatra’s mother, a midwife in Hoboken.


Haunted House For Sale: Three Bedrooms, Two Baths, One Poltergeist.

If you have a ghost in your house and are trying to sell it (the house, not the ghost) you have to disclose the presence of the ghost as a “material fact” to all potential buyers.


Mount Tantalus

is the high peak above Honolulu that is home to some of the island’s wealthiest people. Even the name reeks of Greek mythical superiority. Or does it? It turns out the peak was named by some thirsty, hiking college students after what they thought was a “Greek god who was always parched.” They were partly right. Tantalus was actually only a demi-god, son of Zeus and a scoundrel.  Tantalus killed his own son, cooked him up in a stew and fed him to the gods of Olympus. The gods were not amused. They sent Tantalus to the fires of Hades, where he was forced to stand for all eternity in a lake whose water came just to his chin. Every time he tried to take a sip of water, it would recede. That should make the well-heeled residents of Mt. Tantalus a bit more humble.


Photo: Elyse Butler

Honolulu’s Most Tattooed Person

is probably tattoo artist Micheal (Mike B.) Brown who has tattoos in places that some people don’t even have places. He got his first tattoo at age 17, his name on his arm. Since then, he has added dragons, peacocks, girlfriends, skulls, senoritas, samurais and Sanskrit all over his body. Does he have any place left to tattoo, I asked him. “A spot on my lower leg,” he said. “That’s about it. And I didn’t tattoo my genitals.” A little too much info there, Mike.



Robert’s Bunny Gets the Last Laugh

You’ve probably seen the waving rabbit on the side of Robert’s Hawaii’s tour buses. Seems cute but there’s a darker side. See, Roberts originally had been in competition with Greyhound Tours, which sported a greyhound dog on its buses. Eventually Greyhound went under, leaving the bulk of the tour business to Roberts. The rabbit on the Robert’s buses is somewhat smugly waving “Aloha” to the departed Greyhound dog.


Photo: David Croxford

What is the ugliest building in Honolulu?

I asked Honolulu Star-Bulletin readers in 2005 to decide and they voted the Pacific Guardian Tower (at left) on Kapi‘olani Boulevard as the ugliest building in the city. The dark marble-covered neo-gothic structure is referred to as the “Darth Vader Building” and “the Bat Cave.” Second ugliest was the pimply-sided Queen Emma Building across from St. Andrew’s Priory.


Photo: Courtesy Hawai‘i Fishing News

Biggest Fish that Didn’t Get Away?

The largest fish ever caught in Hawai‘i was a Blue Marlin weighing 1,805 pounds. It was caught by Gail Choy-Kaleiki off Wai‘anae in June, 1970.

Are those tall hopping rats or short kangaroos?

Photo: istock

Kalihi Valley residents want to know. Actually the curious creatures sighted from time to time in the valley are a colony of  rock wallabies, a type of small kangaroo. Wallabies were first brought to Honolulu in 1916 from Australia to a private zoo on Alewa Heights. Some of the marsupial inmates escaped, went forth and multiplied. It’s believed there are now some 40 to 250 wild wallabies on O‘ahu.




Honolulu has federal “interstate” road signs even though none of our “interstate” highways lead to another state. At least not yet. In the future, the H-12 Freeway will connect Makapu‘u with San Diego. And it will still cost less than the H-3 Freeway!


Photo: HONOLULU Magazine archive

Duke Kahanamoku

was named after the Duke of Edinburgh, who visited Honolulu in 1869. Lucky for the future champion swimmer and surfer that Alexander II of Russia hadn’t visited Honolulu that year or he might have been named Tsar Kahanamoku.


In the Pink

People still argue about how Tripler Army Hospital got its pink color. Some say it’s because the Army general who commissioned the hospital liked the color of the “Pink Palace,” the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. But my favorite explanation is that building’s curmudgeonly architect wanted the hospital painted to match the red dirt of Moanalua Ridge where it sits because “that’s the color it will be when you’re through.” By the way, the original Tripler Hospital was built to care for wounded from the Spanish-American war.


CSI at HPD: The Early Days

Photo: David Croxford

The first breathalyzer used by police in Honolulu was in 1938. It was called a “drunkometer” (pictured above).  The first polygraph machine went into service at HPD in 1949. It was called a “deceptograph.”  In those days, if you flunked the drunkometer and the deceptograph you probably ended up in the prison-o-thingy.


Mark Twain Was A Surf Kook

True story. Author Mark Twain tried surfing in Honolulu and wiped out. In his 1872 memoir he wrote: “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.”


Historical Question

King Kalakaua went to Japan in 1881 and offered Princess Kaiulani’s hand in marriage to a royal prince. It was declined. It makes you wonder. If the marriage had taken place, would Japan have bombed Pearl Harbor? Speaking of Pearl Harbor, a U.S. Army colonel,  Billy Mitchell, predicted in 1923 that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning at 7 a.m., the exact time and day the attack happened 18 years later.



Most Amazing Surf Rescue

Bear with me here but I love this story. The most amazing surf rescue happened in 1993 when 26-year-old tourist Hugh Alexander was knocked off a 20-foot rock ledge near Yokohama Beach on the Waianae coast and was trapped in a sea cave known as a “moi hole” for more than two hours as it was pounded by 10 to 15 foot waves. Legendary waterman and lifeguard Brian Keaulana, dodging the giant waves, attempted to drive a Jet Ski with lifeguard Craig Davidson on a rescue sled up to the cave to rescue the man. But the vehicle ran onto a rock which pierced the hull, disabling it. Davidson swam out through the waves and was picked up by a rescue helicopter. Keaulana swam to shore, raced to his house in Makaha to get another Jet Ski. This time, with new partner Earl Bungo, they gunned the Jet Ski back into the boiling surf and managed to pluck Alexander from the mouth of the cave. But then a big wave knocked both Alexander and Bungo from the sled and against the rocks. Keaulana, putting his own life on the line again, charged back into the watery mêlée, putting the Jet Ski between the men and rocks. Once the two were back on board, Keaulana shot the Jet Ski seaward, just as a new set of large waves came rolling in. Keaulana got an award from the U.S. Lifesaving Association in San Diego for the rescue. Amazing. (From the book, Rescue In Paradise, by David Doyle.)



has an official color (Golden Yellow) and an official flower(Pua ilima). Nobody knows why.


The Aloha Tower is actually a lighthouse

Seriously. I’m not kidding. It’s a lighthouse that looks like a tall, skinny apartment building.


The Ls Have It

Photo: David Croxford

L&L Drive-Inn evolved out of L&L Dairy, a milk depot on Liliha Street from 1952 to 1959. The “Ls” referred to owner Bob Lee and his son, Bob Lee. If Bob Lee had more sons the restaurant might have been named L&L&L&L&L Drive-Inn.



Royal Pets

Queen Kaahumanu kept a taboo pet: a large, black hog which she named after herself. King Kamehameha V and his sister Victoria Kamamalu kept a spoiled and pampered parrot named Pahu who chattered constantly in Hawaiian and sat on a perch at Iolani Palace. Queen Liliuokalani had a pet tortoise. Reports that Princess Kaiulani had a pet wallaby are unconfirmed.


Photo: Courtesy of General Growth Properties

In 1959,

Ala Moana Center was the largest shopping center in the United States. A shopping center was something like the shopping mall of today except it didn’t have As Seen On TV stores or pretzel kiosks.


Photo: Istock

How many people die from eating fish?

It happens. Noted Hawaii ocean columnist and author Susan Scott says seven people have died in Honolulu from eating pufferfish. Known as “fugu” in Japan, the fish contains a poison, tetrodotoxin, which can be fatal. Small amounts of the poison can cause a pleasurable reaction to those brave or stupid enough to try eating a deadly fish. Food note: Cheeseburgers contain NO toxic poisons and they come with fries.


Left Hanging

The last civilian hung for a crime in Honolulu was Myles Fukunaga in on Nov. 19, 1929. The son of a plantation worker, Fukunaga kidnapped and murdered the son of a Hawaiian Trust official. Fukunaga signed a ransom note for $10,000 “Three Kings” to make it look like the child was kidnapped by a gang. It didn’t work. The last military execution in Honolulu was in 1947. Army private Garlon Mickles, 19, was hanged for beating and raping a woman. His last request was that his mother be told that he “died like a man.” (True).


Photo: David Croxford

Strange But True

The Makiki Christian Church (above) was modeled after Japan’s Kochi Castle, built in 1603. (True). The Kochi Castle was modeled after the “Castle Hole” at mini-golf park off Highway 95 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Questionable).


Are You Freakin’ Kidding Me?

Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet about Honolulu. Here are a few allegations going viral:

— All citizens here must own a boat.
— All girls under the age of 12 must own a grass skirt and take hula lessons.
— It’s illegal to own a mongoose without a permit.
— It’s against the law to put pennies in your ear or appear in public wearing only swimming trunks. Wait. I think those two might be true.


What’s In A Name:

Western explorers liked to name stuff that the local inhabitants had already named. For instance, Capt. William Brown accidentally came across Honolulu Harbor in 1795 in the British ship Jackal and named it “Fair Haven” even though the Hawaiians already had a name for it: “Kou.” “Fair Haven” turned out to be a somewhat ironical name because Capt. Brown was shortly attacked and killed there by King Kalanikupule.

Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Something I Bet You Didn’t Know:

Punahou graduate and archeologist Hiram Bingham III discovered the Peruvian ruins at Machu Picchu in 1911. He was the grandson of the founder of Punahou School and was perhaps inspiration for the fictional character Indiana Jones.




All-Girl Gecko Action

I write about geckos a lot, but this is my favorite discovery. A scientist friend told me that just about all geckos are girls. And because they are parthenogenic, they can lay fertilized eggs on their own. They don’t need the boy geckos! I think I understand why boy geckos are clinically depressed and spend their time hanging out inside mostly empty beer cans.



Whip It Good:

It is well-known that the fictitious detective Charlie Chan was based on the real life Honolulu police detective Chang Apana. It is less known that Apana carried a bullwhip instead of a gun. And the actual whip is on display at the Honolulu Police Museum, along with the aforementioned drunkometer and deceptograph.


King Kalakaua

was a founding member of the Hawaiian Humane Society and he outlawed cockfighting in 1894. The Humane Society also once protected water buffalo, which were used as work animals. I don’t know the Humane Society’s position on feral wallabies but I assume it’s “pro-wallaby.”


Ghost Road?

Some Windward residents claim there’s a stretch of road in Kailua near Castle Junction where cars can roll uphill. I tried to find it but couldn’t. I did notice that there’s a road in Kailua where your car rolls right to Starbucks.


Christmas did not come to Honolulu with the missionaries

Who brought Christianity to the Islands. Puritans did not believe in holidays that were not in the Bible, such as Easter and Christmas. Catholics were the first Honolulu residents to celebrate Christmas.


From 1924 to 1970

A baby was lent to Kamehameha Schools each year for senior girls to practice child rearing. It wasn’t the same baby.


Light It Up

Iolani Palace, which completed construction in 1881, had electric lights four years before the White House did. The White House, however, reportedly had a bowling alley before Iolani Palace did.


In 1982, a trial was held in U.S. District

Court in Honolulu in which the case was tried under British law, not U.S. law. But U.S. Judge Sam King did not have to wear a powdered wig. King presided over the libel lawsuit filed by Hammer DeRoburt, former president of the Republic of Nauru (known as the “guano island”) against the Pacific Daily News on Guam and its owner, Gannett. DeRoburt lost. It was the only time  where British law has been used in a Honolulu court. As a former court reporter, I just find this fascinating.


Shocking Discovery!

The famous Kamehameha Statue standing outside the Hawaii Supreme Court building is not modeled on an actual Hawaiian. The man who posed for the piece was part Caucasian and part Tahitian. The statue on King Street also is a copy. The original, made in Paris in 1880, went down off the Falkland Islands when the ship carrying it to Hawaii caught fire and sunk. The original was eventually recovered and now stands in front of the courthouse in Kohala on the Big Island. By the way, am I the only one who thinks the statue of Duke “Tsar” Kahanamoku in Waikiki looks more like its sculptor than the Duke?


Reefer Madness

I may not know how much concrete went into the H-3 Freeway, but I know how much coral was dredged up to make a runway: 19 million cubic yards. That’s a lot of fish tank filler. The Reef Runway at Honolulu International Airport was the first major runway in the world built entirely offshore on an underwater coral reef. More than 1,000 acres of new land were created. The runway was completed in 1977 at a final cost of $81 million. The reef runway was such an incredible feat of engineering that Nebraska wanted one.