How 5 Popular Ethnic Festivals in Honolulu Adapt While Keeping Traditions Alive
Hurricane threats, new fees and money troubles have suddenly forced some of Honolulu’s decades-old ethnic festivals to pivot and change course in the past few years. Some canceled. Others flourished. But adapting while keeping traditions alive is no small feat. It shows that what happens behind the scenes makes all the difference.
It’s just past 7 a.m. on Labor Day weekend, and the familiar mouthwatering smell of frying dough wafts through the air. That could mean one thing—the Okinawan Festival’s massive andagi-making operation is in full swing.
At the head of an assembly line of about 50 people, volunteers frantically sift and measure flour—some have a coat of powder covering their cheeks and one has some smeared over her glasses—while others quickly but delicately crack crates of eggs, measure hundreds of cups of cream and hunch over to mix the gooey batter with their hands. And then there’s the gallon mayonnaise jars with black lines drawn near the top. The equipment may look makeshift, but the measurement must be precise. If the person adding water goes even a little over the line, the batter will be too mushy.
Another 50 or so people dip their hands into the sticky batter and drop golf-ball-sized pieces into 16 woks bubbling to the brim with gallons of oil. They’ll need to make about 120,000 andagi for the two-day festival. It is, simply put, a well-oiled machine.
It’s a familiar scene among a sea of change. That’s because the nonprofit Hawai‘i United Okinawa Association relocated the festival from its longtime home at Kapi‘olani Park to the Hawai‘i Convention Center last year. The bold move—no other ethnic festival had done it before—drew skepticism from its own members.
The Okinawan Festival is one of many ethnic celebrations that must adapt. Planning these large- and small-scale events—from managing budgets to recruiting workers to booking venues—is an ongoing challenge. In the past two years, the Okinawan and Prince Lot Hula festivals switched locations, Night in Chinatown and the Korean Festival were canceled and Festa Italiana made its debut. Despite the change, these volunteer-driven events continue to persevere and innovate. And that’s just the beginning of the story.
A Change in Evolution
For many ethnic festivals, change is one of the only constants. That was true for the Okinawan Festival. It all started in 2016 when the event was canceled just three days before because of the threat posed by Hurricane Lester. A committee formed to research new indoor venues.
Weather wasn’t the only factor. It was becoming difficult to hold the event at Kapi‘olani Park due to strict commercial activity rules, a challenge facing other ethnic festivals. Volunteers were also getting older. That meant it was harder to recruit a crew to set up tents, hook up the electrical and plumbing systems, and do all of the manual labor needed at the park.
The group considered six to seven other locations. But after meeting with the Hawai‘i Convention Center, it seemed like a good fit: Booths are set up by convention center staff; the level floor and air conditioning would allow seniors who couldn’t make it to the park to attend; and there are about 800 parking stalls.
It came down to a vote among the 50 Hawai‘i United Okinawa Association member clubs. There was an abundance of concerns: Is the convention center too costly? Will people come? How do we take an outdoor operation and move it to the sleek convention center?
In the end, all but two clubs voted in favor of the move.
“It’s a change in evolution. It’s a challenging change,” says Dwight Ikehara, the festival’s food chair. “It kind of feels like everyone’s looking at us.”
The Moanalua Gardens Foundation, which organizes the Prince Lot Hula Festival, faced a slightly different situation. Relocating to ‘Iolani Palace from Moanalua Gardens in 2017 marked a new era for the 40-year-old event, a change that drew skepticism at first but was later embraced.
The decision to move the event, which draws about 14,000 people, wasn’t an easy one, but Pauline Worsham, the foundation’s managing director, says the group didn’t have a choice. The new owner of Moanalua Gardens informed the board in April 2017 that it would have to pay a first-time fee of $46,000, just three months before the festival. The nonprofit couldn’t afford it.
With little time to find another venue, some board members thought they would have to cancel. But they felt a responsibility to continue the tradition—it was, after all, the largest noncompetitive hula event in the Islands.
A flurry of calls led them to the palace, which was willing to host the event at a cost that Worsham didn’t want to disclose.
Kumu hula Michael Pili Pang, the festival’s cultural adviser and stage decorator, views it as following the same path as Prince Lot, who lived in Moanalua and later moved to the grounds where the palace now stands.
“We’re still taking his belief and his agenda with us of preserving the culture,” says Pang, 56. “[But] I don’t think it’s a comparison. It should be looked at as two different opportunities, two different experiences. They both have benefits, and they both have problems.”
Kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine, whose hālau holds the distinction of performing at every Prince Lot Festival since its inception, misses the big canopy of trees and shade at Moanalua Gardens.
“It was very different having the palace backdrop and knowing that some of the chants and songs that we were doing were for our ali‘i who lived there,” she says. “I think they both have their qualities. I like ‘Iolani Palace as an alternative.”
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A Learning Curve
Seeking change is one thing, but making it work is another story.
For Steven Onoue, Prince Lot’s logistics chair, it meant starting from scratch. The new venue wiped the slate clean.
The stage placement was crucial—the first year at the palace, it wasn’t under enough shade, and crews scrambled to remove it three hours before the second day of the festival began. (The hālau performing that day danced on the ground in the same spot.) A mistake of that magnitude couldn’t happen again.
There were also cultural factors to consider. On one layout, Onoue had the back of the stage facing the burial mound. That was considered disrespectful.
By July, the stage had moved three times. Worsham admits that the first year at the palace was a learning curve.
“They (the board) don’t give me two cents. They give me a whole quarter,” Onoue jokes. “There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes to make it look seamless.”
SEE ALSO: 2018 Okinawan Festival
During setup the morning before the festival, Onoue hops in a golf cart (he requested the ones with “softer engines” so they wouldn’t disturb the performances) with Worsham and another board member. As Onoue presses the gas pedal, the pair hold on for dear life from the back of the cart. At one point, Worsham exclaims, “Hold on! Steven’s a kamikaze driver!”
Around the palace, all of the 20-by-20-foot tents are up. A five-member stage crew unloads a U-Haul filled with dozens of 4-by-8-foot plates that are so heavy they require two guys to lift each onto a cart. The plates are later secured to the foundation of the stage, using a hand wrench. A truck hauling six golf carts arrives at the palace, but the driver is having trouble squeezing through the gates.
The decision to take two days to set up instead of one like in 2017 looks like a good one—they’re ahead of schedule. That means Pang and his hālau can start decorating the stage earlier. At Moanalua Gardens, the décor was minimal with mostly plants that blended in with the hula mound’s natural setting. But Pang chose a regal design for the palace stage, draping red and yellow fabric accented with laua‘e picked from Moanalua Valley by his students: “We have all of the mosquito bites to show for it,” he jokes.
Pang is under the gun, too—as a kumu hula, he needs to ensure his students are prepared for their performance. At one of their last practices before the festival, Pang, who conducts hālau in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style, runs through their lineup. His 13 adult dancers practice a hula noho (sit-down) dance using a pu‘ili (bamboo stick) while chanting. The chant starts off scratchy, and you can feel the hesitation. The group erupts in laughter and tries again. They’ve got it this time.
His haumana (students) feel like a big family: They share snacks—the distinct smell of kakimochi fills the air—and tease each other. At one point, a dancer tucks in the elastic that’s popping out from the top of her hula sister’s skirt.
At the end of the two-hour practice, Pang and his dancers frantically measure 4-foot-long pieces of white and red fabric that he’ll sew into their performance skirts. There’s a cafeteria-style line of measurers, cutters and folders. Someone jokes that one of the shorter hula sisters could be used as a makeshift ruler: “You can just lie down!” No one leaves until they’re done. That’s what being part of a hālau is all about.
SEE ALSO: 2018 Festa Italiana
So is helping each other. On the second day of the festival as the group prepares for its performance, whoever is dressed pins lei po‘o (lei worn on the head) into their hula sisters’ hair, ripping out protruding leaves. Everyone who hugs each other apologizes for being so sweaty. Pang gathers his group and tells them to “just go out there and enjoy yourself.”
And that’s exactly what they do. The performance flows seamlessly, with Pang joining his students for one song. After they’re done, they sprawl out on mats for a group picnic.
“I tell my dancers you have to use the F word: flexible,” Pang says. “Is it crazy the week of [the festival]? Yes. You can either think, ‘oh my gosh,’ or you can laugh it off and move on.”
That type of upbeat attitude always helped Kent Billings. The retired Pearl Harbor machinist, whose partner is Uchinanchu (Okinawan), spent hours at a time poring over layouts of the convention center and Kapi‘olani Park for the Okinawan Festival.
It all started with two sheets of graph paper and a ruler. Billings, 70, had just three months to finalize the floor plan, cutting each area out in paper and pasting it in place. All 25 booths, along with 1,000 seats, four rest areas and the 120-foot-wide bon dance circle, were shuffled in a musical chairs-like fashion. By the end of June, the floor plan had changed at least 16 times.
Jo Ige, festival chair, shouldered the rest of the responsibilities, from overseeing all 12 committees to scheduling site visits and training sessions to holding weekly meetings. It’s a massive undertaking, especially for someone who has never organized an event of this size before. But ask anyone, and they’ll tell you that Ige, a retired teacher and principal, is the right person for the job.
Ige, 61, runs her meetings, some with more than 100 attendees, like a teacher would a classroom, snapping her fingers for emphasis. She’s always prepared, lugging around a cart filled with folders, binders, a laptop and a laser pointer. A delicate mixture of funny and pointed, she often cracks jokes, many at her own expense, to lighten the mood. But she never clamors for the spotlight, often dodging pictures and joking that she’s in the festival’s “witness protection” program.
At an August orientation at the convention center, the head of security asks her how long her group would hold lost and found items. She replies with a straight face, “until we can sell it,” eliciting chuckles from the audience.
But trying times can get to anyone, even the otherwise cool, calm and collected Ige. Surrounded by the hustle and bustle of volunteers and staff sprinkled throughout the convention center, the beeping sounds of trucks backing up to unload and the clanging of metal poles put into place just two days before the festival, Ige is sitting at a table topped with boxes, a wok, loose papers and melted cups of forgotten McDonald’s iced coffee. Her phone rings nonstop—as soon as she hangs up, she gets another call. If she’s not talking, she’s texting or emailing.
Her distinctive stern voice can be heard on the first day of the festival reverberating through the crowded lobby telling everyone that doors will open in a few minutes. It’s not even 9 a.m. yet and waves of people enter the building. Some are already waiting in line to buy scrips. Others have staked out their spots near the closed ballroom doors.
As morning turns to afternoon, the convention center seems to burst at its seams—food lines zigzag into each other, people squeeze past one another and the line going up the escalator mirrors those at Disneyland. You hear rumblings from people complaining about the long lines, but a plus, they say, is the AC.
The andagi line is so long that no one knows where it ends. Next to it, the andadog booth is barely keeping pace with demand. A volunteer tells the crowd that it will be a 20-minute wait. People sigh and moan here and there, but most stand their ground. They won’t risk losing their spot over a mere 20-minute wait. Luckily, a new batch arrives within 15 minutes.
By the end of the festival, Ige is exhausted (and slightly relieved). When asked how she feels, she jokes, “You know how many times I went to get my hair colored? I’m lucky I still have hair left!” All jokes aside, she recalls, “When they set up the backdrop on the stage, it became real. I thought, ‘There’s no turning back now.’”
Kumu hula Pang agrees that “planning a festival isn’t just putting the festival together. It takes a lot of understanding of your community and what your community’s needs are. And sometimes, what the community needs, they don’t know.”
The Bottom Line
The community’s needs also come at a price. And that price can be a doozy.
Ask volunteers running these cultural events, and many will say the budget is one of the most challenging parts. That’s because many ethnic festivals are run by nonprofits with small groups of core volunteers and, if they’re lucky, a few paid staff. Much of the money comes from grants, sponsorships and donations, which vary each year. The goal for many is staying out of the red.
Surprisingly for the Okinawan Festival, the budgets for the convention center and Kapi‘olani Park were comparable, despite the center’s fees, Ige says. The costs at the park—from around-the-clock security to tent and equipment rentals—added up to a significant amount. On top of that, a crew of skilled volunteers was required for setup at the park. Moving to the convention center meant organizers could, for the first time, seek sponsorships, which are not allowed at Kapi‘olani Park. That offset other costs, she says. The festival is also unique in that almost all of its booths are run by the Hawai‘i United Okinawa Association. That means HUOA does all of the work but also keeps more revenue because it doesn’t have to pay outside vendors.
Preliminary numbers show that last year’s festival generated $75,000 more in revenue than in 2017. This seems to be reflected in last year’s attendance numbers, which topped 56,000, almost double from 2017. Festival organizers attribute some of that increase to the air conditioning and indoor setting. The festival is a fundraiser for HUOA, which has committed to two more years at the convention center.
Meanwhile, the Prince Lot crew has committed to holding its festival at ‘Iolani Palace for at least three more years. But the move to the palace means additional expenses, including more tents, which cost about $250 each (the festival had more than 30 tents last year). Luckily, vendors reported a 25 percent increase in revenue last year over 2017, says Onoue, the festival’s logistics chair.
Onoue and Ige agree that having the backing of a nonprofit is key when raising funds. Each nonprofit has its own pool of resources that it can dip into for support.
One of the Hardest Decisions
Some festivals don’t have as much of a cushion as others. For those groups, one problem can send the entire event crashing down.
That’s why it came as a shock to many when Night in Chinatown was canceled in February 2018, just four days before the popular Chinese New Year celebration, which ran annually since the 1970s.
A perfect storm of poor vendor turnout (only 10 percent of returning vendors signed up last year), reduced grant money and increased costs for equipment and personnel led Leonard Kam and his “ragtag group of friends,” as he describes them, to cancel the event, which draws about 10,000 people.
“This is Chinese New Year. Nobody takes a break for Chinese New Year,” Kam, 52, remembers thinking. “It was really scary because normally at that point we were telling people we don’t have space. It’s probably one of the hardest decisions we made.”
Kam, a contact lens salesman, attributes the cancellation to an increase in booth rental fees they’ve charged vendors over the past few years to offset rising costs. The fees must have surpassed the “feasibility threshold,” leading most businesses to forgo signing up, he says. In past years, organizers managed to retain about 80 to 90 percent of the 100 vendors. The costliest expense is hiring police officers to staff the parade, the biggest draw. Without that revenue, the festival was doomed.
They plan to hold this year’s festival in February, Kam says. They’ve considered moving to a different part of Chinatown or just holding the parade and forgoing the street festival. There was an idea to combine some of the other Chinese New Year festivities into one cohesive event, but he says no agreements have been reached yet. There have also been some rumblings of canceling the event altogether.
The nonprofit Chinatown Merchants Association, which runs Night in Chinatown, mainly consists of Kam and about 10 other volunteers, most of whom work full-time jobs. Most of the planning is done by memory, and many of those memories are passed down from the older generation. But core members are getting older and don’t have a next generation to pass on their expertise to.
“If you were to talk about extremes, I would probably be the extreme of always keeping it,” he says. “This has been ingrained in my blood from when I was a kid. I came to Chinatown with my grandparents and celebrated Chinese New Year.”
Gina Nakamura, Hawai‘i Korean Chamber of Commerce president, has that same desire to share her culture. But like Night in Chinatown, the nonprofit canceled last year’s Korean Festival, slated for August, less than a month before.
The Korean Festival’s problem was finding a venue. The event had moved from Kapi‘olani Park to Magic Island over its 16-year-run and settled at Honolulu Hale in 2016. But organizers encountered logistical problems at the civic grounds that forced them to find another location last year. They needed a large outdoor venue that could host about 30,000 people and 60 tents located in a central location with lots of parking. They looked at 19 venues, but some didn’t meet their requirements and others weren’t available with such short notice.
“It was a really, really difficult choice. Everyone was wondering what was going on,” says Nakamura, a banker. “[But] we had no location.”
After searching a host of public and private venues in 2018, they were still narrowing down their options for this year’s event as of October.
Nakamura says they have to consider the budget and how much each venue costs. The festival costs about $50,000, and they try to raise at least half of that through donations and sponsorships. The goal every year is to break even. Generating and maintaining those sponsors is a year-round effort on her part; not only are they recognized at the festival, they are also included in chamber events.
“You make a manual and you try to use it, but things change,” says Grace Ogawa, last year’s festival chair. “Each time you go someplace, the feeling is different. It’s kind of starting over again.”
The Next Generation
Despite the challenges that many established festivals face, a group of young Italian-Americans saw a gap that needed to be filled in the Islands. Their hope and passion helped birth Hawai‘i’s first Italian festival, dubbed Festa Italiana.
It was a trip to Italy in 2014 to visit his great-grandfather’s birthplace that cemented Zach DiIonno’s desire to share his heritage. Growing up in New Jersey, DiIonno, 35, was surrounded by Italian culture and food. That changed when he moved to O‘ahu in 2007. He spent years learning about the cultures in the Islands, a situation he describes approaching with “open ears and a closed mouth.” He and a few of the younger board members who serve on the nonprofit Friends of Italy Society of Hawai‘i took the lead on planning the event.
“It (traveling to Italy) was a very powerful moment,” he recalls. “It locks everything in time and space and makes you feel like, this is who I am, this is where I come from, and you’ll never change that.”
The idea of an Italian festival in an Asian- and Pacific Islander-centric state drew skepticism from several people when he pitched it in 2017, even some close to him. He soon realized that it was difficult to sell people on the idea, with no track record and few resources. The board members didn’t get any grants and raised about $6,000 in sponsorships, scraping by with a small profit (from the VIP section and the beer and wine garden), which was used to throw a pasta party for volunteers.
Annie Kamiya, the festival’s entertainment director, recalls adjusting to communicating and doing business in Hawai‘i. An Oregon native who moved to O‘ahu a decade ago with her husband, Kamiya, 42, found there were times when easing her way into situations worked better than bulldozing through them, a stark difference from what she was used to.
“You have to learn where to push and decide if the push is good for the short-term or long-term gain,” she says. “I have a positive outlook for the festival because we have a good group of local people who help balance that.”
From the start, the idea was to make Festa Italiana its own unique event. That meant transforming three blocks in Kaka‘ako into a street festival filled with authentic Italian food and entertainment, reflecting what you would typically see in Italy. It took a leap of faith and a lot of hard work, but DiIonno and his small group of friends, most of whom are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, scrounged up 17 food vendors and a handful of performers.
In 2018 with a year under their belt, they ended up raising a significant amount more in sponsorships. The number of food vendors increased to 20 and featured more authentic Italian dishes than the year before (a criticism during their first go-around). Attendance soared to an estimated 9,000 people, about 2,000 more than in 2017.
Ask any volunteer and they’ll tell you that what made the festival so successful is DiIonno’s passion. At the event in October, he is pretty easy to spot in the crowd—he’s tall and adorned in a maile lei. And he stops to chat with everyone he meets. Making his way through the sea of people, he spots a friend and his family, and bends down to greet their two kids (the youngest, with pursed lips, patiently waits for a kiss on the cheek, Italian style).
As day turns into night, the street comes alive, with food-booth lines blending into each other and people cramming on the sidewalk to sit. A boy and his mom dance to live Italian music reverberating through the streets. Later, DiIonno says the festival went terrifically—it was much easier to gain people’s support this time around.
It looks like second time’s the charm.
A New Bolt of Energy
One thing remains clear. For a festival to survive, the legacy must live on with future generations.
For Ige and many others, the Okinawan Festival is a family affair. They are “voluntold” to help at the event.
“We almost grow up in it,” she says. “[Older generations] sacrificed so many things that for us to do what we do is so little. We also want to do it for our kids. Most of our kids grow up helping. When they get older, they come back.”
She says it best at an evaluation meeting three weeks after the festival. Draped in lei, she turns to the more than 100 people in the audience and says into the microphone: “Everyone pulled together and made this a dream come true.”
Like Ige, Festa Italiana’s DiIonno remembers the “amazing feeling of accomplishment” after the groundbreaking event in 2017. He hopes to expand the event to a week of festivities and recruit more people to help with planning.
“The board needed a new bolt of energy,” says Nick Gambino, one of Festa Italiana’s core volunteers. “My dad was on the board for a while, and that was the older generation. But since Zach got this event going, it made me really excited to share the Italian culture. Hopefully this becomes a thing that will go on in the future.”
These fearless volunteers led with humility, passion and a sense of humor.
Photo: David Croxford
“We took on something that was really hard. It was such an amazing feeling of accomplishment.”
Festa Italiana event director, 35, small-business owner
Photo: David Croxford
“It’s not about bringing your family. You are our family.”
Okinawan Festival 2018 chair, 61, retired educator
“I believe you have to give back. Some of the [volunteers and staff] are friends for life.”
Prince Lot Hula Festival logistics chair, 60, business owner