How Hawaiian Shirts Fight Extremism
Recent sightings of aloha shirts on members of the race-war-promoting boogaloo boys run counter to our iconic garment’s history: It’s a flag, of sorts, that proudly unites cultures, races, art forms and immigrants. Here’s how we can all band together and #takebacktheshirt.
Perhaps the worst thing about recent headlines about “Hawaiian” shirts being adopted by the vicious pests known as boogaloo boys is the feeling of helplessness over how to respond to a violation of such an innocent and carefree emblem of local culture. Well, lucky us, we’ve got a real-life love story about aloha shirts that is sweet, colorful and to the point.
That’s because the “Hawaiian” shirt—as aloha shirts are often called by people on the Mainland—owes greatly to a wedding conducted in defiance of good old-fashioned American racism. That the bride would go on to campaign to upend the law that stripped her of her American citizenship for marrying an immigrant from South Asia—well, that is like having li hing mui sprinkles on the wedding cake.
But first we have to talk about the boogaloo boys. And, if you just said “Who?” count yourself lucky you haven’t heard about the meme with racist undertones by alleged “gun-loving libertarians” who seek a new civil war. (If you said, “Meme?” we can’t help you here. Just read on.)
— Tess Owen (@misstessowen) July 4, 2020
Born in chat rooms with extremists including anti-woman incels, anti-Semites, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and Proud Boys, the boogaloo boys mutated from viral meme to actual menaces by parading all over the Mainland in Sambo masks and cheap department store “Hawaiian” shirts while brandishing assault weapons. Think the bank robbers in Point Break (the first film, not the sequel) without Bodhi or surfer hair. Like their online brethren, BB members followed a familiar path from fantasizing to public intimidation to committing violent acts.
“It’s as far away from aloha as you could get,” says J.D. Watumull, vice president of Watumull Properties, the real estate wing of the family known for retailing, multiple startups, philanthropy—and alohawear.
“Yeah, these guys don’t know that these shirts represent the opposite of their values,” says Dale Hope, longtime garmento, former creative director of Kāhala Sportswear, former designer for Patagonia’s Pataloha label, curator of alohawear history and author of the definitive book, The Aloha Shirt. “They’ve picked the wrong vehicle for their identity.”
Why pick Hawaiian shirts? Researchers have dutifully tracked an apparent mutation from the 1984 breakdancing movie, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo—its name an echo of the African American boogaloo those of us from the ’60s and ’70s did before “shake your booty” came along—which mutated into phrases Big Lū‘au and Big Igloo, both references to a second Civil War. (After which it’s really not worth obsessing about, because that’s what trolls want.)
How does the meme work? Linking the dissolution of civilization with a festive and colorful shirt associated with kicking back and loving life makes it seem cool and fun, to some. Riding the currents of social media and pop culture, wrapping themselves in First and Second Amendment arguments, the BBs seed a Ku Klux Klan-like message that there’s a secret society out there, dedicated to defending the white race in the dark of night and through public flaunting.
So, yeah, jerks. Nasty ones, too. A self-identified boogaloo member ambushed and killed a federal officer and a sheriff in California in May under the cover of a Black Lives Matter protest—hoping that it would be blamed on protesters (which it was, by Fox News, for a news cycle).
Are the “Boogaloo boys” fundamentally white supremacists?
Six experts who monitor extremist groups weigh in: https://t.co/RZEDqvt8PA
— Lois Beckett (@loisbeckett) July 8, 2020
How can we in Hawai‘i deal with this? Back to the love story we go, and not a moment too soon.
Most locals who treasure their roots can recall how Dharamdas and Jhamandas Watumull, emigrants from India, opened a branch of their Philippines variety stores on Hotel Street in Honolulu in 1913. Younger brother Gobindram ended up in charge while Jhamandas handled sourcing from Hyderabad and the stores in Manila (which served the U.S. military in PXs, aka post exchanges). This East India Store became a major importer and its influence on style as a world-renowned emporium, particularly in textiles, cannot be overstated.
In 1920 a young schoolteacher, Ellen Jensen, the older sister of Elsie Jensen Das, moved from Portland, Oregon, to Honolulu. She got a job teaching at Hanahau‘oli School. Then she and Gobindram met and fell in love. As the story was told to HONOLULU four years ago by grandsons David and Rann Watumull, racial law and custom forced the lovers to take extraordinary measures when they decided to marry.
The U.S. was gripped by a fever over race and immigration, a condition that received a presidential seal of approval when Woodrow Wilson screened the KKK-friendly film, Birth of a Nation, at the White House in 1915. The nation’s first restrictive immigration act followed in 1917, barring entry to Asians except Japanese and Filipinos, whose governments agreed to limit arrivals (to Hawai‘i, to work on the plantations). By 1922, to show off its growing power, the Ku Klux Klan held near-simultaneous rallies in Ellen and Elsie Jensen’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, as well as in Portland, Maine, and many others. The entire country saw a resurgence of this new, media-savvy Klan, fueled by the addition of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic biases, on top of its animus against African Americans.
That same year, Oregon elected a pro-Klan governor over an incumbent described as “an avid enemy of the Klan.” But that was nothing new for Oregon. Upon attaining statehood in 1859, Oregon became the only state to ever explicitly bar African Americans. In 1866, it became the third state to forbid interracial marriage between white women and Chinese. Even in 2016, Portland could still be called “the whitest city in America,” by The Atlantic magazine.
An emotional refugee, when Ellen Jensen arrived in Hawai‘i she recognized the world she was meant to live in: multicultural, colorful, relaxed, artistic and accepting. The land of aloha, indeed.
But racism was the rule of law in territorial Hawai‘i, too. Even before the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, white planters who’d made their fortunes by marrying Hawaiian royalty had introduced race laws and enforced race separation for whites by official and unofficial means. By the 1920s laws and custom were just as virulently opposed to a “white” woman marrying an Asian, especially a dark-skinned South Asian one, as they were in Portland. Ellen and Gobindram had to keep their romance on the down-low. Once they decided to get married, they were counseled to not even think of applying for a marriage license in Hawai‘i.
In the end they booked cabins on separate liners to San Francisco and once in California, searched for a city hall that would issue a license and a justice of the peace who would perform the marriage. And they succeeded. But 1922 was the year the Cable Act passed, which stripped white women of citizenship for marrying an alien who wasn’t eligible for citizenship—which meant all immigrant Asians. Ellen Watumull was now a noncitizen.
Back in Hawai‘i, she joined her husband in making Watumull’s East India Store a must-see Island destination. She also threw herself into fighting to reform or remove the Cable Act, and discovered she had a knack for persuading politicians. The restriction would be lifted in 1931, thanks in part to her lobbying, just in time for her sister Elsie’s marriage to Upendra Kumar Das, a research chemist with the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association.
Elsie Jensen had come to Hawai‘i for a visit in 1928 and had also elected to stay. An artist, she designed windows for the East India Store. The aloha shirt trend was breaking out all over, catching on with Hollywood stars like John Barrymore, singer-actor Bing Crosby and John Wayne. Watumull’s would become synonymous with alohawear in 1935 when Gobindram and Ellen commissioned Elsie Das to create 15 Hawai‘i-themed designs for shirts to be sold at the East India Store.
“How this whole thing started was people, the locals, were excited and willing to express their ethnicity through wearing prints that were Asian, prints that they related to,” says Hope. “But the Watumulls actually had Elsie Das create Hawaiian motifs and designs. Instead of Mount Fuji she’d have Diamond Head, instead of koi [she’d] have tropical fish, instead of cherry blossoms [she’d] have gardenias and hibiscus and all the things we know here.”
The wildly popular designs of Elsie Das changed the direction of the aloha shirt from the repurposing of existing Asian print fabrics into a tapestry of local life, capping the revolution in social mores with casual sportswear that in time would conquer the office, too. You might say they fought extremism, one shirt at a time.
As descendant David Watumull mused in HONOLULU’s pages four years ago, “Where else but Hawai‘i could a blond, pure-Danish woman from Portland, Oregon, marry a pure Indian from Hyderabad—and become a pillar of the community?”
Today, Watumull’s last store has closed, a victim of COVID-19. But Hope continues in the Elsie Das-Watumull tradition by working on shirt designs for Western Aloha. His most recent project is with Big Island artist Mayumi Oda, 84 years old and still producing art. “She is priceless. Her colors are just sensational. So beautiful, the burgundies and lime greens and grays and accents and eggplant colors. We’re turning her art into shirts. I couldn’t say how happy I am to create this—America was bombing the shit out of Japan when she was a little girl in the middle of it. And here we are. Aloha shirts, they’re shirts that make you smile.”
Your next Zoom meeting with Mainland folks might be a good time to dig out an aloha shirt and wear it with pride as you explain its meaning and symbolism. Of course you’ll then want to take a picture and post it—with other favorite shirts—on social media. If you do, maybe you’ll use this hashtag: #takebacktheshirt.
Because it is ours, even if we gave it to the world.