John Heckathorn Reports…

 Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

For many readers, John Heckathorn was best known as our dining writer, reviewing the newest restaurants, chronicling the rise of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, nearly every month for the past 27 years. But, from his first years as a freelancer, then as a staff writer, he also wrote on topics as diverse as sumo wrestling, the rebirth of the Hawaiian language, child abuse and more. As editor, from 1993 to 2005, he contributed Editor’s Pages that went beyond mere “welcome to the issue” notes, as well as other features and Calabash items.

When he passed away, I knew I wanted to publish a retrospective of his writing, one that represented his full range as a writer. Even if you’re a reader who never pays much attention to bylines, through this collection you’ll learn about the city itself and its history, of life in the Islands as it has changed over the past 27 years.

My thanks to Brian Nichol, the editor who brought Heckathorn on staff in 1985. That was 10 years before my time at the magazine and Nichol steered me to great pieces from those days. Says Nichol, “John built a body of magazine work that has seldom, if ever, been matched in the diverse world of Island publications. John could write an excellent, provocative article on virtually any subject, be it crime or politics, fashion or sports. His HONOLULU feature stories and feature-length Q&A interviews were always well-researched and well-written, with John’s clean prose and his surprising turns of phrase throughout. He was prolific as well.”

Here’s some of what Heckathorn wrote …

Heckathorn at the Honolulu Zoo, circa 1976.

On Moving to Hawaii and Encountering the Aloha Spirit

“Clueless in Paradise,” Foreword, September 1996

This month, I’m celebrating a personal milestone. Twenty years ago, I walked off a United 747 and set foot in Hawaii for the first time. I was wearing a blue blazer and gold-on-blue silk tie. Since I was being met by a fellow member of the Manoa faculty, I wanted to make a good impression. When I found him by baggage claim, he was wearing a hapi coat, shorts and rubber slippers.

[Heckathorn describes exploring Oahu by bus, certain that, like the bus systems he knew on the Mainland, the route would loop back to where he first got on. Instead, it ended somewhere in Nuuanu.]

When the driver noticed me in the back, I explained my theory about buses always going in loops. He clearly thought I was the stupidest human being he’d ever met. But, unbelievably, he started up the bus and drove me home. He charged me another 50 cents for the trip. I didn’t argue.

… So to the bus driver who didn’t leave me alone there in the dark 20 years ago: Tanks, eh.  It’s one of the reasons that, except for a few, infrequent vacations over the last two decades, I’ve never left.


On Working for a Night as a Waiter at Spats

“My Night at Spats,” Dining, April 1985

It would help if everyone would stop yelling at me. George, the dishwasher, doesn’t like the way I’m busing dishes. “Don’t put glasses there. Put ’em up on the rack. Scrape the plates.” Gonzo yells at me for leaving a stack of menus on the kitchen counter. Biondo is miffed because I took his rag to wipe down a table and put it back on Aldo’s cart. Benny, the bartender, scolds me for not calling drinks in the proper order. …


Heckathorn poses with the staff of Spats, where he spent a night trying to keep up with the professional waiters, 1985.

[At the end of the night] I’ve had a great time, proved that I could do it and not dropped anything. But I’ve served six dinners in an evening. Normally a waiter at Spats will serve 30 to 40. A good waiter makes it look easy, but it’s not. Next time your waiter is late with your coffee, have some sympathy.


On Where We Get Our Fish Dinners

“Catch of the Day,” Dining, February 1984, Heckathorn’s first dining column, following a fish from the Kewalo Basin fish auction to its final destination—on his plate as “Chicago-style” mahimahi at Nick’s Fishmarket:

The fish auction is loud and wet. Trucks pull up with the catch; the fish are hosed down and loaded onto flats, which are pulled into long rows along the warehouse floor. The floors are washed constantly. Most people wear rubber boots. … [T]he main activity is centered on a small knot of men who follow the auctioneer down the wet rows past the flats of gleaming ahi. … Within moments the bidding for this particular fish is over. One broker looks at the other as if to say, “If you’re fool enough to pay that much for it, take it.”


On the Rebirth of the Hawaiian Language through Immersion Schools

“Can Hawaiian Survive?” April 1987

The Punana Leo school in Kalihi looks like a normal preschool. Fifteen children between the ages of 2 and 5 sit in a circle around their teacher, singing songs, reciting the numbers up to 20 and the days of the week, listening to stories, asking and answering questions. But the children are speaking Hawaiian, the only language Punana Leo allows. The two teachers, both from Niihau, conduct the preschool entirely in Hawaiian 10 hours a day, five days a week.

The total immersion method seems to work. None of the children knew Hawaiian before enrolling. One boy, in the school for only a few days, stumbles as he tries to recite. But the rest of the kids, some only a year or so past baby talk, are fluent in a way that is discouraging to anyone who has tried to learn a second language as an adult.

There is ample evidence that bilingual preschools are good for children, stimulating their mental development and making them more comfortable with abstractions and more flexible in their thinking than one-language children. But that is not the point of Punana Leo preschool. “We’re saving the language,” says teacher Florence Nicholas. “That’s the important thing.”


On Prosecutor Charles Marsland’s War on Porn

“Porn Wars,” July 1986

Since [the city’s first conviction in a pornography case] Ching has turned prosecutions over to his 29-year-old deputy Randal Yoshida. It was Yoshida who convinced a jury that Angel Cash was pornographic. The clerk who sold the film was fined $500 and sentenced to 15 days in jail.

The reporter, try as he might, is having a hard time being offended by Angel Cash. It is not a bad film—technically speaking. The sound and color are good, and the actors and actresses are attractive and athletic. No one is likely to confuse Angel Cash with great art. The film is mainly pictures of people having sex, with minimal characterization and plot. After half an hour or so, it becomes repetitive and cloying. Still, watching it seems unlikely to topple Western Civilization.

Ching shrugs off the reporter’s opinion. “The law says the standards are supposed to be those of the average person,” he says with a smile. “And juries have turned out to be far more conservative than anyone expected.” …

If juries convict [in the pending cases] it is not likely to be the death of civil liberties in Hawaii, as some fear. Nor is it likely that ridding Honolulu of erotica will do much to diminish violence against women and the abuse of children, as supporters of the anti-pornography crusade seem to hope. …

Still, at least some of the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Honolulu residents who have rented erotic videotapes in the past few years are going to miss them. And more Honolulu residents are going to be outraged that the prosecutor’s office has seen fit to decide what they may and may not watch.


On Restaurant Row as the Hot New Thing in Town

“Alan Beall’s Dream,” Dining, December 1987

Alan Beall is stoked. The 49-year-old developer, with a touch of gray in his hair and beard, is walking through his latest project, Restaurant Row. He can hardly contain his excitement. “This is really coming together,” he says. “It’s going to knock your socks off when it’s done. Banners, flags, lights, people. Can’t you just see it?”

Actually, it’s hard to see. The only people around are workers in hard hats, hammering on scaffolds or touching up the concrete with mini-sandblasters. There are no walls or windows yet on the ground floor, just exposed concrete pillars and ducting and plywood barriers. A power saw whines persistently in the background.

But Beall has no trouble envisioning all 90,000 square feet filled with nine major restaurants, a dozen or so smaller food operations, a couple dozen specialty retailers—and thousands of Honolulu residents, all of them having fun and spending money. …


Next to the high-tech tiki torch is an 8,200-square-foot restaurant called The Black Orchid. The Black Orchid is going to be the fanciest of the Restaurant Row tenants, a continental restaurant owned by a group from Nick’s Fishmarket and a “movie star” whom Beall absolutely refuses to name. “Please don’t say anything,” begs Beall.

I’m guessing here, but: “The Black Orchid” was the title of one of Magnum’s most popular episodes, leading me to believe that the celebrity behind the restaurant is none other than Tom Selleck—who, after all, will be out of work after this season. [Heckathorn’s guess turned out to be correct.]


On the State’s Handling of Child Abuse

“The Child Abuse Mess,” October 1988

In dealing with child abuse, we are currently spending millions without tackling the source of the problem. At CPS [Child Protective Services] we are burning out well-intentioned social workers at a rate we cannot afford—and we are losing the battle. Now that CPS is 20 years old, it is starting to see its second generation of clients: Girls who were removed from abusive homes are now mothers, and CPS is being forced to remove their children.


On Cell Phones

“My Three Weeks as a Yuppie,” Afterthoughts, March 1989

I’ve always hated people with cellular phones. I’d see somebody making a call in a car or a restaurant and think pretentious yuppie swine. Then Honolulu Cellular Telephone Co. offered to loan me one of their $1,000 phones for three weeks. … I wish I could say I refused out of principle. Instead, I rushed down and got it before they changed their minds. [Heckathorn describes the joys of the phone and its inevitable return.] …

Only 1 percent of Oahu’s population has a cellular phone. Now that I’m back among the 99 percent—I hate to say this, but I miss the damn thing.


In ’94, Heckathorn wrote about his own family experience with the hapa phenomenon, including daughters Paige and Mallory.

On Hawaii’s Hapa Phenomenon

“Colors,” Foreword, December 1994

My wife and I have two daughters, one brown, one white. It’s one of those accidents of genetic roulette. My wife is hapa—half-haole, half-Japanese. My older daughter, Mallory, looks far more Japanese than her mother, especially in the summer when she turns a deep caramel from the sun.

“How come she’s so brack?” her Japanese grandmother asked last summer. My wife broke it to her gently: Since the child’s other three grandparents were all white bread—German, Dutch, that sort of thing—she was the only possible source.

My younger daughter on the other hand, is fairer than anyone in my family—except possibly my middle brother, who gets sunburned through a T-shirt. Ironically, she’s the spitting image of her hapa mother, except that she looks German.

I’m so used to this disparity, I hardly notice it. But it came up for me when I read Susan Yim’s insightful article, “Hapa in Hawaii,” which you’ll find in this issue.


As Yim points out, being of mixed race is increasingly commonplace in the Islands. We now take it for granted. Walk in any preschool, and it seems every child is some kind of hapa or another. …

On the other hand, the hapa explosion is something we’ve hardly come to grips with—especially in print. … So loaded are matters of race in our society that it’s hardly safe to say anything at all about them. But as I read Yim’s work, the phrase melting pot popped into my head. Nobody’s supposed to believe in the melting pot anymore—it became politically incorrect three decades ago. But what else are you going to call a Hawaii where more than a third of the population is already some kind of hapa and half of all new marriages are mixed? …

[W]e might not be heading to a melting pot exactly—perhaps some kind of a stew in which all the ingredients hold on to their identities. But certainly even a melting pot in which ethnic identities are blurred seems preferable to, say, Rwanda.

So I looked at my brown daughter and my white daughter sitting at the dinner table and hoped I was seeing the future of the planet.


On the Opening of Roy’s

“Location, Location, Location,” Dining, July 1989

The last location I stumbled upon was not a museum; instead, it was in an office building in that graveyard of restaurants, Hawaii Kai. Roy’s opened up in the Hawaii Kai Corporate Plaza last December. By now, the eatery’s no longer a secret, partly because it has a high-powered L.A. public relations firm, and partly because it’s a terrific restaurant. I had to phone 10 days ahead to get a 7 p.m. Saturday night reservation. …

The star of the evening—as far as I was concerned—was the mesquite smoked crispy duck. Yamaguchi somehow gets most of the fat out of the duck, sweetens the skin, smokes the meat to a delicate flavor and carves it off the bone. Then he fans out the pieces on top of a zingy passion fruit barbecue sauce. Not only did the duck have taste, texture and presentation going for it, but there was also something fun about the dish—it didn’t take itself too seriously.


On the Perils of Being a Critic

“The Invasion of Maui,” Dining, November 1994

Every time I fly over to Maui to eat, I feel like I’ve parachuted behind enemy lines. Over the years, I’ve been forthright on the failings of the Maui restaurant scene (trendy and overpriced are two words that leap to mind). So now, I’m always half afraid that I’ll be recognized in a Maui eatery, dragged into a back alley and shot.

Fortunately, these days Maui is being invaded by more than the likes of me. A number of aggressive, young, entrepreneurial chefs have realized that if a restaurant on one island is good, then a restaurant on two islands is better.


On Drinking Like Hemingway

“Aloha Ups and Downs,” Dining, February 1995

Across from Hooters is Sloppy Joe’s. The two share a pierside view, but they seem worlds apart. Hooters makes you think like this: After me and Ike finished the haying, we took the pickup to town to get a gander at them Hooter Girls and their hooters, haha.

But Sloppy Joe’s has a portrait of Ernest Hemingway over its door. A whole wall holds pictures of Papa fishing, Papa boxing, Papa at the bullfights, Papa hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Under that influence, we felt our dialogue tighten.

“The food is hot,” said the young writer.

“Too hot,” said the older.


“You expect the Havana chili to be hot.”

“Truly. But not the Original Sloppy Joe sandwich.”

“Have a Barbados potato boat,” said the younger. “This is bar food, is it not?”

“Better than Hooter’s.”

The waitress wore black—T-shirt, shorts, running shoes. “Whaddya drinking?” she asked.

“There’s a list of house drinks,” said the younger.

“Stick to beer,” said the older.

“I’ll have the mix of Piña Colada and Old Island Rum Runner. It’s called A Pain in the Ass,” said the younger.

The drink was red and white. The red was too bright, the taste was too sweet, the liquor burnt the tongue and mouth. “Whoa,” said the younger.

“This drink is insincere,” said the older. “The bartender did not mix it. It came from a slush machine.”

“Yes,” said the waitress. “And next door, at Fat Tuesday, there are 20 machines. After you pay your bill, you must go there. They will give you free samples.”

They walked past the men’s room and found themselves at the bar. The barmaid was tall and friendly and poured many samples into small plastic cups. One was called Purple Passion. It had bourbon and 151 proof rum.

“It tastes like a grape popsicle,” said the old writer. He felt a moment of sadness. “In Key West, Papa drank double daiquiris with no sugar.”

“Papa would not drink in this place,” said the younger. “Even if it is clean and well-lighted.”

“Let’s not talk about it,” said the older. “For us, it is only necessary to go back to our work.”


Left to right, HONOLULU’s then-publisher John Alves, chef Alan Wong (winning one of his early Hale Aina Awards) and then-editor John Heckathorn.

On the Arrival of Alan Wong and Sam Choy

“Brave New World,” Dining, September 1995

Honolulu just became a better place to eat. Under normal circumstances, restaurants come and restaurants go. The ones that have any real or lasting impact are few and far between. This month is different. In Alan Wong’s, Sam Choy’s and Cliquo, we suddenly have three new restaurants that alter the landscape. It’s as if Roy’s, 3660 On The Rise and the Swiss Inn had opened in a single month, instead of years apart.

In part, this restaurant revolution was anticipated. For the last four years, the Hawaii regional cuisine chefs have been transmuting multicultural local food traditions into the highest of high-end restaurant meals, using the best available local meats, fish and produce. The trouble with this movement is that 80 percent of it has happened on the Neighbor Islands, while 80 percent of the population lives on Oahu.

So for years, it’s been whispered that Hawaii regional cuisine leaders like Sam Choy and Alan Wong were on their way to Honolulu. By the time they opened, they were already classics, restaurants to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries in. It helped that both men knew what they were doing.


On Valentine’s Day

“Martyrs for Love,” Foreword, February 1997

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. It’s not really a holiday for one thing. You still have to work. And you incur all sorts of other obligations, especially if you are male.

When you are single, Valentine’s Day is perhaps an opportunity. But if you have finally matured into the world of committed relationships, Valentine’s is not really an opportunity to succeed in the romantic sphere. Instead it becomes a chance to fail spectacularly.


illustration: michel v.m. lÊ

On the Romance of Chef Mavro Restaurant

“Room at the Top?” Dining, March 1999

I had a cheese course that just knocked me out. It was a small block of blue cheese from Bresse (that’s a region in France, also famous for chickens). The cheese was wrapped up in phyllo dough, so it looked like a birthday present, baked. It was so sharp and rich and perfectly matched with the glass of Gigondas Rhône red it came with, I had to fight my local food consultant for it.

“Order your own,” I said.

“I’m not that hungry,” she said, though that didn’t deter her from eating most of mine.

The marriage, emperiled by the blue cheese conflict, was saved by the décor of the restaurant. Since Mavro put the restaurant together in two months, most of which he spent on Maui, he was forced to let decorator Mary Philpotts make most of the decisions. She rendered the tiny 68-seat space elegant without being austere. The only thing Mavro asked was that the lighting make women look beautiful. And it does—so much so, I was willing to forgive my local food consultant’s theft of my blue cheese, though her sleeveless black dress, very tight, with silver dragons embroidered across the front, may have had something to do with it. Also her generosity in sharing her own dinner.


photo: thinkstock

On the Closing of the Swiss Inn

“Auf Wiedersehen,” Dining, October 2000

After 18 years, the Swiss Inn is closing. The end of October.

A last-minute sale might save it. Maybe. But in any case, Martin and Jeanie Wyss are retiring. And so while there may possibly be a Swiss Inn, it won’t be one where Martin cooks every meal and a smiling Jeanie goes from table to table, chatting with the customers as if they were guests in her own home. …

Of all the hundreds of restaurants that have closed in the last 20 years, I’ll miss this one the most.


On Christmas after September 11

Editor’s Page, December 2001

I am looking forward to the lights going on in Bishop Square, and then all over downtown Honolulu. This is a dark time, one of the darkest many of us have lived through. What we want most for Christmas, whether we know it or not, is for the lights to go on all over the world.


photo: thinkstock

On Hawaii’s Public Schools

“Government Schools,” Foreword, May 2001

Plenty of people have fixes for public education. From student-centered learning, to core curriculum, to values, to a computer on every desk. None of these go to the heart of the problem. Why do our public schools proclaim their mission so loudly and deliver so little? Why do they seem more like places to get your driver’s license renewed than places children can awaken to the world?


On Monstrously Big Laulau

Dining, October 2002

If you must have the combo [at Ono Hawaiian Foods]—and who can resist?—order either the kalua pig plate or the laulau plate. The combo plate comes with both those items, and unless you’re Robert Kekaula, say, you can’t eat both. The kalua pig is a pastel plastic bowl full. The laulau is as big as an unshucked coconut, as big as a child’s head, as big as the rock you might prop behind your front tire to keep your car from rolling down a severely sloped driveway. It’s Mauna Laulau.


On Hawaii Governors

Editor’s Page, January 2003

Linda Lingle is the third governor I’ve interviewed for these pages, but my fourth gubernatorial interview. I interviewed John Waihee in 1987 and again in 1993. In August 1998, I sat down with Ben Cayetano, in our well-remembered “two cover” issue before the hotly contested ’98 election. …

The ’98 interview with Cayetano was the most contentious, partly because it was an election year, partly because the state was mired in a prolonged economic slump, partly because Cayetano himself pulls no punches. When I asked several questions about the economy and the failure of his economic reform package in the Legislature, he finally turned to me and said, “Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall.” …

When I read over the three previous gubernatorial interviews, I was struck by how similar many of the themes were. The economy. The failings of the public schools. The inefficiency of state government. The need to settle the ceded lands questions and find justice for Hawaiians.

They are problems still. …

It would be nice to have some of these issues behind us. And to have some new problems for a change.


On Favorite Restaurants

“Fun, Some Fun and No Fun,” Dining, February 2003

People always ask me if I have favorite restaurants. Not in the way most people do. I don’t have restaurants that I go back to time after time, comfortable places where I am a regular. Instead, I keep a list of new restaurants on my computer. When it gets too long, I go check a few of them out, finding new places. A lot of times, I wish I could have gone to one of the old familiar favorites. Still, you have to get out there, because you never know what’s around the corner.


On the Honolulu Rush

“The Honolulu Rush,” Dining, February 2004

Any new restaurant gets mobbed immediately.

It’s not just the restaurants, of course. When you live on an island, you get desperate for novelty. Almost anything new in town gets the Honolulu Rush. Honolulu may be the only city in America where a Kmart opening set off traffic jams.


Heckathorn was once pressed into service as an anonymous cover model for our July 2000 “Best Doctors” issue.

On the Joys of Editing a Magazine

“Aloha Also Means Goodbye,” Editor’s Page, August 2005

Over the years, I’ve interviewed governors and mayors, talked with university presidents, private detectives, bank CEOs and Hawaiian activists. I’ve landed on an aircraft carrier, driven a Ferrari, choppered into Kahoolawe, flown to Japan. I’ve hung out in the kitchen with a young Roy Yamaguchi, helped a film crew stampede cows for a Magnum P.I. episode, been nominated for a Na Hoku award for our 50 Greatest Hawaii Albums CD.

At a magazine, your interests can be as a broad as the city you cover.


On the Ultimate Noodle

“In Search of the Ultimate Noodle,” Dining, July 2008

The center of Hawaii’s ramen universe is not some boutique noodle house in a major shopping center. Nor is it a narrow counter half-hidden in some back alley.

The center of Hawaii’s ramen universe is on truck-clogged Colburn Street in Kalihi Kai, near the prison.

Your bowl of ramen starts here, as a 10-inch-wide spool of dough. The spool winds through one, two, three, four sets of rollers, pinched thinner and thinner. Finally, it’s sliced into thin strands. The cutting machine makes the strands a little squiggly, so the noodles appear handcut.

Welcome to the Sun Noodle Factory, turning out 11,000 pounds of fresh noodles a day. That means that the noodles in virtually every bowl of ramen in Honolulu—even in noodle shops that may make a few noodles in the front to amuse the customers—leave Sun Noodle in a five-ounce plastic bag.

The restaurant rips open the bag, drops the noodles in the broth for two minutes—and there you go. It’s a cultural icon, it’s the movie Tampopo, it’s the world’s international dish, second perhaps only to French fries.


On Life

Heckathorn’s first submission to the magazine was his short story “Hanalei,” which won runner-up in our inaugural 1983 fiction contest, and was published in full in the September 1984 issue. Then a 36-year-old assistant professor of English at UH, it was his first piece of fiction writing in 15 years.

… I think we’re all damned. Consider what is going to happen to you even if you don’t throw yourself out an 18th-story window in your early 20s. If you’re lucky and don’t catch some wasting disease at 30; if the thugs and fools who run the world’s countries don’t shoot you or napalm you or unleash thermonuclear hell in your neighborhood; if your car doesn’t blow a tire and send you spinning into a lane of oncoming traffic; if no one throws you into prison for your political beliefs or into a concentration camp for perhaps no good reason at all; if none of the unimaginably awful things that happen to ordinary, perfectly nice human beings happen to you—what then?

You inevitably get older each day. You watch them bury your parents, your older friends, your contemporaries. Your dreams, being dreams, go mostly unfulfilled. Your children, if you’re fortunate to have them in the first place, turn into people you never expected. You get old, get sick, and die.

And that’s the best that can happen.

So I’d advise you to pause before condemning me as shallow when I say that the point of life is to be happy, to have a good time if at all possible.