Lure of the lei: Hawaii's resurgent cultural appeal

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The twin eight-foot tiki statues standing sentry outside Waikiki Wally's would fit in perfectly on many islands. Manhattan is not one of them. Yet gawkers in Gotham's boho-hip East Village seem unflummoxed at these wooden icons guarding the new Hawaii-themed bar.

Call it the revival of the paradise pleasure principle. Hawaiiana and South Pacific chic seems to be everywhere, from Miami's glam South Beach to the malls of Middle America, where surf retailers Quiksilver and Gotcha flourish. On the silver screen, girl surfers wowed the masses last summer with their wave moxie in "Blue Crush."

This is hardly the first time America has fallen in love with the islands. But for this revival, the roots seem deeper and more varied, with serious students of Hawaiian culture toiling alongside tiki dilettantes.

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During the Roaring '20s, hula dancers toured the country with ukulele-toting ensembles. Hawaii-themed bars popped up in big cities in homage to the rollicking nightlife of Waikiki. In the late 1940s, returning GIs carried island customs – and floral shirts – home with them, and "tiki culture" swept suburbia.

Now, mainstream retailers Pottery Barn; Bed, Bath & Beyond; and Crate & Barrel have caught the island bug with a Hawaii-themed barrage, proffering everything from Aloha Girl cocktail plates to grass-mat rugs to Hawaiian-style quilts.

But beyond catalogs and home décor, the phenomenal rise of surfing and other board sports has popularized island styles. According to Southern California market- research firm Board-Trac, 2.4 million Americans surfed in 2001 – up by one million from 1998. Women make up a growing portion of those surfers – and they've been the fastest-growing outlet for island-style surf apparel, as evident in Quiksilver's wildly popular Roxy line.

Hollywood, too, has played a role. Aside from "Blue Crush," there's Disney's animated "Lilo & Stitch" – a tale of a lonely girl and a homely dog set on the surf-happy island of Kauai – which was the ninth highest-grossing film of 2002. The surf-themed video for Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun" was filmed on Oahu. And this February, a two-hour "Baywatch" TV movie will be set in Hawaii, centering on a cast reunion.

At the same time, Americans have gravitated to more relaxed fashion and the ethos of a calmer lifestyle throughout the 1990s, says Marie Case, Board-Trac's managing director. Witness the rise of Tommy Bahama's. The purveyor of elegant island wear has grown from $3 million in sales in 1995 to an estimated $300 million in 2002.

Then there's island food. Americans have grown far more adventurous in the culinary realm, and many have imported Hawaiian palates. In Timonium, Md., Jay Caragay runs a shave-ice shop that dishes up snow-cones poured over adzuki beans and topped with sweetened condensed milk, a Hawaiian staple. He's enjoyed 20 percent annual growth since opening in 1999.

"Our customers who have been there come by and tell us freely about their vacation or their honeymoon," says Mr. Caragay.

Naturally, this is good news for Hawaii. The number of mainland visitors has fallen only 1.2 percent in 2002, a remarkable showing considering dramatic declines elsewhere. After a decade when Japanese visitors dominated the Hawaiian economy, mainlanders are now the tourism mainstay.

But beyond beaches and snow-cones, this revival seems deeper than earlier ones. Dozens of serious hula halaus, schools devoted to traditional Hawaiian dance, dot the country. Hawaiian music, too, flourishes on the mainland – and runs far deeper than the idle ukulele strumming of past revivals. Today, students learn ki ho'alu or slack-key guitar, a style pioneered in the 19th century by Hawaii paniolos (cowboys) that requires dexterity and commitment.

At Stanford University, music professor Steven Sano has seen the waiting list for his 12-slot class more than triple in the last several years. "It's not just playing the guitar," he says. "It's readings and lectures and critical analysis of video. We see a tremendous amount of interest."

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