Products with local appeal reflect the complex emotions around Maui attitude
March 06, 2008Last Thursday my husband and I made the Grand Trek from Upcountry to Lahaina. He's a sales representative for a distributor of Hawaiiana products like calendars, magnets, books, music, stationary, shot glasses, beach towels, post cards, key chains, beach toys, photo albums, tote bags, aloha print pet supplies, bedding and vintage art prints.
Basically, my husband—a local boy with blood ties tracing back to Kaumuali'i, the Ali'i Nui of Kauai and Ni'ihau from 1794 to 1810, sells Hawai'i to tourists. And he does a good job at it, too.
Anyway, I was standing downstairs by the Wharf Cinema Center when the bearded preacher with the Bible who's something of a Westside institution shouted at me. "Eh! American! Hello?" he yelled. Then he began lecturing me about the folly of my consumer, corporate ways.
I became uncomfortable and angry. Not so much that he's a well-known eccentric but because he mistook me for an American.
For a haole.
He thought I was at the Wharf buying stuff. In his mind, apparently only haole American tourists buy stuff at the Wharf, so that made me a tourist. And that's what bothered me.
American free market capitalism has a way of putting everything up for sale—even culture and traditions. If you have money, you can buy anything in America: goods, services and, yes, even respectability. Everything is for sale, if you can afford the price.
For tourists, Front Street is understandably popular. The shirts and trinkets sold there are flashy and vibrant, but also friendly and non-controversial. They're also mostly made in China.
These tourists are being fed a delusion, I told my husband. All this crap has nothing to do with the real Hawai'i.
"But this is what Front Street is," he said. "Even in the whaling days, I bet the business here catered to the visitors, the guys coming off the boats. This is a part of what Hawai'i is. It's just not 'local.'"
* * *
Of course, we 'locals' are also good at selling our own culture, though to a far lesser degree than those who cater to tourists. When I first walked into Maui Tropix on Front Street, I found slogans, trinkets, shirts and stickers that directly related to my culture. The mottos "Maui Built," "Respect the Culture," "Up Country Built," "Samoan" and "Portuguese" lined the walls.
I asked the guy behind the counter–James Blanton a Caucasian from Florida, if they sold many "Grown here not Flown here" stickers to tourists.
"Yeah, not really. I wouldn't rock that sticker because I'm not, you know?" he said. "But with the tourists, you slap the word 'Maui' or put the Hawaiian island chain on it and they'll buy it. Some products sell better at our Dairy Road store, some sell better here. It's different for different parts of the island."
Maui Tropix (and Maui Built) came about to sell to us locals. "A bunch of years ago, Louis [Martin, the owner] saw that there was an untapped local market and he went for it," he said. What's more, he said that Maui Built products are only sold here—no other island.
But there's tons of Maui Built stickers out there, I said. Every time I go to Oahu I see trucks with them.
"That's kind of what makes it cool though, it's exclusive," he said. "You can only get it here on Maui. So every single thing of ours you see on Oahu? They came from one of our Maui stores."
Filings with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs show Martin owns a wide variety of trademarks: "Big Island Built," "Molokai Built," "Kauai Built" and so forth. Martin declined to comment for this story, but Blanton said that as of now, the company isn't thinking about exanding to the other islands, but "who knows what it'll be like next year?"
On the ride back up the hill, my husband and I discussed local-oriented brands and slogans we liked when we were kids.
"I remember buying a skate board from Maui Tropix when it was in the mall before it changed," he said. "I think I was in the fifth grade so it's been around for a long time."
Yeah, but that's not what I remember as the real 'local' local stuff, I said. What about "Thrilla Gorilla" from T&C? Or that "Primo" guy who would say, "No can hea! Get bea in my ear!" Remember when guys would cut their shirts so short their stomachs would hang out?
"I'd rather not."
You know, I added, what appeals to us now is a lot different than the stuff that we liked back in the day. How do you get from "Hang Loose" to "Ainokea?"
"Ainokea"–a popular slogan today owned by Haku Applegate—is today used pretty much like the old "Hang Loose." But the two slogans are actually very different. "Hang Loose" inspires people to just take it easy, while "Ainokea" (a variation of "I no care") is far more nihilistic.
Whatever, it seems to say. Just screw it.
* * *
Talking with people who moved here after growing up on the mainland, I got the distinct impression that many view t-shirts and bumper stickers with "local" proclamations like "Country Pride," "Central Pride" and "Westside Pride" as ignorant and detrimental to life here.
Does wearing a shirt proclaiming pride in the area where you grew up make a local in some way wrong? Does celebrating one's race by plastering it in huge type over your clothes make you divisive? On the flip side, what about those thatwonder if it is necessary to buy something to prove to others that we have pride in where we were born and how we were raised?
My parents raised me to tolerate other races, cultures and points of view. Because of my upbringing, I've always been able to laugh at the Podagee, Filipino and haole jokes that are so popular with Hawai'i comedians.
I was thinking of this when I spoke with Rhaeshaud Perryman of Moke Action. His company takes familiar and popular logos, tweaks them just enough to pass copyright restrictions and then adds local flair.
"The Filipino stuff sells good," Perryman said. "We got this one shirt, looks like Ecko, but instead of the rhino we have a pig inside and it says, 'Adobe Unlimited.' There's another one that looks like a Billabong, but says, "Bagaong."
The point, Perryman said, is to take a part of a culture–like certain Filipino foods–and turn them into something hip. "I am part Filipino," he said. "And instead of ashamed, I become more aware and proud. Locals can take a stand and be proud of their culture."
I asked what he thought of people who become offended because of the way his products "sell" different races.
"That's their right," he said. "But then I got freedom of speech. My stuff isn't insulting because I'm not discriminating. I take what the culture has and use that–like the Samoans got kava, so we're bringing in a shirt that looks like a green bottle but is says, 'Samoan, All bus up on Kava.' People from Hawai'i buy it because they can relate to the things my slogans are saying."
* * *
My editor sees the phrase "Grown Here Not Flown Here" in political terms. "It's almost anti-immigrant," he said. "But that makes sense, given the fact that Hawai'i is pretty much conquered territory."
Local people are proud of being born and raised in the islands, and because of that their point of view often differs from those who've moved here. To me, "Grown Here Not Flown Here" simply expresses that difference.
Walking through 808 Nalu at the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center, I saw several T-shirts expressing a very different vibe: "Haole is Haole," "Valley Isle Not Haole Isle," "If you think you local think again," "Don't change our lifestyle change your area code" and "All balls no brains" (company official Lisa Apana did not comment for this story).
In Wailuku, Requests Music carries stickers by Angrylocal.com (website has been parked as of press time) that say things like, "If you don't like Hawaiians why the F*&ck did you move here?" and "It's not the haoles I mind. It's the fucking haoles." According to store manager Justin Hogan, the stickers sell pretty well to locals and there has only been one instance where someone was so insulted by them that she vowed to never shop at the store again (she has since become a regular customer). Hogan stresses that the slogans are meant to be funny and that Requests tries to support locally made products.
"It really depends what kine haole you talking about," Bubz from B.U.B.Z Productions in Hali'imaile said of the "It's not the haoles" shirt. "Is it haoles that come from the mainland and buy up all the aina or the kine that come, respect the culture and become local? That shirt is wrong. But the one that says 'Don't change our lifestyle, change your area code'—that one I can agree with. If you don't love it, move."
Nalu Foreman of Makawao wondered who would buy the "If you don't like Hawaiians, why the fu*&ck did you move here?" sticker. "To me, I wouldn't put that on my car," he said. "That kine stuff, leave to yourself cause everybody–the good, the bad, the humble— goin' read the thing. If I felt that way I would tell it to the guy's face."
Bubz and Foreman both agreed that the shirts proclaiming specific Westside or Upcountry heritage were positive. "You know, sometimes it can cause commotions," Bubz said. "For the most part it's representing where you from. It's not a gang-related type of thing."
Foreman agreed. "It's just you proud for be where you from," he said. "No hassles. I get one shirt that says, 'Lahaina Grown' and, on the back, 'And where you from?' Just proud for be where you from."
Then I mentioned a shirt I saw at the T-Shirt factory at Ka'ahumanu Center that promoted cock fighting–a celebrated, though illegal island past time.
"You know, I no wear the shirt and I don't know if it's a good excuse, but I was raised with chicken," Foreman said. "It put food on the table. Nowadays people are in it for the fad. But no excuse, my way or their way. People grew up with them."
* * *
Ray Kalani Cabrido of the Automatic T-shirt Company and Das Nutz clothing in Maui Mall has been screening shirts since he was a kid. His family has been in the business–originally making shirts with more of a tourist appeal–for the past three decades. He's seen the business of selling Hawai'i to visitors and residents evolve—and not evolve.
"The local market has seen some interesting changes over recent years," he said. "Our designs appeal to the teenage to young adult market. Local people love their language, 'Pidgin English' as it reflects more than just words. Progress will happen eventually here in Hawai'i as change comes about, but the Pidgin English will forever remain and so much of our designs reflect that."
Cabrido hand-screens shirts with sayings like "Country Pride," "Kahului, Central Pride," "Hawaiian Homeland Security," "My Daddy said No Ack Nutz," "All ovah da Grandpa," "Pilau? Wat datC9" as well as "Das Nutz"–an expression used when somebody does something either totally awesome or absolutely crazy.
I asked Cabrido why the designs that appeal to locals today differ so much from the ones that were popular 20 years ago. "T-shirt design is kind of like music in that it changes when generations, interests and people change," he said. "We've decided to just listen to what people are saying. Locals in general are happy people and like to say where they're from.
"I don't think that we looked for or created a product that people would like," he continued. "Instead, we just took what people say or do naturally and printed them on garments for people to wear. It is not unusual to see someone wearing a black long sleeve or hooded sweatshirt in a scorching 90-degree sunny day. People have many things to say and they choose their favorite T-shirt to do all the talking for them."
Local or not, that's about as American as you can get. MTW
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