Are you going to the Hukilau?

2jb-koThis is an archived c. 2003 article from a column I wrote with Kyle Tatsumoto in the former Nichi Bei Times.

“Oh we’re going to a hukilau, a huki huki huki huki hukilau…” This well known refrain evokes images of sunburned tourists in florescent aloha shirts and matching mu’u mu’us, wrapped in plastic grass skirts, butchering the usually graceful hula.

Still, for much of middle-America, “The Hukilau Song” and other hapa haole tunes (anglicized “Hawaiian” songs with English lyrics) such as “Little Grass Shack” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Hands” are Hawaiian music. With classics like “Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai” representing the genre, it’s no wonder that Hawaiian music has never developed much of a following outside the 50th State, other than as a novelty.

Nevertheless, hapa haole music is, and will always be, an important part of the diverse Hawaiian musical milieu. The currently popular “Jawaiian” style, after all, is just another form of hapa haole music, a marriage of Jamaican (reggae) and Hawaiian rhythms.

“We throw our nets out into the sea, and all the ‘ama ‘ama come a swimming to me…” Hukilau, an old Hawaiian fishing method, involves casting a long net from the shore, then enlisting a large group to help to pull (huki) the net to shore. The net is lined with ti leaves (lau) which help scare fish toward the middle of the net.

“Everybody loves the hukilau. Where the lau lau is the kaukau at the lu’au…” In the 1940s, the town of La’ie, on Oahu’s Northshore, held weekend fundraisers featuring a hukilau, followed by a luau and hula show. This popular event, which drew hundreds of tourists from Waikiki, would eventually evolve into the present day Polynesian Cultural Center. After attending this event in 1948, songwriter Jack Owens was inspired to pen the “Hukilau Song.”

Hukilau: a Hawaiian oasis in Japantown

Although the colorful sign on the Webster Street sidewalk under the Kinokuniya bridge reads “Hukilau,” one won’t hear the old-fashioned “Hukilau Song” in a new hangout that has become a favorite watering hole for kama‘aina (those from Hawaii) and those who just love Hawai‘i.

Hukilau Da Bar, literally tucked into the corner of Japantown’s Isuzu Restaurant, brings a Hawaiian style to San Francisco through its drinks, food, music and the “aloha spirit” – the island equivalent of Southern hospitality. In the short time since its opening April 7, the bar has developed a strong cast of regulars and is quickly establishing itself as the favorite Hawaiian hangout in the city.

Walking into the bar on any given night, one will likely notice Hukilau co-owner Al Omoto offering guests drinks with names like Gecko, Hula Girl or Hukilau Punch, and then teasing their empty stomachs with descriptions of the delicious ahi or crab poke, smoked sausage, boiled peanuts or spam musubi.

As Al goes to get the drinks and food, co-owner Kurt Osaki is seen toasting a group of aloha shirt clad young men, calling out “hundred percent!” which is his personal translation of kampai. Seeing a new group of customers enter the bar, Kurt yells out “aloha!” prompting a chorus of other patrons to also welcome the newcomers. Everyone feels at home at the Hukilau.

It’s a little after 10 o’clock in the evening and behind the bar, co-owner Eric Tao turns up the music as the crowd thins in the Isuzu Restaurant and the Hukilau’s crowd gets even heavier, but still comfortable. Eric wishes it was Thursday night, when the bar hosts Kanikapila Thursday, an evening of live ukulele and guitar music and singing by everyone in the bar.

The three co-owners, all born and reared in Hawai’i, wanted to bring the magic of the Aloha State that sometimes shows itself best when seen and felt outside of their home state. In the Hukilau, the stylish, black outfits common to other bars in the city is replaced with colorful aloha shirts, faux flowers, puka shell necklaces and sometimes even “slippahs.” One hears less conversations about careers and dot-com this-or-that and more stories about running into an old friend from Honolulu on Mission Street, or how much money someone lost at the California Hotel in Las Vegas.

So while you won’t hear “The Hukilau Song” at the bar that shares its name, one verse from that song rings true: “Everybody loves the hukilau…”

Hukilau Da Bar is located on the corner of Webster and Post.

Kyle Tatsumoto wen go Castle. Keith Kamisugi wen go Mililani. So wot?
Two Japanee Bruddahs is a monthly column in the Nichi Bei Times.