PUBLISHED IN VINTAGE LIFE MAGAZINE MAY 2014
Well ‘Hello there, Cats & Kittens!’, or should I say ‘Aloha!’? Like many other vintage-loving girls, I had often dreamed of journeying to the land of palm trees, sunshine, hula and Blue Hawaii! Although a lot has changed since Elvis walked these sandy shores, I was keen to uncover the perfectly fab, kitschy, nostalgic experiences that Hawaii still has to offer and believe me, it definitely did not disappoint!
Although some people are put off by what they see as the ‘fakeness’ of modern Waikiki, for a girl like me, who dyes her hair pink, wears false eyelashes and draws on her eyebrows, the abundance of stores selling fake flower leis, sparkling diamante flip flop key rings and pink ukuleles was not, shall we say, a problem.
I had chosen some suitably kitschy accommodation at the quirky Coconut Waikiki Hotel (which has recently had a retro style fit-out) and at the recommendation of the lovely Leonevi there, I decided to check out my first kitschy location, 88 Tees.
On arrival, I immediately fell in love with their cute, vintage inspired, cartoon characters, ‘Lulu’ and ‘Kiki’ (named after Honolulu and Waikiki), who have the adorable innocence of the Love is… comics of the 1960s, mixed with the kitsch of Hello Kitty and a pinch of Charlie Brown. ‘Lulu’ and ‘Kiki’ adorn t-shirts, jackets and other kitschy items and the 88 Tees stores are decorated with vintage robots and other pop culture goodness.
A pinup friend had recommended a Hawaiian chain of restaurants called Cheese Burger as a kitschy eating destination, and they were definitely spot on. The décor in these restaurants is fabulous, with items like schools of vintage chalkware mermaids swimming on the wall, next to giant plastic fish and shadow boxes full of ukulele playing vintage salt and pepper shakers. While piles of fake pineapples, cheeseburgers, flamingos and dashboard hula girls keep a watchful eye from the shelves above. My eye was drawn to one beauty in particular; a ceramic vintage hula girl sitting on a stump, looking down at me serenely while I ate my Chipotle Black Bean Cheeseburger. Although unfortunately Cheese Burger’s hula girl was not for sale, I decided to go on a search for one like her, and if at all possible, acquire her for my own kitschy collection of vintage ceramics.
My quest took me to downtown Honolulu, a twenty-minute bus ride from Waikiki. After a short walk, I found what can only modestly be described as the Aladdin’s cave, mother load of all things Hawaiian, collectible and truly amazeballs: a little store with a lot of treasure in it, called Tin Can Mailman. I would definitely rate this as the number one vintage location on Oahu. Here they specialise in vintage Hawaiian hula doll ‘nodders’ and Hawaiian ephemera; like travel brochures, sheet music, movie flyers and books, etc. They also carry an amazing array of other Hawaiian collectibles like clothing, posters, scent bottles, lamps and…ceramics!
Luckily the Manager, Christopher, could identify my little ceramic hula girl crush as a 1940’s gal made by DeLee Art Pottery. The one I had seen is the more common ‘stump sitter’ (who originally would have probably been one of a pair) but he actually had an even rarer DeLee girl in his store, who was the standing version of the gal I had seen at Cheese Burger. Like many of the other Hawaiian collectibles of her time, she would have been made in a factory in California and shipped to Hawaii to be sold.
Christopher also taught me how to gauge the age of the ‘nodder’ dashboard hula dolls. Apparently, it’s silk skirts from the fifties, straw skirts in the late sixties to early seventies, synthetic ‘hair’ skirts in the eighties and plastic today. “The modern ones that they make now are usually made out of a resin and their faces are very angular, sort of carved. Not as soft as the vintage girls, they tend to have the chubbier cheeks”, and these days they often end up on computer printers rather than on a dashboard. Christopher’s cat likes to play skittles with his ‘nodders’ when she sees their hula skirts fly!
Christopher also recommended the Downbeat Diner & Lounge, which is located nearby. It has a rockabilly vibe and the food was fantastic. They cater for vegetarians and vegans (as well as the meat eaters), which is often hard to find when abroad.
After being inspired by the little ‘nodders’ at Tin Can Mailman, I headed back to Waikiki to try out a little bit of hula myself! I booked in for a free hula workshop at Ohana Island Style, located upstairs in the Waikiki Beach Walk Plaza. The class is run by Germaine, who is deeply passionate about Hawaiian culture.
After learning some hula basics, we were taught some choreography for the song Ku`u Hoa (My Companion), written by Francis Keali`inohopono Beamer for his wife Louise in 1937. Be still my heart; we were dancing to authentic, vintage hula music! After the class, out of curiosity, I asked Germaine why her skirt (a Pa’u) was made of fabric and not the traditional grass I had expected. She told me that the Pa’u skirt is actually a very traditional garment (there are many rules including how it is made, worn and even put on - only over the head, and it must never touch the ground). The Pa’u skirt is generally the garment of choice for hula today. The grass skirts are still worn occasionally but they now represent ancient hula because they are made using the materials that would have been available at that time. As well as hula classes, the store also stocks beautiful, genuinely Hawaiian made goods, produced by hand by local artists.
Next on my kitschy list was the ukulele, which actually originated in Portugal! Portuguese immigrants brought the similar ‘machete’ with them to Hawaii and the ukulele is the Hawaiian reinterpretation. At Ukulele PuaPua, they offer free lessons to try out this classic Hawaiian experience and they will even loan you a ukulele for the class free of charge. As a bonus you can also check out their extremely rare vintage ukuleles they have on display, including one adorned with vintage hula girl transfers!
Last but not least on my list was Hanauma Bay, the iconic location for many of the scenes in the Elvis film Blue Hawaii (along with Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head and Mount Tantalus). These days Hanauma Bay is a popular snorkelling location and you can hire equipment and lockers at very reasonable prices. If you do head out there I would recommend paying the $22 for a dedicated shuttle as unfortunately I had to miss the last public bus due to overcrowding, and had to hoof it back to the next bus stop on foot (in diamante flip flops, no less!), but the scenery and sea life at Hanauma Bay was definitely worth the visit.
On my final day in Waikiki I headed back to take one last class of hula with Germaine. To my surprise, at the end of the class, with a peck on the cheek and an “Aloha”, she presented me with my very own fresh flower lei. It was a truly unexpected and lovely gesture reminding me that the wonderful warm spirit of Hawaii is definitely still alive and strong today, and can be found by even the kitschiest of girls, somewhere over the plastic rainbow.
Kitty’s Kitschy Hawaiian Check List
Coconut Waikiki Hotel
450 Lewers St,
+1 808 923 8828
2168 Kalakaua Ave #2
and 2310 Kuhio Ave #1B
and Beach Walk Plaza, Waikiki
Tin Can Mailman
1026 Nu'uanu Ave
+1 808 524 3009
42 N Hotel St
+1 808 533 2328
Ohana Island Style
(Hula Workshops every Tuesday at 3pm and Friday at 4pm)
Waikiki Beach Walk Plaza
226 Lewers St
+1 808 923 3377
(Free lessons every day at 10am)
2365 Kalakaua Ave
+1 808 924 2266