Thursday, December 30, 2021

King Kalākaua Park, Waikīkī

Next up on this humble blog's ongoing public art thing is a statue of Hawaii's King David Kalākaua, located in the half-acre King Kalākaua Park at the intersection of Kalakaua & Kuhio Avenues in Waikīkī (so it's kind of a city park post too). Visiting was pretty unremarkable, so this post is basically a big messy brain dump of all the random stuff I could find about the park and statue across the interwebs.

First some vital stats and such. The statue here was created by Hawaii artist Sean K.L. Browne, commissioned in 1985, and installed somewhere around 1989-91. Browne also did Lahui in Kaka'ako, and the Kresser Memorial in downtown Honolulu, and a few other things around Oahu, and I mention those two in particular because I also have draft posts about them that I've been meaning to finish for a while. A plaque on the base of the statue proclaims it a gift from a local nonprofit on behalf of the state's Japanese-American community, as a token of thanks for inviting their ancestors to emigrate to Hawaii. Of course (jumping ahead to the fine print) the invite wasn't motivated by pure altruism; the islands' native population was rapidly dwindling at the time due to various then-untreatable Western diseases, and the resulting labor shortage was a serious inconvenience for the all-powerful sugar industry. So the king went to work recruiting replacement workers/subjects from around the globe, because the spice sugar must flow[1].

As a minor attraction in an area full of tourists, the statue has the usual Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet pages, and a Waymarking one, but (unlike most of the statues in Waikiki) it doesn't seem to have any Yelp reviews. Maybe giving the king anything less than maximum stars would count as lèse-majesté or something, I dunno. The park as a whole does have a Yelp page, unfortunately marred by a handful of single-star reviews from people who were trying to review a nearby parking garage instead. The park also has a Tripadvisor page under "Waikiki Gateway Park", its previous name from before the statue went in, which a few sources (including Google Maps) can't quite let go of. This original name was once shared with an adjacent hotel, which has since been renamed as well.

For whatever reason the state's public art website (and related interactive map) have no references to the statue, while the city only has a few passing mentions of it: It appears briefly on page 61 of an art inventory doc, including a dead link to a photo of it. It also gets a quick mention in a 2007 survey for the city's troubled, still-incomplete light rail system, as a cultural object that might be affeted if they ever get around to building out the whole rail system they had in mind back then. A much-shorter initial phase of the project is allegedly supposed to enter service in April 2022, a few short months from now, though this effort is already $8B over budget and 11 years behind schedule, so I'm not exactly holding my breath. As of right now there are no longer any firm plans to ever extend it into Waikiki, partly to save money and partly so it doesn't look like it's being built just for tourists.

I thought I'd found a Smithsonian art inventory page for the statue, at least, but it turned out to refer to a different, seated statue by different artists over in Hilo. At one point in this post's long existence as a draft post, I had found a page from a cleaning product company bragging about their "aqueous ozone" product being used to clean the statue in 2015; this post sat around in drafts long enough for the original to disappear, but the Wayback Machine had a copy, if you'd like to read more about cleaning products.

As for the surrounding park, the city parks department has nothing much to say about it; they have a pushpin for it on their comprehensive (?) Google map of all (?) parks on the island, but no further information is available from there. Meanwhile the state government has a 1991 environmental assessment around re-landscaping the park, because no project in the state is too small to require one. Apparently after the statue went in they decided the park needed to be redesigned, for whatever reason. The doc's only a couple of pages since the state quickly decided there was no nature or history there that needed preserving, and concluded that the re-landscaping was desirable and in the public interest. It does have a paragraph about what the park was like at that point:

The park site is almost level. Current landscaping improvements include a lawn, 14 coconut palms, 8 rainbow shower trees, and several hibiscus and mock orange hedges. Structural improvements include tile pavers along Kalākaua Avenue, a concrete sidewalk along Kuhio Avenue, a King Kalākaua Statue mounted on a circular concrete pad, and a concrete walkway and plaza enclosed by a low rock wall. (See Figure 3) The rainbow shower trees surround and shade the plaza. Within the center of the plaza there is a simulated volcano: Red bougainvillea within a gently sloping, circular rock mound.

I haven't been able to find any photos of this long-gone simulated volcano, unfortunately. Going by the description above it could've been anything from a clever bit of tasteful landscaping to full-on midcentury tiki cheese. It certainly wouldn't have measured up to the then-brand-spanking-new, all-singing, all-dancing volcano at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Which a lot of locals would have seen, Vegas being the "ninth island" and all. I did run across a 1971 photo of the intersection showing buildings where the park is now, and a comment on that page says the visible building was a rock club/bar in a former 1930s ice cream hut, and out of frame there was a local market in a former Piggly Wiggly building, all of which were demolished to make room for the park within a few years of the photo. (The county GIS system gives dates in the 1973-1978 range for the acquisition & bulldozing work.) And yes, there was an environmental assessment for the original park work too, though the only thing about it I can find is a September 1977 summary. I dunno, I actually kind of enjoy reading those things, and I realize I may be the only person who does.

Another photo from ~1965 shows a midcentury Japanese teahouse that once stood across the street from the park, which was demolished around 1991 to make room for a sleeker, more upscale... Japanese teahouse. Which went out of business a few years later, and the building has sat empty ever since, though I understand the parking garage is still open. I haven't found any old news articles to prove this but it sure looks like was a concerted (and largely unsuccessful) effort in the 90s to take this whole area of Waikiki upscale. Another big example of this is right on the other side of the park's once-eponymous hotel, where you'll find the long-vacant King Kalākaua Plaza building, a four-story upscale retail plaza that opened in 1998, anchored by Niketown and Banana Republic flagship stores and an Official All-Star Cafe. The latter was one of those inexplicable 90s theme restaurant chains, a genre that no longer exists outside of the Las Vegas Strip, Times Square, and the more cartoonish parts of Florida. The retailers all cratered within a few years, and the fourth floor office space was never occupied at all, and despite an endless series of grand plans for the site it's remained empty ever since. Though like the teahouse the parking garage remains open for business. Though I'm not sure how underground parking even works when your building is just 5-7 feet above -- and a few blocks north of -- sea level.

The park also got a brief mention in someone's 2002 masters thesis about 3D visualization in highway planning. It seems that the city wanted to spruce up the intersection back in 2000 and built some kind of early VR model of the area to help imagine what the proposed sprucing might look like. Confusingly the thesis says this work was for the intersection of Kalakaua and Kapiolani. Which is a completely different intersection over by the Convention Center, across the Ala Wai canal from Waikiki proper. Where (as you can see on Street View) there's a distinct lack of anything that looks remotely like a park. So either the paper got a minor fact wrong and nobody noticed until now, or there's a second "Waikiki Gateway Park" out there that only exists in virtual reality. Which -- if nothing else -- is bound to cut down on maintenance costs. Either way, it would be kind of funny to see what either intersection looks like in vintage 90s VRML, but this was long before source control became cool, so if a copy still exists it's probably moldering away on a forgotten Zip disk in someone's office junk drawer. Oh well.

Ok, so at this point I have to pivot awkwardly back to the statue, because there's one other detail I was saving for the end. There's another plaque on the base of the statue, this one noting it (as in, the base and pedestal) had been laid by local Masons, as the king had been an active and high ranking member for many years, as had several of his predecessors. As a result the local organization owns a lot of historical artifacts and occasionally lends some of them out for display, including a royal Knights Templar sword (whatever that is) that somehow ended up at Sotheby's in New York in 2003. As far as I know there are no magical powers associated with the sword, or any sort of curse or prophesy or anything, and finding it in a D&D campaign would likely be a big disappointment, and the whole business seems rather silly. But say what you will, you never get stories like this coming out of rectangular corn states, so there's that at least.

Based on the statue's highly visible location, and the plaque's subject matter, and the usual inclinations of the 21st century internet, search results about it quickly descend into tinfoil hat territory after the first few pages of search results, because internet. Note that those links all go to recent Wayback Machine captures and not the sites themselves, since I'm mentioning them here strictly for entertainment purposes and not to send them traffic or spread their ideas. So instead of spending any more time on that, please enjoy that one semi-related song from that one show:

By way of contrast, here's what it looks like when actual Masons have a go at the same song, after a drink or two, or three, or so.


The combo of sugar money and an ambitious king did lead to an interesting historical episode in 1886-87. It's not really relevant to the rest of this post but hey. Kalākaua had big plans for his country despite the ongoing medical tragedy; word had reached him of a civil war erupting in Samoa, with the opposing factions backed by competing Western colonial powers (the UK, USA, and Germany, in this case) contending for influence in the South Pacific as they'd previously done elsewhere around the world. This was an unwelcome development as Hawaii was in a similar position, trying to avoid being gobbled up by one Western country or another. Kalākaua had ambitions beyond his own shores, though, imagining an ocean-spanning Polynesian Confederation powerful enough to keep the region from being sliced and diced into a bunch of crown colonies and overseas territories and whatnot. With, naturally, himself as the overall head of state of this far-flung new nation. So the Hawaiian Royal Navy's first (and as it turned out, only) modern navy ship was dispatched to Samoa for a little gunboat diplomacy, and actually got as far as signing a confederation treaty with the kingdom's preferred local ruler, while almost going to war with Germany in the process. Meanwhile back home in Hawaii the sugar oligarchs decided Kalākaua had gotten too big for his britches and staged a coup, forcing the king to sign a new "Bayonet Constitution" that strictly limited his authority. This was sold to the world as introducing a modern constitutional monarchy, but the new constitution also altered voting rules such that rich foreigners could now vote, but at least 2/3 of local residents could not, thus ensuring a majority white male legislature for the remainder of the kingdom's existence. As a result of all this, the Samoa expedition was called home, and the ship was quickly sold and the navy disbanded. So yeah, the king's brief attempt at a more assertive foreign policy didn't really play out the way he'd hoped. Or at least not in our timeline. An alternate history forum thread I ran across explores some of the inevitable "What If?" and "If So, How?" questions.

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