Cultural melting pot in paradise

Steven Knipp

HONOLULU is a city of superlatives. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world; a sprawling, sun-filled, palm-smothered paradise of just over 800,000 people.

The climate is perfect all year round, while the people are an intriguing mixture of East and West.

In some ways, Honolulu is a typical American city, complete with McDonald's and shopping malls. Yet, in many ways, it is unlike any other place.

For one thing, it is one of the most isolated cities in the world; its nearest notable neighbours are San Francisco, 3,800 kilometres to the east; and Tokyo, 6,100 km to the west.

An indication of the cosmopolitan nature of the city can be seen in the local newspaper - the Honolulu Bulletin. It may be similar to other US newspapers, but the names of the reporters are an exotic mix: Becky Ashiziwa, Mike Tsukamoto, Bob Wojnowsicil, Tim Ryan, Bill Kwan, Harriet Gee, Corky Trinidad and Crystal Kua. Their names reflect one of the most diverse readerships in the world.

In an advertisement in the yellow pages of the local telephone directory, lawyer Khaled Mujtabaa offers legal advice with the tagline: ''I'm hard to pronounce but easy to talk to.'' Honolulu is the most Asian city in America.

Tourism is the city's major money spinner, and tourists swarm there in such vast numbers - five million every year - that they are very much part of the city's make-up and atmosphere.

Obliging bus drivers are forever giving directions to middle-aged women from the Midwest and sun-burned gentlemen from Georgia.

By far, Japanese make up the largest number of non-America visitors, and the Honolulu sales girl who cannot speak enough Japanese to sell a string of Mikimoto pearls is rare.

During daylight hours, Honolulu's famous Waikiki Beach is awash with Americans from the mainland, mostly middle-aged.

Squeezing politely between these large oiled bodies are scores of petite, milk-white Japanese secretaries slowly turning pink in the late afternoon sun.

In the early evenings, the office ladies from Tokyo, Hiroshima or Kagoshima don their new Hawaiian frocks in colours of shocking pink and mellow yellow, to stroll down Kalakaua Avenue, showing off their tans and enjoying the moist, flower-scented air.

And always, it seems, there is the faint, undeniably sweet, but slightly sad, strain of Hawaiian music wafting in the gentle sea breeze.

Honolulu must be one of the most racially mixed communities on earth.

One third of Hawaii's residents are Americans of Japanese descent. Another third are European, many descendants from the first missionaries and known locally as haoles.

And what of the original Hawaiians? When Captain James Cook discovered the islands in 1778, there were about 300,000 Hawaiians.

But, within a century, the population dwindled to fewer than 60,000 (due mainly to imported diseases).

Today, there are only 9,000 pure Hawaiians and nearly 50,000 residents who can claim to be half-native Hawaiian.

After the Japanese-Americans and the haoles, Filipino-Americans make up the largest group. Then there are the mixed Hawaiians, Chinese-Americans, black Americans, Spanish, Portuguese and Koreans.

In lesser numbers, there are other Pacific islanders from Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga, plus Indians and Vietnamese. There are even a few Eskimos.

Mixed marriages are now so much the norm that it can be unusual to see a couple of the same cultural or racial background.

The end result is a cultural melting pot unmatched anywhere in the world.