Tag Archives: Chinaman's Hat

The Chinaman’s Hat

T is 70 years old. He is a retired teacher. He was born in Southern California and raised in Hawaii. He was 7 years old when his family moved there in 1959. He is very animated and speaks very quickly. As he explains in the piece, he likes it because his father worked for a tour company on Oahu and it is one of the stories he remembers the tour guides telling tourists. He told it to me in conversation.

“It was one of the small islands, Oahu, where we lived… but um… one thing dad was, was he worked for Trade Wind Tours and because… we didn’t have a lot of money but we did go on a lot of tours, so we went on bus tours… like Pearl Harbor tours… there was one called Circle Island Tours… it was boring but they had free food, so… The tour guides would tell stories and one was the legend of the Chinaman’s hat. There’s a Hawaiian name for the island but I don’t remember… but people call it Chinaman’s hat. What the legend is, is that there was an evil Chinese giant that ruled over the menehunes… they were like elves or leprechauns, and he ruled over them and was mean and the menehunes got together with Pele who was the goddess of the volcanoes… she was not a happy woman… anyway she got together with them and the Chinaman liked to eat turtles, so there’s an island across the way and they tricked him into going out into the ocean and it was further away and deeper than the Chinaman could swim, so he sank and drowned. Anyway his hat is still there sticking out of the water.”

There is an island off Oahu that is known as the Chinaman’s hat. The island’s name in Hawaiian is Mokoli’i. According to www.haaiian-culture-stories.com/chinamans-hat.html, “Pele’s sister, Hi’iaka, slew a giant lizard and threw its tail into the ocean… the island of Mokoli’i remains a remnant of the lizard’s back, poking through the water.” The same site references a 1983 painting by artist Dean Howell showing a cross section of the island and the Chinese giant below the ocean. A google search revealed Dean Howell was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and studied art at Brigham Young University in Hawaii. He also have published a book called The Story of the Chinaman’s Hat in 1990. A 2007 article published in Pacific Business News https://www.bizjournals.com/pacific/stories/2007/05/07/story9.html cites a failed resolution to discourage the use of “Chinaman’s Hat” to refer to Mokoli’i which means “little lizard” in Hawaiian according to https://www.to-hawaii.com/oahu/attractions/chinamanshat.php.

Menehune are a mythological race of diminutive people who live in the forest and stay hidden, coming out at night to build temples, roads, houses, etc. According to Wikipedia, Folklorist Katharine Luomala posits that “the Menehune are a post-European contact mythology created by adaptation of the term manahune (which by the time of the colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by Europeans had acquired a meaning of “lowly people” or “low social status” and not diminutive in stature) to European legends of brownies.” Brownies being household spirits of Scottish folklore. So it’s interesting that T recalled the Menehune as elves or leprechauns.

The story T remembers hearing tour guides tell illustrates the history of colonialism, Asian labor migration, and touristic exploitation in Hawaii. Efforts to discourage the use of “Chinaman’s Hat” in favor of the Hawaiian name Moloki’i, show the role and power of folklore in terms of national identity and culture. The elements that make up the story show the complexity of folklore as a living tradition that can resist easy definition as well as how fakelore (assuming the tour guides simply made up the story for tourists) can become disseminated and accepted.