Tag Archives: hawaii

Madame Pele at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel

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. He shared this piece with me in conversation.

“The legend of Pele used to frighten me as a child. She was always seen before a volcanic eruption… someone would see her… she was very regal, tall, long flowing black hair, flaming red dress flowing behind her… she was elegant. She would appear walking somewhere… This was in 1960, what happened was the volcano did erupt and we lived on Kailua at the time, the eruption was on the big island, I forget which volcano it was, but the pumice, that’s when the lava flows on the water, anyway the pumice flows onto the beach… people use it to scrub their face, anyways people said they saw her walking through the wall in the Hawaiian Village hotel. She’s not happy about how the island is going, you know… what’s happened to the native Hawaiians and the Polynesian culture… So I was really scared of her and I used to think I would see her walking through my bedroom but I never did. So if you see her walking around, that means a volcano will erupt pretty soon. They call her the goddess, Madame Pele.”

Pele is part of Hawaiian mythology but interestingly endures in contemporary times through many sightings, sometimes as a hitchhiker, sometimes dressed in white with a white dog, and sometimes as a beautiful young woman dressed in red or as a female figure within lava itself. These contemporary iterations of Pele take the form of ghost story figures. The version T told me coincides with accounts documented on websites such as https://www.hauntedrooms.com/hawaii/haunted-places/haunted-hotels & https://frightfind.com/hilton-hawaiian-village/ and does seem to serve as a cautionary tale or lesson particularly in light of the fact that the sighting happens in a tourist hotel and that Pele is not happy about native land dispossession and the display of Polynesian culture as tourist attraction.

For more information about Pele and contemporary sightings see https://www.academia.edu/189854 & https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/people-cant-stop-seeing-pele-in-the-lava/.

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.

Maui Harnessing the Sun

Informant Context:

James has lived in many locations internationally, including Cosa Rica, Mexico, and Nepal. His family is located in Hawaii, where he will often visit during his breaks from school. He is a student in London, United Kingdom, studying fashion. 


JAMES: Obviously I am not native Hawaiian, but having spent some time there—especially now that my family lives there—um, there’s obviously a pretty rich cultural… culture of storytelling, and obviously they had their own kind of mythology and stuff. And one that always stuck with me was that on oddly enough, in the hotel that we used to say at often when we would go to Maui, there was a huge massive like—oh gosh, it must have been, it was probably like 30 feet tall, 20 feet tall and like 40 feet wide—is a massive wood carving of Maui harnessing the sun. Which comes from… obviously, Hawaiian legend and myth—of how in the early days of creation, the sun raced—was obviously a personified person, and they would drive rapidly around the earth, basically, racing around the earth and… days were so short,  that people couldn’t do anything, they couldn’t get anything done. And so, they—the people, you know, cried out to Maui their demigod savior, and said, “Can you do something—[laughs]


JAMES: —about this?”, as people tend to do of their deities and stories, and even in modern days, but that’s a lit—that’s a different issue [laughs]. Um… and yeah, so as far as I’ve been told the story, it’s—Maui climbed up to Haleakalā, which is the, uh… largest—larger of the two volcanoes on Maui, and cast out his fishing net—which is one of those ones that you like… yo—I don’t know like, the term for it, but you like, swing it out, and it like, spreads out. And he managed to catch the sun, and brought him down to earth, and was basically like “Hey!”… basically threatened him, which I feel like you shouldn’t do to like, the *sun*, but… he… basically threatened him—

INTERVIEWER: [laughs] You’re nice to the sun?

JAMES: [voice broken by laughter] You know? Like, you kind of… be polite, [or(?)], diplomatic, but—


JAMES: Anyways, I guess you can do whatever you want if you’re a demigod. And uh, yeah. But he harnessed the sun, brought him down, and basically [showed him(?)] like, “Hey! You—we need like, more… we need longer periods of light. Because otherwise, the food isn’t gonna grow, and if… we can’t just keep working at night, because you know, electricity isn’t a thing. And so, please go slower.” And then he released him, and that is where they believe the day comes from. The… uh, as far as… in its longevity, um… and its consistency, I suppose, being where they are at—near the equator. Um… but yeah! That one always stuck with me, mostly because we would just see this massive woodcarving over, um… in the foyer of this restaurant. [unintelligible] is always… like, like right in the middle of the hotel. Um… but I always… I always loved the Hawaiian myths, I suppose. I think they’re very…  mythology in general, I mean, is just fascinating…

Informant Commentary:

James has a general interest in religious folklore, especially the folklore of those places he has personally visited. He expressed a positive view of folklore in Hawaii, citing institutional efforts of preservation and respect, such as laws surrounding burial grounds and other sacred land, as well as the consistent invocation of traditional Hawaiian symbolism around government buildings and tourist areas (e.g., the statue mentioned in the transcript). When countered on this idea, James acknowledged that many of these efforts are, in his words, “performative”. 


This story is best categorized as a myth, as it is a creation story and an explanation of a natural phenomenon: the length of the days. Based solely on the narrative of the story, the myth of Maui harnessing the sun seems to reference a fundamental trust in deities to intervene on behalf of man, even capturing one of the (if not the single most) powerful natural force.


Context: The informant is my aunt and will be referred to as L.I. She is originally from Hawaii and is of Filipino descent. She grew up in Hawaii, which is where the Hula dance and its importance, but she now lives in San Diego with her husband (my uncle) and their two children.

Main Text: L.I: “No one speaks true Hawaiian anymore so the Hula is how Hawaiians communicate now, by portraying words in a visual dance form. The two main categories of Hula are Hula Auana and Hula Kahiko. The Auana is much more flowy and common now, it is usually accompanied by song, guitar, and a ukulele. Kahiko, on the other hand, is more like a slap dance like the Samoan Haka and is accompanied by chanting”.

M.M.: “Is there a reason for there being two separate forms?”

L.I.: “The Kahiko is how they communicated in ancient times and the Auana is more modern and Americanized, its a lot more accepted. The hand motions within Hula dances are used to represent the words in a song or chant. For example, the fluid hand motions in the Auana can signify nature: the swaying of a tree in the breeze or a wave in the ocean.”

Analysis: Hula dances have always been an important part of Hawaiian culture, they are performed at all Luaus and weddings. I find it interesting how the Hula dance transformed in order to be more accessible and appealing to visitors from the United States. It demonstrates how the Hawaiian islands adopted to their new identity within the United States of America. The more fluid Auana form of Hula is very recognizable within the continental United States whereas the Kahiko is not.

Pele’s Curse

Context: The informant is my aunt and will be referred to as L.I. She is originally from Hawaii and is of Filipino descent. She grew up in Hawaii but she now lives in San Diego with her husband (my uncle) and their two children.

Main Text: “A well-known myth in Hawaii is Pele’s Curse. Pele is the Goddess fo volcanoes, fire, lightning, and wind. Pele’s curse says that any visitor who takes rock or sand away from the Hawaiian islands will suffer bad luck until they are returned.”

Analysis: Nature is very important to the people of Hawaii and they take great pride in the natural beauty of their homeland. Hawaii is a very popular tourist destination and it is possible this superstition developed to prevent visitors from altering the original landscape. There are many accounts of people mailing back volcanic rocks because they were met with misfortunes like divorce, debt, and death.