Tag Archives: Menehune

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.

The Menehune Men – Hawaiian Folklore

Main Piece:

Subject: In Oahu there’s the Pali Road- or the Pali lookout- and I don’t know the specifics. But when King Kamehameha was unifying all the islands of Hawaii, one of the battles took place on this Pali lookout. So it’s known for this gruesome rich history. Along that road- I’m not sure what the relation is- but there’s folklore of “menehune” which are little tiki men. It’s been popularized and like… put everywhere… so they’re kind of ridiculous when you see photos of them. But… it’s like the lore of little menehune. If you’re driving to Pali lookout and you’re taking the drive on Pali Road… If you have red meat in the car, you have to throw it out of the car as an offering to the menehune or else your car is going to break down. And there was never any follow up to what the menehune would do to you but it was terrifying as a kid if we had red meat.

Interviewer: Who told you that?

Subject: My dad. So the menehune men, you always have to look out for on Pali Road or they’d stop your car.

Context: The subject is a Sophomore at studying Law, History, and Culture at USC. She is of Japanese and Ashkenazi descent, and a third generation resident of Hawaii.  She is a very close friend of mine, and is currently quarantined at her home in Irvine due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The following conversation happened over a facetime call when I asked her to tell me some traditional folklore connected to her heritage. 

Interpretation: I have seen how commercialized and popularized the tiki man has become, so it was interesting to hear the culture significance of the symbol. Upon more research, I found that Menehune men reside in the depths of the forest in Hawaii. They are said to be excellent builders, and Hawaiian myth suggests that they were responsible for building the Alekeko Fishpond in one night more than a thousand years ago. This legend was also interesting to me because it had the modern element of the car breaking down in. It makes sense this particular legend was so scary to the subject, because there is something specifically terrifying about beings hidden in a forests, lurking and waiting.


Context: This legend was performed in an apartment to an audience of 3 people.

Background: The informant is from Hawaii, where this is a common legend.

“Menehune are mischievous little creatures who will go around and steal objects. If something goes missing in Hawaii, we’ll blame it on the Menehune. “

This legend probably is a convenient excuse for those who easily lose things.

Hawaiian Folk Belief/Legend Menehune

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My mother’s mother’s mother and even from before her are from Hawaii but some England roots are interjected into the bloodline as well. My mother’s father’s father’s father hails half from Hawaii and the other half from China and Portugal. But what is funny about most Hawaiians, is that they are not only Hawaiian. They are also Caucasian, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino, Samoan, Japanese, Korean, e.t.c…….Plantation workers were brought in to work the sugar and pineapple fields and they brought their culture with them.


From when I was a little girl, we were taught about Menehune. They are little talented craftsmen,  Hawaiian people who help build things to bless others when no one is looking. When the good deed was done and the giver wasn’t pointed out or identified, we would hear our grandparents suggest that the Menehune did it. 🙂

Piece Background Information:

Informant already mentioned within their piece that she learned of the Menehune through her grandparents when she was a young kid.


Context of Performance:

Via email.

Thoughts on Piece: 
The Menehune seem to be another variation of other magical creatures in the folklore of other cultures such as Ireland’s leprechauns. There are many different origin stories behind the Menehune, but at the end of the day, the Menehune seem to be used or invoked as a solution to unknown phenomena. This is very interesting and explains why tales of the Menehune are still alive today though they date back so far- parents, grandparents, etc. pass it on to their children.