Book Review: How California Appropriated Hawaiian Beach Culture

By David Daniel

California beach culture didn’t spring full blown from the ocean riding a longboard, but the closest you will come to a founding figure is the legendary native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku.

Waikīkī Dreams: How California Appropriated Hawaiian Beach Culture by Patrick Moser. University of Illinois Press. 320 pages; with photographs. Hardcover $125; softcover $27.95.

“If everybody had an ocean/ across the USA/ then everybody’d be surfing/ like Californ-i-a….”  Namechecking a dozen surf spots, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” could well be Exhibit A in the case Patrick Moser makes in his book Waikīkī Dreams. His premise is that the origin of California beach life was “essentially colonial in nature: appropriating the tradition of indigenous people in a way that cast them as extras in their own cultural production.”

It’s a hard assertion to refute. The crux of it — that surfing came originally from the South Pacific islands — is undeniable. In the 1780s Capt. James Cook reported seeing Polynesians wave riding, and there is evidence that the practice began far earlier. From its misty origins to its vibrant global present, surf culture is an expansive subject. Moser rightly confines his scope to the span of early and middle decades of the last century in the US, before Hawaii even became a state.

Tourism in Hawaii was vigorous in the ’20s and ’30s. Waikiki was a sought-after playground for the rich and famous, including many in the Hollywood film industry, who brought back a passion for its culture. Films, pop fictions, travelogues, music, and fashion spun an idealized version of the islands, evoking, as the paintings of Gauguin once had done for Tahiti, a lost paradise. Ensuing years saw Californians enthusiastically embrace a pleasure-seeking, leisure-oriented mentality. West Coasters were “as comfortable at the beach as they were on roller skates or bicycles [and their] ease in the waves built the foundation for an emerging lifestyle that the rest of the nation wanted to emulate.” California beach culture didn’t spring full blown from the ocean riding a longboard, but the closest you will come to a founding figure is the legendary native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku.

Tall, rugged, elegantly handsome, and athletic, Duke medaled for swimming in three Olympics, including Paris 1924. In June of 1925, he was surfing big waves at Corona del Mar when he spied a 40-foot day-charter fishing boat foundering in heavy seas. 16 passengers were tossed into the sea. 12 of them were fortunate: Kahanamoku and some fellow surfers were nearby and rescued them. When the press sought Duke out for his heroics in this feat, he deferred any praise to mere good timing. On top of all of his many other attributes, the man was humble.

Duke became an early, and very prominent, influencer, along with a small cast of men and women whom Moser singles out for their contributions. Geography helped: with the coast’s miles of shoreline and surf, drownings were a frequent occurrence. Over time this led to a system of professional lifeguards, most of whom were surfers. Paddleboarding and surfing spread from coastal lifeguards to the general population.

The expansion of Southern California surfing and beach culture, influenced by Kahanamoku, continued into the ’30s as the region’s population grew, and the area transformed into a manufacturing center with aircraft construction, real estate development, agriculture, the motion picture industry, and oil production. In one panoramic photo Venice Beach bristles with a forest of oil derricks right to the waterline. In tandem with all this was the making and selling of surfboards, lifesaving gear, music, fashion, sun lotion, tiki culture, car culture, and more.

Waikīkī Dreams chronicles the roles played by Duke and other native Hawaiians as it tells a nuanced account of cultural appropriation and racism. Moser argues that the area grew via “settler colonialism,” an ongoing process whereby transplants remove and replace indigenous peoples. Symptomatic of this strategy is the taking of cultural knowledge and traditions (in this instance Native Hawaiian surfing), reducing them to stereotypes (the Waikīkī beach boy, Hawaiian hula girls), and infusing this faux mixture back into the indigenous population, an invidious process that “ultimately seeks the replacement of natives themselves.”

Welcome E Hula Mau 2019! A photo that celebrates 25 Years of Hawaiian Culture in Southern California. Photo: Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center

Undergoing the same paroxysms as the rest of America, Southern California beach culture restricted women and minorities from full participation. Exclusive private beach clubs were organized, setting up “a bastion of whiteness.” Accommodations were sometimes made for native Hawaiians, but this didn’t mitigate the cavalier way many of them were treated. It’s painful to consider that the universally beloved Kahanamoku was consigned to playing backup while younger white men like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe (swimmers who idolized Duke and, like him, were Olympians), landed the starring film roles. The more versatile but darker-skinned Duke settled for the parts he could get.

For surfers, getting from beach to beach required mobility, so the activity expanded with the spread of state and federal highway systems. It got a further boost from coastal land marketing ventures, some featuring skilled surfers giving wave-riding exhibitions to attract potential real estate buyers. When people had time and money the beach became an appealing place to spend both. By the ’40s beach culture in the Golden State was well established. More than a century of marketing the California lifestyle — sunshine, trim bodies, waves, cars, sex, even the fabled hang-loose vibe — might be sourced from Duke, whom Moser singles out as “lending his knowledge, skill, and relaxed demeanor to a young generation of Southern Californians to imitate and master.”

A photo of Duke Kahanamoku catching a wave in Waikiki. (1910). Photo: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

From its start, California has been a great incubator of ideas and products, and it could be argued that “appropriation” is a natural element of fluid systems. Much of what became “California,” from oil drilling technology and aircraft assembly to filmmaking, arrived “from away.” (Even Dick Dale, legendary King of the Surf Guitar, was a Lebanese-American dude named Richard Monsour from Quincy, Massachusetts) But Waikīkī Dreams is persuasive when it probes the dark side of cultural appropriation. Part of the University of Illinois Press Sport and Society series, the volume is a work of scholarship, with chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and period photographs. Moser marshals an impressive range of historical data to make his case, and it resonates.

That said, keeping four decades of history in focus and flowing along is a labor-heavy task. At times the narrative slows as lanes of information merge. At other points, however, Moser is like a thrill-happy kid taking the family station wagon out for a spin on the PCH. When he introduces the jaundiced underside of the California dream, from the gritty crime stories of James M. Cain and the noir film classics they inspired (think Joan Crawford and Lana Turner) to the neo-noir surf novels of Kem Nunn, the energy of the writing becomes positively rip-curling.

The earliest surfboards, from the days when Capt. Cook first glimpsed people riding waves, were fashioned from solid planks of wood 15-feet-long and more, weighing upwards of 100 pounds. The board builders were called Kahunas. In Waikīkī Dreams, Moser, like those ancient crafters, has created a board that’s well worth riding.

David Daniel’s writing has appeared in Surfer magazine and the Boston Globe. His 2004 mystery novel Goofy Foot uses a surfing backdrop. His most recent book is Beach Town, a collection of stories set on Boston’s South Shore, where he grew up and learned the joy of waves.

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