Coast Haole

In a paper entitled “My Conception of the Haole,” F.T. describe her experiences interacting with Whites. Having grown up in a “Japanese camp” in the Pālama district of Honolulu, for most of her childhood she had no face-to-face contact with Haoles. With the exception of an “old-maid” and a Jewish peddler who walked the streets of her neighborhood, she says that her contacts with Haoles were limited to the stories told about them by her female relatives who worked as domestic laborers. Her impression of Haoles as distant, wealthy people whom she admired and envied was reinforced by how they lived – lavish parties, beautiful clothes, and fine household items like china and silverware. The Haole families, her relatives reported, treated the maids fairly, paying them over time and allowing them to go home on the weekends. (This was in contrast to the middle class Japanese families who expected too much and treated the women like slaves.) F.T. described with relish visiting the home of a Haole family who had a large yard with mango trees.

“To me this house in Manoa was like a ‘mansion on the hill.’ I had heard about the huge house, the sprawling lawn with many, many mango trees of rare varieties, so I awaited the visit with eagerness. When we got there we practically went wild over the luscious mangoes that hung close to the ground. And what a thrill it was for us kids to run all over the spacious lawn climbing trees and examining everything. Palama was never like this!” (F. T., “My Conception of the Haole” Lind Student Papers, Untitled Folder #10)

All of this changed with the war, which brought her into daily contact with Haoles for the first time. She worked in an office job that employed both civilian and military personnel.

“They represented a mixture of ‘white bloods’ and they came from all strata of life – the rich haoles the poor haoles, the Jews and Gentiles, the Southerners and “Damn Yankees,” the lawyers and office clerks – all thrown into the same environment and working together with Oriental and Haole women.”

This experience, she says, opened her eyes and gave her a realistic picture of the diversity of Whites. She was shocked to discover that some Haoles were poor and “struggled to make a living.”

“The provincialism of some of the boys who came from obscure unheard of communities surprised even a ‘small towner’ like myself. … [A]fter several years of daily face-to-face association with Haole men, my idealized conception of the Haole was somewhat shattered, and I gradually began to view the Haoles in more realistic terms. I came to realize that the Haole was not of a superior race after all.”

F.T.’s experience was typical of how most locals interacted with the Haole ruling class of Hawai‘i. Although they never represented more than 15 per cent of the population of the Territory, Haoles dominated the local political economy.  Social contacts were limited; locals interacted with Haoles as subordinates, and children like F.T. regarded them as mysterious.   But F.T.’s experience also represents a shift in how locals learned to perceive what it meant to be White.  Through her interaction with mainland Haoles – her teacher and the people she worked among during the war – she came to see them as ordinary, her equals – perhaps even inferior to her in terms of education.

During the interwar years, Hawai‘i attracted a sizable number of middle and working class Whites, an indication of the degree to which Hawai‘i was being drawn into the political, economic, and military orbit of the United States. A small number of middle class women were drawn to Hawai‘i as teachers in the growing Territorial public education system. A larger number of working class men were attracted by high paying jobs in the defense industries.  Their presence was not large enough to significantly shift pre-existing racial dynamics of local society but they put cracks in the façade of local perceptions of the meaning and significance of Whiteness.   They were a new class of Haoles, who had access to racial privileges accorded to all Whites but none of the prestige, wealth, or status.

“Coast Haole” was an appellation applied to White migrants who began arriving in Hawai‘i in the years preceding World War II. Many Whites – from North America, Great Britain, and Europe – were employed by the plantations in skilled trades and management. But coast Haole usually referred to those who came to the Territory to take jobs as teachers, doctors, and other professional and semi-professional positions. This was no mass migration; coast Haoles trickled in in fits and starts, in numbers too low to draw attention to them as a distinct or separate class.  But the RASRL writers noted their presence and recorded their impressions and the reaction of their neighbors and friends.


Mid-Pacific Magazine, August 1930 pg 134

Helen Pratt, “Education in Hawaii” Mid-Pacific Magazine, August 1930 pg 134

Teachers are an example of this early wave of coast Haole migrants. Teachers were recruited to fill positions that, in the estimation of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), could not (or should not) be filled by locally trained men and women. The DPI implemented a plan to professionalize teaching by demanding more credentials for teachers. Prior to the 1930s, men and women who wished to teach in public schools attended the Normal Training School after completing the primary grades.  This enabled them to teach in grade schools after earning what was the equivalent of a high school diploma.  But the expanded curriculum demanded teachers who were college educated and had more rigorous professional training. When the 1920 Survey of Education in Hawai‘i asserted that “…of the approximately 400 prospective teachers in the Territorial Normal school, 90% had failed to master the English Language …” local educators began a campaign to elevate the standards for teacher training, eventually leading to its absorption into the University of Hawai‘i as the Teacher’s College (D.K Hyams, “School Teachers as Agents of Cultural Imperialism” Journal of Pacific History 20:4 (October1985), p. 206).

There was also a persistent anxiety over the lack of White teachers in the Territory. In spite of the fact that DPI reports show that Whites dominated the teaching profession (between 40 and 50 percent), a 1924 report sounded an alarming note about the “troubled melting pot” of racial diversity in Hawai‘i: “The Department of Public Instruction of this Territory faces a big race problem not only among the school children of the Territory but of the teaching staff as well, as is shown by the following figures.” What the figures showed is that only 29 percent of the 1,566 teachers in Hawai’i were “Anglo-Saxon.”  However, adding German, English, Scottish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and other teachers from Europe to the total, the Territory’s teaching staff was 44 percent White. The statement reflects several fears; ordinary racial anxiety, concern that the school system would become “provincial,” a presumption that only White American teachers could model American democratic principles, and alarm that middle class Whites would abandon local public schools and send their children to one of Hawaii’s many private schools (Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction June 30, 1924).

The DPI recruited White teachers from the continent but they also received thousands of unsolicited requests for information about job openings.  In a single year, the department received nearly 4,000 letters of interest or requests for information, sent out 2,250 applications and rejected 43 percent of the applicants. Seventy-six were hired (Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to the Governor, August 20, 1927.)   Many women  – often referred to as “teacher tourists” – saw the job as a chance for a free trip to Hawai‘i.  Still others thought of it as an adventure:  “You had to have a lot of courage to come. You were far away. My friends thought I was crazy to go out there – why they’d never heard of this place” (Virginia McBride, “Public Education in Hawai‘i Vol. 1” Center for Oral History, Social Science Research Center, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, September 1991, p. 336).

The turnover rate was high.  New teachers were seldom assigned to schools in Honolulu.  Instead they found themselves working in rural plantation towns without a beach or palm tree in sight.  In the 1928-29 school year, of the 102 new teachers hired from the continent, only six planned to return for the following school year (Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to the Governor,  June 30, 1927).

Coast Haole teachers faced culture shock.  Like most Americans, they had little working knowledge of Hawai‘i.  Even those who had relatives or friends in Hawai‘i were suddenly in the extraordinary position of being a racial minority who were not accorded the type of deference they might have expected.  In rural schools, they were outsiders who were sometimes isolated from the local community because of their inability to speak to the parents of their pupils.

Teachers' Cottages were provided by the Department of Public Instruction in rural districts Source: "Teachers' Cottages in Hawaii" V. MacCaughy, Journal of the National Education Association, October 1922

Teachers’ Cottages were provided by the Department of Public Instruction in rural districts
 V. MacCaughy, “Teachers’ Cottages in Hawaii”  Journal of the National Education Association, October 1922

Isolated from social contact of almost any type naturally affects attitudes. Many mainland teachers, accustomed to being an active member of the community, soon discover their “community” is the school campus ONLY. Disciplinary problems are solved by Japanese, Filipino, or pidgin-speaking faculty members or office secretaries who, partially due to transportation limitations go to students’ homes. Efforts of the teacher to become better acquainted with the family problems are met with suspicion or resentment by the same school personnel. On May Day or other special occasions when parents do visit the school their children seldom introduce them to haole teachers. After all, teacher [sic] cannot even guess at the meaning of Japanese greetings and cannot or will not reply in pidgin (Zonita Owens, “Teen-Agers in “Upstate” Oahu,” RASRL Student Papers Box A-7 Folder 11).

F.T.’s surprise at the diversity of the Whites she encountered during the War is an indication of how deeply entrenched racial stereotypes shaped the experiences of locals.  “Many others were wonderful fellows, but after several years of daily face-to-face association with Haole men, my idealized conception of the Haole was somewhat shattered, and I gradually began to view the Haoles in more realistic terms. I came to realize that the Haole was not of a superior race after all”  (F.T., “My Conception of the Haole.”  Lind Student Papers, Untitled Folder # 10).

Defense Workers


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 24, 1940 

The civilian defense workers who swelled Hawaii‘s population were hired by private contractors who were building military bases throughout the territory. Pearl Harbor was the most prominent and well funded. Having secured the rights to the land from Kalākaua under the terms of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1887, the US Navy began to dredge the harbor in 1902 in preparation for the building of a dry dock and shipyard and a base to house Navy personnel. The importance of the project is indicated by the amount of money spent: $400,000 to dredge the channel to Pearl Harbor in 1908; $300,000 for a machine shop, another $400,000 for ancillary and support facilities.   When the dry dock was destroyed in 1913 due to a mysterious accident, the project began again with an equally ambitious series of budget allocations from Congress – another $5 million in 1915 just to rebuild the dry dock. The shipyard and other facilities were equally well funded throughout the 1910s and 1920s (Aaron Duffey, “Birth of a Shipyard,” and Gary Fry, “Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard: The Interwar Years 1919-1941” in  A Century of Strength, Spirit and Technology: Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, Hawai‘i Pacific University Military Campus Program.)

The near constant construction required a steady stream of workers. Military contractors were constantly recruiting skilled workers from the continent. These workers signed short term contracts with the opportunity to return home after their work was finished. Like the teachers, many contract workers signed on to work in Hawai‘i for the novelty or the chance for adventure, but for the vast majority, the pay was the most attractive feature. For some, Hawai‘i was a place of economic refuge from the vicissitudes of the industrial and agricultural economies, especially during the Depression.

It is difficult to ascertain the number of defense workers in Hawai‘i before the war.  The military did periodic censuses of enlisted men and officers, but defense workers were civilians who most often worked for private contractors, not the federal government. Defense workers were not distinguished from the rest of the population in the decennial census or reports of the Board of Health or other local offices and agencies.  Therefore any attempt to measure the precise number of war workers before the war is likely to be wide of the mark. However, since most of the defense work was being done on O‘ahu, the growth of the population in Honolulu and Honolulu County provide an impression.   Romanzo Adams measured the population growth of the City of Honolulu and on O‘ahu between 1930 and 1940. He concluded: “The natural rate of gain of the Caucasian for the decade was 11%, but this was supplemented by migrants from the US mainland so that the actual rate of gain has been highest of all, about 40%” (Romanzo Adams, “A Decade of Population Growth” Social Process in Hawaii 1940, p. 60).

Defense contractors found that the best workers were those who were unmarried or had no dependents because they could be induced to stay longer and were unlikely to become homesick or discontent.

Many … were rough individuals who enjoyed their gambling, liquor, and loose women. Contractors found, indeed, that the quiet steady family man with strong home ties was a poorer risk as a Pacific war worker than the tough independent man who was accustomed to construction camp life in remote parts of the world.   Men who had knocked around in Alaska, Arabia, South America, and Africa converged on Hawaii for a new experience. So did teenagers who had never before been more than a few miles from home.” (Gwenfread Allen, Hawaii’s War Years, p. 233).

Defense workers who crowded into the city put a strain on the housing market. Honolulu was a relatively small city with housing stock that was old and substandard. Tenements built in “slum” districts such as Tin Can Alley or Chinatown were barely adequate for the poorest residents of Hawai’i. Single people who arrived in Hawai‘i lived with friends or relatives or rented rooms in boarding houses.  Defense workers were paid well, but the demand for housing was so severe that landlords were free to charge whatever the market would bear.


From “Hawaii Homefront: Life in the Islands During World War II”

Rent … is … from $90 to $150. Not necessarily in a so-called ‘exclusive’ district. If they wish to continue to live up to the standard they could afford in pre-boom times, their rent is up at least 50 per cent; in many cases 100 per cent (“The Man Behind the Man Behind the Gun,” Hawai’i: A Magazine of News and Comment, October 13, 1941).

Clarence Hodges who had a regular column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin about defense workers decried the conditions of rental properties. In addition to the inflated prices, “…[m]any of the homes rented to defense workers have been remodeled to accommodate three or more families. Servant quarters, garages, and even woodsheds have been made into so called “studio apartments” and are to be had at $40 to $50 per month” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 21, 1941).  As the housing problem became more acute, the Navy called on local citizens for aid. The Tourist Bureau was enlisted to help find housing for the workers: “The Hawaii Tourist bureau is cooperating with the navy in preparing for housing the contingent by listing other available rooming facilities it was disclosed. The tourist bureau has requested that persons having rooms for rent list them at the bureau offices. Naval authorities said they were not informed as to the exact number of workers coming here in the group nor their classifications” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Oct 24 1940).

When they were asked, defense workers were not shy about voicing their complaints about life on “the Rock.” They were homesick,  impatiently waiting for mail that took weeks to be delivered. They were often dismayed when Hawai’i did not live up to their fantasies There were no “hula-hula” girls eager to entertain them. Pearl Harbor and other military installations were miles from Waikīkī and without a car, it was difficult and expensive to travel much beyond the confines of Honolulu. Honolulu itself was small and, in the eyes of those who had come from New York, Chicago, or other large American cities, provincial. They were discomfited by local culture, which was an unfamiliar combination of Asian and Hawaiian, cloaked by a thin veil of American tropes and traditions. The food was particularly unsettling, alien and not satisfying to those who were used to a diet of meat and potatoes, not rice and fish. There was little entertainment beyond bars and a few movie theaters, many of them showing Japanese films. Some defense workers used to a more wholesome life had difficulty socializing in the local Haole community because they felt uncomfortable or un-welcomed. Until the YMCA opened a branch that catered to them, there were few places for them to socialize.

Defense workers had a poor reputation, disparaged as uneducated “white trash.”   Locals saw them as slovenly and loud.  They were unaware of local customs and sometimes contemptuous of local people who failed to show them the deference White Americans thought they were due.  The contrast between these men and local Haoles could not have been more stark:

But the war brought about a change in their concept of haole.  Now the local boys were thrown in increasing contacts with mainland Caucasians who in the main were migrant defense workers from the lower socio-economic hierarchy on the mainland.  The non white residents, perhaps for the first time saw Okies, Arkies and others who were slovenly in appearance, who were ignorant and who knew hardly anything regarding the trade they were in.  Here they no longer saw the impeccably dressed boss, field luna, or superintendent but a [sic] rather slovenly ill-kempt white trash. … In the final analysis, the problem here in the island regarding race relations between whites-nonwhite is not purely due to biological difference but is cultural and economic in nature”  (D.O., “Racial Stereotypes in Hawai‘i Student Papers Box A-4).

Encountering this new class of Haole, men and women who were so distinct from the local ruling class, clearly had an affect on the RASRL writers and other members of their generation.  Those who went off to war also reported on how their experience with White Americans changed their racial views, sometimes for the better.  Some were welcomed into the homes of White families around the various bases where members of the all-Nisei regiments were trained.  But back on the home front, these encounters were fraught with resentment and a dawning awareness of the way race, power and class shaped their lives.

Please visit our companion website Local Citing where we feature several community studies form the RASRL Collection in the Mapping the Territory exhibit.

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