Maunalaha, a Study of an Urban Hawaiian Community


The information contained here has been the product of six months study of an isolated Hawaiian community in the Makiki Valley called Maunalaha. I have gained the information first hand by intimately associating with [the residents] and having the good fortune of being accepted as one of them. The members of the community were not aware that I was studying them; hence they expressed themselves freely (Folder 15: Student Journals 439-444, Soc 200, Fall 1942).

This paper is unique among other community studies in the RASRL Collection for two reasons. First, it focuses on a Hawaiian community in an urban area of Honolulu, a rarity in the Collection. Secondly, the writer, G.T. (UHSj-444-I) was not a member of the community. Occasionally a writer would gain access to a community through a family member or friend. But most often writers were residents or former residents of the community and a member of the ethnic group on which the study focused. G.T. not only was an outsider but ethnically Japanese.

Maunalaha’s location and history

About three miles from the University of Hawai‘i campus, the Maunalaha “… community makes a significant object of study because of its homogeneous inhabitants and its isolated nature which makes the ecological study of the community less complex.”

map of Maunlaha from 2018 rpt

G.T. did not include a map with his community study when he completed this project, likely in 1944. But the 2018 tax map key above shows a community that would seem to be hidden in plain sight. A couple of miles from Papakōlea homesteads and not far from the Makiki Pumping Station , Maunalaha is accessible via Round Top Drive and nestled in a watershed and forest reserve area.

Here, 28 families, most of Hawaiian ancestry reside. The earliest settlers moved into the valley sometime in 1900, cleared the land, and lived on a subsistence level.

In October 1913, by proclamation of the Governor, the valley was declared a forest reserve, which meant that the land could not be leased or sold.   According to G.T.’s research into the Territorial Board of Forestry Records, Mary Duchalsky petitioned the Commissioner of Public Lands to be allowed to purchase one acre in the area in June 1917. The purchase was not granted, but in 1922 settlers were issued permits that were renewed annually until 1931 when that practice was “discontinued and the members of the community were more or less left to themselves.”

Maunalaha existed in a state of limbo: no additional permits were to be granted; no construction or alterations to the buildings were allowed. The government’s plan was to wait out the residents. In a March 1930 memorandum, Mr. Crosbey, Acting Territorial Forester, wrote that the Forestry Division wished to remove the residents, who were referred to as “squatters.” Crosbey went on to say that in spite of government’s right to remove residents from Maunalaha, “no ejectments are contemplated, the plan being to not re-issue permits as they are vacated by the present holders and thus gradually re-acquire the land.” He also noted that the removal of “squatters was not possible because of ‘politics’, and the tendency of the press to defend the squatters…” He concluded that it was better to wait: “the community faces extinction within the next fifty years with the passing away of the present permit holders.”

The residents

At the time of G.T.’s study, Maunalaha had twenty-eight homes with a population of 138. The community had a Latter Day Saints (Mormon) church and a grocery store, owned by an enterprising family who also sold fruit and lei in Waikīkī and poi in the A‘ala section of Honolulu. G.T. described the houses of Maunalaha as well constructed, and although individual families erected fences around their lots, residents easily passed through one another’s yards.

 “Mrs. Mary Pukui, translator at the Bishop Museum, who is acquainted with the people of Maunalaha, said, ‘The people of Makiki Valley have always been good workers.’” At the time of the study, every adult man was employed, most of them working for the City & County in the road maintenance division. When G.T. inquired why men didn’t seek out the higher paying defense jobs, one remarked:

No use making so much money sweating our pants off at Pearl Harbor because we going to spend everything we make on drinks – and when the War pau no more job and we starve. We better off we stick to City & County because we always got a job until we kick off.



Honolulu Advertiser, 1/30/42, p. 6

During the war years the women of Maunalaha were holding down defense jobs or making camouflage netting. Before the war, it had been common for the women to make lei with the abundant plumeria from their yards. Still, the business of lei making was seen as a “necessary evil.” One woman stated:

It’s no fun make yourself low down and sell leis. You smile at haoles and say “buy a pretty carnation – only 50¢” or “Leis, two for a dollar – come on mister, how about a lei?” Before I feel burn up because I gotta act like a beggar, but we gotta eat you know.

 The booming wartime economy allowed families to purchase modern, time-saving items, such as electric stoves and refrigerators and for their entertainment, radios and pianos. The more prosperous families owned autos and washing machines. G.T. noted that even with two incomes, families without exception chose to spend money on food “luxuries.”   During the war, poi was scarce and more expensive but Maunalaha families were eating poi almost daily and serving Chinese roast pork and choicer cuts of beef for their evening meals. The writer noted, with some surprise, that the women chose not to spend money on clothes and jewelry.

The juvenile informants

I was able to reach the different families by first establishing friendship with the children who readily took me to their homes.

Children comprised the largest group among the residents, and G.T. spent considerable time interacting with and observing the boys of Maunalaha. He reported that the boys formed into three gangs, delineated by age: six to nine, ten to fourteen, and fifteen to eighteen. The older boys set the dress standard: “choked bottom trousers, shirt tails hanging out, heavy work shoes or boots.”

The control the gang has over the individual members takes the place of parental control. The code of the gang has not been drafted by any one individual but rather has grown spontaneously out of the gang itself. There is no definite leader whom all the members look up to. … No member, however physically strong he may be, has any incentive to lord over or intimidate the other members of the gang. Sharing whatever he may own with the other members of the gang is the first thing the neophyte must learn. If he is not disposed to sharing what he has, he is immediately branded a “manini” (miser) and automatically becomes a despised individual.

The older boys maintained a standard that younger boys were compelled to meet. For example, soiled clothes were not tolerated. “The reason for the gang’s insistence of wearing clean clothes is that they don’t want people to say that the ‘Maunalaha Hawaiians are dirty people.’”

For recreation boys went to movies, swam in fresh water pools, body surfed, or observed “spooners who frequent the Maunalaha foliage.” G.T. said that Maunalaha’s abundant and lush natural forest area and numerous mountain pools often kept the boys out of school. “Juvenile Court record [sic] shows that truancy is the only offense which has come to the attention of officials.” However, he added this:

… the children of Maunalaha feel that they are not intellectual equals to the “outside” children, hence they make no effort to compete for grades at school. As pointed out before, there is little parental supervision thus eliminating pressure on the child to study. In short, education is a necessary evil…. Grades mean nothing to the child. It [sic] fails to give him an incentive to try for a higher grade. It has no practical value to him. More and more, children are enrolling at the Ala Moana Opportunity School where they are taught to do things with their hands.

G.T. noted that the children of Maunalaha learned about sex early because homes were crowded and offered little privacy. Boys frequently masturbated (“pull turkey”) and “many show marked homosexual tendencies.” Yet, the writer added that there was considerable less sex play among these boys when compared to “an equal number of boys who frequent our numerous municipal parks. Another interesting situation is that Maunalaha boys do not use obscene idioms commonly used by boys in the city.”

The adult informants

Another manner by which I was able to reach the families was to find out the most influential family in the community and to establish a cordial relation with them. The influential family was the [K’s] who proved the key to make contacts with other families. Through their friendship I was readily accepted by the community.

G.T. described Mr. K. as an impressive man, “weighing some two hundred pounds and possessing a pleasing personality. He carries himself with an air of dignity that no other male member in the valley has. It is of little wonder that this man can claim the King of Maui as his ancestor.”

Mr. K. attended Lahainalua School, and following his graduation in 1914, worked as a stevedore, taught school then worked as a typesetter. He served during the First World War and was discharged with the rank of sergeant, thereafter working for Honolulu Rapid Transit. At the time of the study, Mr. K. was a foreman on a construction crew. G.T. noted that because Mr. K. was the “most educated and experienced man of the valley,” other families often sought his advice. Mr. K., a leader in Maunalaha’s Mormon church, had organized a benevolent society “so that any needy family in the valley could receive financial aid.”

Mrs. K. was born in Moanalua and grew up in a foster home at the Dowsett’s ranch. The K’s met in 1923 and Mr. K. moved to Maunalaha where Mrs. K. had made her home with her first husband. Mrs. K. began selling lei on the first Lei Day in 1927.

When she showed up at the waterfront the first time, “Other ‘old timer’ lei sellers looked suspiciously at [her], peeved that a new competitor was invading their territory.” Eventually an “old Hawaiian woman” offered Mrs. K. pointers: “sell a lei to a ‘rich looking haole’ for 50¢; however to others it [should] be sold for 35¢.”

Although her husband never approved of her selling lei, Mrs. K. continued and in time offered hula classes to other lei sellers. G.T. noted that Mrs. K. was a featured hula performer at “the first Pot Luck Show” at King Theater. At the time of this study, the K.’s had three hanai daughters, one of whom worked at a defense plant.

Because of their wholehearted acceptance of me, I was able to obtain intimate and sacred attitudes of the members of the community. During my stay at Maunalaha, I was careful not to be critical of their way of life. Even when I saw and heard what would be shocking to the uninitiated, I did not show surprise or wonder but reacted in a manner as any Maunalaha member would.

By avoiding asking direct questions relating to their personal affairs, G.T. would wait “until they began to talk about themselves and their associates, then I encouraged them by sympathetically listening to their account. Bull and hen sessions proved excellent sources to gather materials.” G.T. explained the value of his method in seeing the real nature of the residents:

The “outsider” sees only the “shell” put on by the people who create an atmosphere through their subtle actions and speech and appear before the “outsider” in the role which they want the other party to see. The role most commonly played by the Maunalaha people especially in their relations with haoles is to appear as civilized but unspoiled and carefree natives, bubbling with the spirit of Aloha. The community has a term for this – they call it “turning on the heat.”

G.T. took a Haole woman who was interested in Hawaiians to visit another influential family in the community. When they arrived, L., the woman of the house

completely changed her character as I knew her and played a flawless role of a Hawaiian hostess found only in South Sea novels. Upon introduction, [L.] tenderly kissed the cheeks of the haole woman, then as if by magic transformed her slow gait into a graceful glide that would have been becoming to the Princess of Hawaii. Her usual gruff use of English and grunts were now soft, well picked words and pronounced “very Hawaiian.” She called her adopted nine year old daughter in a sweet voice, something never done in normal times, and requested a dance for the visitor. The brattish daughter instinctively played a role too, for she complyed [sic] with her mother’s wishes like an obedient child and commenced her hula with flashing eyes and parted lips to show her white, well set teeth. It is not surprising that the haole woman went away that day believing that paradise was truly in Hawaii.

That evening G.T. had dinner with L. and her family – “a can of sardines with a bowl of sour poi” – then spent the rest of the evening with them. When L.’s husband returned home from work, drunk, they began fighting. G.T. wrote that this continued “late into the night, without climaxing in a physical fight that usually develops around midnight. … This is a typical manner in which a husband and wife argues [sic] in Maunalaha.”

This incident and its aftermath reveals a complex double subterfuge that meets both G.T.’s and the Hawaiian family’s goals. For G.T., he gained insider information for his study while maintaining his relationship with Hawaiian families. By “turning on the heat,” this family took control of how they would be perceived by a Haole outsider.

The writer

In addition to this community study, Journal 15 contains several other items written by G.T., most of which carry the date 1944. Typical of student journals is his first-hand account of what he witnessed as he traveled around Honolulu on the overcrowded and lively wartime buses. Less typical are snippets of interviews with residents of Papakōlea homesteads and beach boys who hung out at Waikīkī’s Kūhiō Beach. In one entry, G.T. noted that he had spent time studying “juvenile delinquents” who frequented Pālama Settlement.

G.T. also completed a sketch titled “Author’s Family Life” in which he shared conversations he had with his parents and other family members. G.T.’s father had been born in Japan, worked for a year on a plantation then was employed in Haole homes where he learned English.  G.T.’s mother was a Hawai‘i-born woman who helped send the writer’s father through college on the continent. Because G.T.’s mother’s family had run a business, she grew up speaking Chinese and Hawaiian.

This background makes clear just how important education was to his family. As discussed in an earlier TL post, the path to better jobs and higher status for a Nisei male like G.T. usually required graduation from high school or even earning a college degree. This upbringing might also explain his assessment of Maunalaha youth’s lack of interest in traditional education. But for the boys of Maunalaha they only had to look at their fathers, uncles, and brothers to see that Hawaiian men had access to good paying and stable jobs with or without a high school education, let alone a college degree.

G.T. does not explain how he became interested in and gained access to the Maunalaha community. But details from his other writings are suggestive. From his work with juveniles at Pālama, he may have become acquainted with some of the Maunalaha youth. He may have lived near Maunalaha (he graduated from Roosevelt High School in Makiki) and gotten to know the boys that way. Perhaps his mother’s knowledge of Hawaiian sparked an interest in that culture.

But it is clear that this study became part of a lifelong interest, one that even may have established a career path for him. After graduation from UH, G.T. became a filmmaker. An article in The New Pacific (December 1945, vol. 3) features G.T. and his film company. By 1945, he had made a ten-minute documentary for the Honolulu Council of Social Agencies as well as several feature films that were “chiefly for a Hawaiian audience or a public interested in Hawaiian subjects.” Hawaiians made up the cast in his films.

It’s interesting to speculate, too, if this community study and his acquaintance with Mary Kawena Pukui encouraged and informed the focus of his filmmaking. He later made instructional films for Bishop Museum, where Pukui worked for more than fifty years.

Maunalaha in the years after

A 1977 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article (3/25/77, p. 1) reported that nineteen families, dating back seventy years were still residing in Maunalaha. The article states that the first families had moved there after being displaced from Kaka‘ako, Kewalo Basin, and the area that became Ala Moana Park.

Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 1.06.16 PM

The community appeared in the papers again in 2006 and as recently as 2016 because of the serious flooding the community experienced.

Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 1.19.22 PM

In 2006, thirty Maunalaha Road residents had to be evacuated “after heavy rain brought down a 200-foot slope, with mud covering their properties and roadway” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 4/11/06, p. 7).

2016 clipping_19594654

In 2016, this Mauanalaha house suffered flood damage “when a boulder and other debris clogged a culvert in a stream in front of the house… causing a torrent of water to rush into the yard” (Honolulu Star-Advertiser 9/15/16, p. B3).

In spite of the prediction, or rather hope, that Maunalaha would eventually be free of “squatters,” the community has persisted as has the Hawaiian language and culture.

In his community study, G.T. reported that Maunalaha’s younger generation made no attempt to speak Hawaiian nor did they show any interest in learning it.   But informant Mr. K. said he felt differently: “…no one need be alarmed that the youngsters are no longer taking to the Hawaiian tongue for God has promised the Hawaiian people that the Hawaiian language will always be with the Hawaiians.”

In 2000, Hālau Kū Māna, a Hawaiian immersion school, held its first classes on the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus, sharing space with the Hawaiian Studies Program. Today they occupy a permanent campus nestled amid its two host communities, Papakōlea and Maunalaha.


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


One thought on “Maunalaha, a Study of an Urban Hawaiian Community

  1. Great article Chris! It took me awhile to figure out GT was George Tahara. Really fascinating to get insight into his early interest in Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture. A remarkable man and filmmaker. Mostly I am awestruck by hearing the Hawaiian’s voice in the increasingly intense commodification of them for haole / tourist culture in the 20th century. “Turning on the heat” is clearly the best phrase ever.

    On Sun, May 6, 2018 at 9:13 AM, Thinking Locally wrote:

    > chriskk posted: ” The information contained here has been the product of > six months study of an isolated Hawaiian community in the Makiki Valley > called Maunalaha. I have gained the information first hand by intimately > associating with [the residents] and having the ” >


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