Fishing In the Ala Wai

When I was little my father used to take me down to the Ala Wai to catch Tilapia with bamboo poles and Love’s bread. The fish would swarm in the murky water when I would drop the hook in the water as the line would jerk and become taught, and soon I would pull up a silvery, twitching fish about the size of my palm. The notorious smell of the canal never really did bother me, since I spent so much time down there, I think I associated the putrid smell to the fish that wrestled in my hand as my father taught me how to take the silver hook outside of their gaping mouths. It never occurred to me that this fish that was swarming and breeding inside the canal was a foreign, unnatural species that was brought to Hawaii from a distant land in the pursuit of replacing the native Nehu as a bait fish for the deep sea Aku or Tuna boats.

According to my father, one of the most ill conceived ideas some councilman or advisor high up in the government had was to bring in a little fish called Tilapia into the Ala Wai. This foreign fish was sturdy, fast breeding, able to live in fresh and brackish water well, grew to a good size, and in some cultures, a good eating fish. This fish was brought to the Ala Wai chiefly as a bait fish for the tuna fishing industry to replenish the dwindling Nehu stocks. It was to become another misguided introduction to Hawaii similar to the introduction of the daytime mongoose to the cane fields to kill the nocturnal Hawaiian rat. Today all you see is a large number of Tilapia near the stream heads throughout the state, in the Kapalama Canal, Ala Wai harbor, and thriving inside the polluted Ala Wai, devouring everything thrown into the water. They have overrun the natural schools of native fish that used to swim up and down the Ala Wai. In my father’s childhood he remembers seeing fishermen everyday in the canal fishing for a large mixed array of species, Mullet, Manini, Moi, Weke, Nehu, Medaca, and Barracuda. He remembers seeing schools of Nehu clustering in large schools in the shade of the McCully bridge.

“And the Ala Wai used to be clean.” I look at my father in disbelief. You have to be kidding me right? The putrid smell of rotting fish and moldy water comes to mind going down Ala Wai Blvd on the passenger side, rolling my nose and the window as a reaction to the aromatic breeze coming inside. One house he used to live in still stands, Pau Street, a little wooden house surrounded by apartment complexes and high rises. Before that he lived in a walk-up apartment building on Kaio’o drive off Hobron Lane from which he remembers the mix plate of residents that shared the walk-up. Upstairs were a Haole man and a Polynesian wife who were always quarreling; occasionally my grandfather would get a broom and hit the ceiling yelling at them to keep quiet. My father’s family was Okinawan, next door was a Korean-Japanese family, also in the building was an old retired Haole couple from the Midwest, and a Swedish immigrant family. Also in the building was another cosmopolitan family whose members would time to time go into the yard to “scrap” until they were bloodied and too tired to argue, and then go back inside. The yardmen were Filipino, and a Chinese man, who also was the landlord came around once a month to mow the lawn, collect the rent and then return to his home in Manoa Valley.

He remembers the Japanese Pig Slop man that would come by to empty the slop-cans, as well as the Chinese Manapua man who came in the neighborhood with the big drums selling Manapua and Pepeau. The tough multicultural rubbish men came in the large open bin refuse truck and emptied the large galvanized steel cans, half inside the truck, half on the street. The milkman would come to the house and my father would collect the milkcaps to play “milkcovers” with the rest of the kids. All of these visitors would fascinate the kids, but none quite like the “rubbishpikaledy”, a cosmopolitan homeless lady who would dig through the garbage cans as they would all watch in awe.

The Waikiki of my father’s day was one that was safe for children to grow up in. There were no prostitutes, the bad people stayed by downtown Hotel Street more towards Chinatown. It was a Hawaii in which his mother, my grandmother would still point to the grove of kiawe trees behind the Kaiulani Hotel where 20 years prior a young man named Myles Fukunaga committed one of the most notorious murders in Honolulu history. “That’s where it happened,” she would say, shaking her head. Crime, murder, bad things were headlines in Honolulu, things like that just didn’t happen at all. It was a place where everyone left their doors unlocked, and everyone knew everyone else in the neighborhood. Bus rides cost 15 cents and the Beach Market man would take the little shopping list my grandmother gave him to buy the 20-cent loaves of bread.

In the Early 40s American Graffiti Drive-ins started to appear in Honolulu in the Waikiki Area to cater to the large number of GIs stationed in Honolulu. KC drive-in at Ala Wai & Kalakaua, Kapiolani drive-in at Fort Derussy & Ala Moana, and Kau Kau Korner at Kapiolani & Kalakaua where the Hard Rock Café stands today. The 50s marked by the development and surge of tourism to Hawaii. It was a time that tourism was just starting up, a time of the original Hawaiian beach boys in Waikiki surfing, living. More and more Haole tourists began to come to Waikiki wearing Aloha shirts as the walked up and down Kalakaua and Kuhio. Ala Moana shopping center was still a big swamp full of bufo and tadpoles after the rains and when the mudflats dried up it was the “cracked desert” as the kids would call it. When the dredging of the Ala Wai yacht harbor began, mountains of white coral started to appear in the cracked desert along Ala Moana beach park. My father used to climb on top of the enormous two-story high pile of dredged coral where Liberty House and Sears is today that they would call “white mountain”. Soon the coral in the mountain would be as landfill material to become Magic Island. Unknown to him at the time, the impact of the developments that were taking place would shape the very Waikiki we know of today. The softball field behind the central YMCA in which they played in was replaced by a condominium, and the newly dredged Ala Wai harbor was soon filled with yachts and houseboats, creating pollution and rubbish in the canal mouth, choking the native fish, and darkening the water. The Tilapia however thrived in these harsh conditions, a sturdy fish from a foreign land, better adapted, better equipped.

My father, now a physician, a professional of the city, of society, far dispatched from the Waikiki of his youth, now resides in the nearby Manoa valley, visits Waikiki occasionally for a hotel conference or for a movie. What was once my father’s Waikiki is now something else, something different, something out of place. There is no other neighborhood on the island that has seen as many physical and cultural changes in the past 50 years as Waikiki. He marvels now at how crowded, plastic, and impersonal it has become in a response to the comfort of the tourists. High rise condominiums and hotels now replace the plantation style houses built along the Ala Wai near Hobron Lane. The beaches in front of the hotels are crowded and packed; some of the original beach boys have had their stands taken away from them charging trespassing. The ideas of “Aloha” and “Hawaii” are now coined as catch phrases to lure the next rich visitor to Waikiki to spend another ritzy vacation in the 50th state.

The Waikiki of my father’s day has gone with the canal that runs along side it, crowded, dirty, overrun by a foreign influence that was supposed to bring new life, new vitality to a prosperous and loving environment. The place of spouting waters and the place of my father’s childhood has been overrun by a rapidly expanding Tilapia of tourism, fast paced industry, and global economy. This foreign invader has come in and rendered the culture that we still try to define as “local” in danger of losing its grasp on what is real, what is truly “local”. My father’s Waikiki has slipped into the memories, photographs, books, the fishing stories of the old timers that grew up along the flowing waters of the Ala Wai, before Tilapia, before tourism. My father wishes that he could some how have the opportunity for a simple day of fishing, to watch the rainbow variety of fishes and aquatic life, in abundance and prosperity as they were in his youth. A day that I, his son will never have, only in memory, only in my father’s fishing stories.