The State of Aloha

A war is raging on Oahu. Months ago, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell declared a “war on homelessness.” “We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city,” he wrote. The mayor picked his words very carefully. Caldwell has picked up on the rhetorical “war” against an abstract problem reminiscent of another rhetorical war declared many years ago.

Fifty years ago, in a State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” His speech marked the beginning of a blitz of legislation designed to eradicate the conditions that put Americans in dire economic straits. It led to the Head Start program, Job Corps, the Upward Bound program, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.

Fifty years later, we have Caldwell’s war – and although the rhetoric is the same, there are vast differences. And that’s too bad. A war on homelessness could further Johnson’s dream. Back in 1964, he said that “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the state and local level and must be supported and directed by state and local efforts.”

Surly Caldwell could have used the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s declaration to revive the optimism from 1964. We could use this as an opportunity to work on eradicating the conditions that result in homelessness, not just the homeless. It could be focused on working closely with communities, mental health providers and other factors that contribute to the homeless population in Hawaii.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening in Honolulu. The homeless are an eyesore. That’s what’s troubling the mayor there.

In an interview with The New York Times, Caldwell defended these tactics. He said that we “haven’t eliminated the visual impact of homelessness.” Caldwell said that when tourists come to Hawaii and stay in Waikiki, “They don’t want to see homeless people sleeping in parks or on sidewalks or on the beach.”

It’s hard to argue against that. I’m sure people who spend all that money to fly here and stay in a luxurious hotel don’t want to see folks with no place to go sleeping on benches or in the park. Public parks are closed at night and the police sweep through to make sure the homeless aren’t near Waikiki.

The other sensitive spot is Chinatown and downtown. The City Council declared the area from Nuuanu Stream to Ward Avenue to be “the center of Oahu’s art scene and is a hot spot for Oahu nightlife, with live music and shows, as well as some of Hawaii’s most contemporary restaurants and gathering spots.” In the last decade, Chinatown has become a gentrified hot spot with plenty of galleries, shops, and eateries.

After all, who wants to have to tiptoe around people trying to sleep in doorways or along the sidewalk on their way to check out the latest restaurant or bar? First Fridays in Chinatown are wildly popular, and all those homeless people would just dampen the party atmosphere. It might just make all those partygoers feel uncomfortable on their way home.

So instead of lofty legislation designed to study the issue and alleviate the causes contributing to homelessness, the council is mulling over two bills punishing the homeless. One bill criminalizes defecating and urinating in public. Ironically, it would also criminalize peeing in pools or in the ocean. Watch out, kids. If you’re caught peeing in the pool or trying to re-enact the infamous Baby Ruth scene from “Caddyshack,” you may be prosecuted, face a judge in the District Court and receive up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The other bill is even more troubling. It would make sitting or lying on a public sidewalk a crime. Of course, there were a number of exceptions that would allow people to watch parades or stand in a line for “goods or services.” Nowhere in the bill or in its legislative findings was the word “homeless,” but everyone knows the true target of these bills.

On the other hand, these aren’t the only efforts by the city. In addition to these controversial bills, the council authorized $47 million to set up low-cost housing. Moreover, the governor has recently appointed a coordinator to work with the city government, the state and the private sector to get folks out of the elements and into a shelter or some kind of housing.

In that sense, Caldwell’s war on homelessness bears some resemblance to the old War on Poverty, but the new tactics against the homeless themselves are an extreme. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, not on the poor. Seems like these days we just want to sweep away homeless people along with homelessness.

The State of Aloha

Two scoop rice, mac salad and some meat like teriyaki chicken, a hamburger patty covered in brown gravy, or pork adobo on top of that little bed of shredded cabbage all within the confines of a square, white Styrofoam box. Sound familiar? You can pick up one of these plate lunches on any island in just about any town.

The plate lunch is a quintessential local food in the islands. It’s ubiquitous and anyone who grew up in Hawaii can recall a favorite plate lunch spot. Maybe it was Sushiya’s on Prison Street in Lahaina, or maybe your go-to spot was Kitada’s on Baldwin Avenue in Makawao. It’s not just Maui either. Even the president has to get his fix at the Rainbow Drive-Inn in Kapahulu.

The plate lunch is a statewide food tradition. You can’t escape it. I’ve been around plate lunches for most of my life. The three perfectly shaped mounds of rice and mac salad doused in high-sodium shoyu are part of growing up here. But where this food tradition came from is still a culinary mystery.

Perhaps the most common theory is what I call the plantation theory. It goes like this: In those allegedly halcyon days of plantation labor when almost everyone worked in sugar cane or pineapple fields and lived in substandard housing provided by big companies, folks found themselves in a mix (and sometimes clash) of different cultures.

Out of this milieu came the plate lunch. One can easily conjure up the sepia-toned image of Japanese, Portuguese and Filipino workers sitting down in the middle of a dirty cane field on their lunch breaks sharing and mixing foods.

The theory makes sense. Most of local culture – pidgin English and mixed ethnicities – came from the plantation. Why should food have a different starting point?

And yet, the more I thought about it, there are problems with this theory. Let’s not be fooled. Plantations were brutal and terrible places for many people. Mixing cultures was not encouraged. Workers were separated by race in almost every respect. The Japanese could associate only with the Japanese. Filipinos were also segregated. The Portuguese had their own part of town. The white managers were at the top of the heap. The thought that everyone would break free from these restrictions in the middle of the day every day and sit down together to share one another’s food seems a little hard to swallow.

And even if that were the case, why is the plate lunch today so uniform? Not all plantations were the same throughout the islands. Yet, the plate lunch is pretty much the same throughout the state.

Finally, there’s the mac salad problem. The plantation theory doesn’t adequately explain how mac salad got into the mix. What culture brought that over from Asia? Who’d bring that for lunch? No workers had a refrigerator in their plantation home or in the field. Would you eat mac salad from a tin can that’s been on your back since 5 in the morning and under the hot sun?

In the late 1980s, a new theory emerged. Writers at the now-defunct Honolulu Herald found anecdotal evidence that the plate lunch got its start at Honolulu Harbor in the 1920s, not the anonymous cane field.

The Iwamoto family started selling foods, snacks and candies to dockworkers, stevedores and even tourists from cruise ships on the Honolulu waterfront in the 1920s from a rickety pushcart.

The cart became so popular that the Iwamotos rented space on Channel Street near the waterfront with a small kitchen. By the 1930s, for 50 cents you got a paper plate with rice, a vegetable, kim chee and a main dish like beef tomato, pig’s feet or chicken long rice. And yes, there was mac salad.

This also explained how it became standardized throughout the islands. If the plate lunch was popular in the busiest harbor in the territory, it can easily catch on as workers stopped in Lahaina, Hilo and Lihue.

And yet, the plantation theory dies hard. Many food writers think that the Japanese bento found on the plantation evolved into these food stands on the waterfront and later lunch wagons.

No matter where it came from, the plate lunch tradition isn’t going anywhere. For the record, my favorite plate lunch is the glorious chicken katsu curry plate.

Maybe the first time mayonnaise from the mac salad mixed with the curry on top of the chicken cutlet was at Honolulu Harbor. Or maybe it came from a lunch wagon someplace. Then again, it could have started on a nameless pineapple field in Wahiawa.

Frankly, I doubt we’ll ever find out definitely where the plate lunch came from. But who cares? It’s fun to think about while recovering from eating one on a hot summer afternoon.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”