The State of Aloha

Before you enter the main drag, you are greeted by a sign calling the place the “biggest little town” on Kauai. It’s true. Hanapepe is a small town. Ever since the highway was built to divert drivers heading farther west to avoid the main street all together, the small town of Hanapepe got even smaller and more forlorn.

The buildings along Hanapepe Road are classic representatives of Hawaii’s oppressive plantation era. The corrugated tin roofs burn and glisten under the baking leeward sun. Kids and kupuna sit on wooden porches and watch each other and chickens cruise along the sidewalks and streets. An occasional lost tourist or car roves through.

Most of the storefronts these days sell art, soda and other novelties to tourists. I remember years ago heading out there to the leeward side in search of a bookstore. Talk Story Bookstore, I was told, had all kinds of strange and out-of-print titles. I needed to find this place and see it for myself.

I drove out to the leeward side alone. Soon enough I was standing outside an old plantation storefront with murals of books, coffee cups and cats. Talk Story proudly claims itself to be “the western-most independent bookstore of the United States.” I started poking around its Hawaiiana section and started talking to the folks working there.

They told me that it was right here in Hanapepe where one of the most violent clashes between law enforcement and the incipient labor movement in the islands took place. I couldn’t believe it.

It goes back to the summer of 1924 when a group of militant Filipino laborers went on strike to demand higher wages. The headquarters for the strike in leeward Kauai was a rented Japanese-language schoolhouse.

By early September, things were grim in the schoolhouse. The majority of the strikers were Visayan and most of the Ilocano workers had been persuaded not to join in their strike. Sugar production was not halted, and it looked like it was going on strong without them. Desperation had seeped into the movement.

Things came to a head in September when two young Ilocano workers rode into town on their bicycles to buy a pair of shoes. The details are hazy, but the young men were taken to the strike headquarters and weren’t leaving. It was believed that they had been held hostage.

Word soon got out that the strikers had the Ilocanos and the local sheriff went to the schoolhouse to get them. He stood outside the school and demanded to see the men. They stepped out and told the sheriff that they wanted to stay (it was later believed that they had been coerced into saying that). The sheriff left empty-handed and persuaded the county attorney to apply for and obtain an arrest warrant for the strikers.

He returned the next day — Sept. 9 — with a posse of three sheriffs and around 36 others who might have been deputized for the occasion. Sharpshooters were positioned with rifles pointed at the schoolhouse from behind an embankment.

The sheriff, warrant in hand, and with an interpreter to assist him in explaining it to the strikers, went into the schoolhouse. He was able to get the men out peacefully. As he and his deputies were escorting the men out, the strikers followed him with their cane knives. They followed him out into the open dusty street.

The details about what happened next are lost to history. Some think the strikers struck the sheriffs first and the sheriffs fired on the strikers. Others say the gunmen waiting outside fired first. Either way, violence erupted in Hanapepe.

When it was over, 16 workers had been shot to death and four sheriffs lay dead in the red dust bleeding out from knife and gun wounds. The next day, 100 men were rounded up, charged and tried for riot and assault. Nobody was charged with murder. Seventy-six were convicted and sentenced. Some were deported back to the Philippines.

It would be decades before labor rose up and challenged the status quo of the islands. The murdered sheriffs were given a proper funeral, and their families were compensated by the plantation. The strikers’ families had to split a lump sum of $75 from the company. The bodies of the strikers were buried in a mass unmarked and forgotten grave somewhere in Hanapepe.

The Hanapepe Massacre that occurred 93 years ago today is no more than a tragic and largely forgotten footnote in Hawaiian history. The only marker of the massacre is a lonely plaque in Hanapepe Park, put up about a decade ago, thanks to Filipino civic groups, labor unions and the county. So if you find yourself passing through that eerily still and quiet town on Kauai, go and find the memorial.

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