A last-minute emcee gig necessitated an overnighter on Oahu this past weekend. Yes, Memorial Day weekend — one of the five worst times of the year to travel, according to USA Today.
To my surprise and relief, the airports were busy, but not insanely so. It only took 20 minutes or so to get through the TSA pre-check line, less than I had expected. And both flights were on time. Or would have been, if not for the mechanical malfunction alert (a false alarm), which delayed our departure by 15 minutes.
My Honolulu hosts generously gave me the use of their car Sunday morning, so I spent several hours roaming the city in search of a few items that I haven’t been able to find on Maui. My quest took me down Memory Lane as well, visiting areas that I frequented 35 years ago as a resident, and remembering highlights of childhood trips to Oahu.
My first stop, after the Starbucks drive-through window, was the food court at Don Quijote for a breakfast of steaming hot half moons. Dim sum connoisseurs would probably scoff; with Chinatown only a few minutes away, why eat at the U-Choice Inn? But I am more a sentimental fool than a culinary snob. Besides, I’d already had char siu bao from Char Hung Sut the night before, thanks again to my wonderful hosts.
I lived and worked in Honolulu in the early 1980s, before Oahu’s Holiday Mart department stores became Daiei and later Don Quijote, Japan’s largest discount chain. The Kaheka Street Holiday Mart looked much the same as Don Quijote does now, only the attached row of fast-food windows featured pizza and sub sandwiches rather than the variety of Asian dishes now offered. But there was one Chinese take-out place in the middle, and I’d stop there at least twice a week for a grab-and-go lunch of manapua, crispy gau gee, pork hash, sweet nine-layer rice cake, and my favorites: pepeiao and half moon. I wondered then, and still do, why don’t we have this on Maui? It’s probably a good thing that we don’t, because I’d gorge on enough half moons to shape my body into a full moon.
On my way to Palama Market in Kalihi, I was tickled to see the familiar giant red crab atop the Tamashiro Market sign. I remembered my first time there, when I was about the same height as the barrels that held dozens of freshly caught crabs on ice. Fascinated by the rows of wide-eyed fish seemingly staring back at me from inside giant display cases, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety of seafood. But being only 5 or 6 years old, I was most impressed by the crab on the outside wall. My uncle told me that the owners were waiting for the crab to get even bigger before eating it. He used to tell me the same thing about the pineapple water tank that towered above the Dole cannery. It was the first landmark we’d pass on the way to his home from the airport, and he would always say, “Hmm, it’s still not ripe enough to pick. Maybe the next time you come, it’ll be ready.”
The pineapple is long gone, and so is the Waikiki that I loved. The International Market Place has been so completely overhauled, I drove right past without recognizing it. I circled the block twice before finding the entrance to the multi-level, digitally monitored parking structure.
Once inside the open-air, three-story mall, I struggled to find some hint of the quaint old marketplace. The only remnants are the century-old banyan tree (thank goodness!) and its treehouse, now as slick and shiny as a Rolex watch — which you can now get at the International Market Place, and not one of those knockoffs, either. The original treehouse was built in the late 1950s and housed Don the Beachcomber’s office. In later years, KCCN Radio broadcast from the funky little shack nestled in the banyan branches.
Gone are the kitschy kiosks and tropical jungle atmosphere. Instead of bare-chested pedicab drivers circling the entrance, a bronze statue of Don Ho greets pedestrians beneath the bridge to the treehouse. High-end designer boutiques and gourmet restaurants have replaced the mom-and-pop aloha wear shops and shave ice stands.
The new shopping center is impressive and very attractive, and I will definitely spend more time — and money — there when I next visit Oahu. I could linger for hours in the upscale Japanese grocery store, Mitsuwa, alone. But when I do, I know the sweet taste of the gourmet mochi will be tainted, ever so slightly, by a tinge of wistfulness.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.