It's still May, after a long month of May Day "events." That's what's happened, readers have informed me. Not one fixed day of wonderful, flower-strewn aloha observed by everyone, but discreet little celebrations when convenient, mostly in hotels and schools.
Haleakala Waldorf School had a delightful program, several people wrote to inform me, as did Emmanuel Lutheran School and St. Anthony Grade School. The Maui Arts & Cultural Center had its annual Brothers Cazimero concert, always a good one. Public schools held their holidays on various Fridays toward the end of the month, a practice begun years ago, I'm told, when May Day interfered with SAT testing.
That's well and good, but not good enough, I said, and a surprising number of readers agreed with me. I was taken aback at how that column about the Lei Day of yore hit a nerve.
"Where has the aloha gone? . . . What happened? Where did it go? When did it go?" wrote Pamela Canton. "All the kids wear black all the time," complained Robert Young of Kula, telling of an event he attended at a local school where "the parents and aunties were so uptight and crowded in a small space in a hot sun that they were all bickering and making nasty remarks."
"Wow, did your column strike a nerve with me," wrote Cori Smart Pohle. When she and her husband moved back to Maui in 1986, "I was so stoked when May Day rolled around. I put on my prettiest mu'umu'u and bought a lei (no plumeria in Kula) and went downtown, only to be stared at . . . "
Another reader remarked on the contrast between May Day in Hawaii and the labor rallies traditionally held around the world. "Here in Hawaii, the sugar growers and hotel and ship owners did not want to see their workers get together and demand shorter hours and higher wages," he opined.
"So I think while the idea for a Lei Day may have been Don Blanding's, the funds for a holiday to overwhelm the news of parades and rallies overseas would have come from the sugar growers."
I don't think the planters were quite that devious, but it's absolutely true that they did everything possible to suppress the labor movement, which only took root in Hawaii after World War II.
Come to think of it, 1929 - when Blanding came up with the idea for Lei Day - was a good year for labor in Hawaii, a time when the plantations were well into the improvements for which Oahu workers paid a bitter price a decade before.
In January 1920, 3,000 Filipinos walked out at the Aiea, Waipahu, Ewa, Waialua and Kahuku plantations. Two weeks later, Japanese struck the same plantations, and Waimanalo as well, leaving some 8,300 workers on strike. This was 77 percent of the entire plantation workforce on Oahu, unprecedented.
Profits were fat. Haole managers who lived in big houses on the hill catered to by servants made $1,000 a month, while workers were paid a scant 77 cents a day for 10 hours in the hot sun. Workers asked for a wage increase to $1.25 a day for men, 98 cents for women, a reduction of the work day to eight hours, along with paid maternity leave and better provisions for health and amusement.
The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association refused to negotiate. Two weeks after the walkout, strikers were evicted from plantation homes, leaving 12,020 workers and their families homeless, including 4,137 children. A flu epidemic hit. The strike was crushed.
But planters took notice. They concluded that they had to improve the quality of life in their camps or risk losing their workforce. By 1929, new single-family homes replaced the dilapidated barracks. Slowly, sanitation systems were cleaned up, sports and entertainment facilities created. Planters kept the usual hard line on wages, but those rose a little, too. The 1930s ushered in the golden age of camp life that many look back on with nostalgia.
This last May Day, tens of thousands of Spaniards and 2,000 Greeks protested economic pain with no end in sight, and the anti-Wall Street Occupy movement erupted again in various cities around the United States.
Here, Pauline Fiene puts a lei on the whale at Kalama Park in honor of her 75-year-old mother in Wisconsin, who taught her "it is always worth putting effort into traditions and special remembrances."
I guess we on Maui should be grateful for the Lei Day we do have.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.