The State of Aloha
When you head down Market Street, you will see the efforts by community organizations, small businesses and the county to make Wailuku town more attractive for tourists, residents and investors. It’s a walkable town. It’s quaint. It’s an all-around nice place to work, live and hang out. Then you drive down to the bottom of the hill and cross Iao Stream to the small neighborhood we all know as Happy Valley.
It should come to no surprise to any Mauian that Happy Valley has a reputation. And it’s not a good one. For as long as I could remember, people would say that crime and danger lurked around every corner. It was the “ghetto” and people always talked about break-ins, prostitutes and drugs.
The name was always strange and ironic to me. Where did that come from? Turns out Happy Valleys can be found across the globe.
The most famous and earliest Happy Valley comes from England. Famed writer Samuel Johnson penned a satire in the 18th century called “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.” The story begins with a weary prince living in the lap of luxury in the Happy Valley. Although it’s pleasant and life is easy, it’s boring and bland.
Johnson’s story proved to be very popular among the English and by the 19th century, when English imperialism peaked, there were real-life Happy Valleys all over the world.
Hong Kong’s Happy Valley is the historical heart of colonial Britain. In the 1840s, the valley was an early camp for the British army, which eventually colonized Hong Kong and held it until 1997. The valley was a marsh, and many soldiers were killed off by malaria.
The death rate for the British settlers in those days was quite high, and the valley became a cemetery for the early colonials. The name of the cemetery was dubbed Happy Valley, which was a common name for graveyards in those days. The name stuck.
There are a few notable HVs in the United States too. Nittany Lion alum and fans fondly call State College, Pa. – the home of Penn State University – Happy Valley. The term is also used frequently in Utah. Early Mormon settlers referred to the Salt Lake region as Happy Valley. Today, the term is still in use out there, but some use the term derisively to mock the cheery optimism of its inhabitants.
It’s unclear when folks started calling the gully along the Iao Stream Happy Valley, but it’s certainly not the first place to earn the name. It’s even more unclear if the name for the Wailuku vale was meant to be ironic like the Mormons and Johnson, or if it was earnest like the Penn State alum. Is there maybe an old forgotten cemetery?
We may never know. One thing is certain, though: Happy Valley isn’t all that bad. Not long ago, after work, I headed down into the valley to check it out. The sun had just set. The sky was pale and the clouds crowning the West Maui Mountains were pink.
Those notorious narrow streets weren’t dangerous at all. First, there’s the world famous Banana Bungalow hostel. Tourists who either can’t afford or simply shun the luxury hotels in Wailea or Kaanapali gathered in the dusk to plan the next day’s itinerary of activities on Maui.
I went mauka into the valley alongside the Iao Stream. Folks were sitting on stoops and kids were playing alongside the chain-link fence running alongside the stream. At the park in the back of the valley more kids were playing baseball.
Back on Market Street, Takamiya Market was bustling with energy. Folks were grabbing food for their families to take home for dinner. People were talking story. At a community center nearby, a hula halau was practicing. Parents and residents were standing around watching. It reminded me of the old neighborhoods surrounding Kalihi Valley on Oahu. It reminded me of Paia when I was a kid in the 1980s.
Folks waved, smiled and were generally downright decent and cheery to each other. Perhaps the name for that narrow Wailuku gulch isn’t so strange after all.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”