The State of Aloha
When Peter Young Kaeo contracted Hansen’s disease, he was exiled to Kalaupapa, the desolate spit of land enclosed by steep cliffs on Molokai’s north shore and the ocean. Kaeo was a high chief who could trace his lineage back to ancient kings and chiefs predating Kamehameha’s campaign to unite the islands. Despite the comforts he was allowed to bring, exile was still difficult.
But Kaeo was in good spirits when he wrote to his cousin, Queen Emma, wife of Kamehameha IV, in November of 1873. He eagerly reported that he was going to visit the store at Kalaupapa to pick up fabric and “make me some frocks Palaka.”
It may seem a little strange in an island chain known around the world for its divergent colors in flowers, waters and skies that locals have used a simple monochromatic block print as its preferred pattern.
The first evidence of the word palaka goes back to the early contacts between English sailors and Native Hawaiians in the late 18th century. Native Hawaiians abandoned their kapa clothing for the English sailor’s shirt or frock — a large and loosely worn garment made of coarse fabric that Hawaiians, including Kaeo, called a frock palaka.
The popularity of tough fabric shirts continued into the 19th century with the rise of sugar plantations. It is here where the distinct block pattern emerges. The first generation of Japanese laborers in the islands had a plaid or check pattern called gobanji, and wore jackets similar to yukata, a kimono made from cotton worn in Japan during the hot summer months.
By the end of the 1800s and the start of the territorial years, Portuguese and Hawaiian lunas and paniolo were wearing long-sleeve palaka shirts. It soon became the favored shirt for the working class. They were tough, hearty and comfortable. Cane workers, stevedores and ranchers all proudly wore their palaka shirts. The classic palaka shirt is short sleeved and is a plaid pattern akin to a tablecloth checker pattern. Unlike other plaids, the palaka is a single color — traditionally navy blue, black or red.
But the shirt didn’t make a fashion statement until Zempan Arakawa came along. Arakawa immigrated from Okinawa in 1905 to work at the Oahu Sugar Plantation. Four years later he and his wife, Tsuru, opened Arakawa Shoten in Waipahu.
It was one of those general stores many folks in Hawaii can remember. The Arakawas sold everything from snacks, raincoats, slippers and clothing. Arakawa also bought a sewing machine and started to mend and make clothing for the cane workers.
In the 1920s, he popularized the short-sleeved palaka shirt. Ten years later, the shirt was ubiquitous in Hawaii. Every local person had their palaka shirt. You saw them at football games, at the beach, social events and on the job.
Eventually, the palaka pattern was eclipsed by the ever-colorful aloha shirt. But you still could get the classic shirts at places like Liberty House or general stores in the country. And while the aloha shirt has continued to outsell palaka and tourists prefer the bright and sometimes gaudy floral patterns to the simple block print, palaka has never really faded away.
Soon after statehood, a new crowd adopted the pattern. Miura Store in Haleiwa started selling custom-made palaka print shorts to local surfers. That generation of surfing greats like Greg Noll, Joey Cabell and Tiger Espere all got their custom-sewn shorts by the Miura sisters. In fact, surfing legend Eddie Aikau wore his palaka shorts on that fateful rescue mission in the waters off Molokai in 1978. The store closed in 2005 and the Miuras have retired.
By the 1970s, palaka got political. Local musicians like the Eddie Kamae and Cecilio and Kapono preferred adorning the pattern over floral aloha shirts. In 1978, the year of our state’s last constitutional convention, a pamphlet was distributed using the “Palaka Power.”
“Palaka was a cloth used by most of the people of Hawaii in an era long ago. It was worn by the plantation workers, the paniolos and many of the workers on the docks. It represents a link to our past. . . . Like the Palaka cloth that protected our people against the wind, sun, dust and the luna’s whips, Palaka Power will protect the people’s interests at the Convention.”
Progressive delegates wore palaka shirts to symbolize the strength and enduring unity of Hawaii’s people. It was the pattern of cane workers, surfers and stevedores. It was the pattern of Hawaii’s people.
And still it endures. In these terrible months of lockdowns, emergency rules, closures and social distancing, I noticed something about Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. He is frequently wearing a palaka face mask, a symbol of Hawaii’s heartiness and that her people — like the palaka print itself — will endure.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”