In looking backwards by a year — I found the film KUKAN about a year ago — I started thinking about time warps and how your mind can so easily slip from present to past and back again, jumping decades in a split second of memory access — and how images from photographs and movies give shape to that journey, making the unknown seem suddenly familiar and the forgotten moment come alive once again.
After writing my last post, I rented the movie version of THE BLACK CAMEL, wondering how much of Biggers’s keen observations about 1928 Hawaii would be transferred to the 1931 screen version of his fourth Charlie Chan story. I got chicken skin when the first scene of the movie ended up being on the southern end of Kailua Beach, the beach I’d grown up on in the 1960s and 70s.
In many ways the beach looked much like it does now — the familiar landmarks were easily recognizable — Mokapu peninsula on the left, the Mokulua Islands on the right, and the Bird Lady’s House built into the cliff overlooking Lanikai point.
But as the movie scene progressed, it was clear that this was not the bikini-strewn, Hobie Cat dotted beach of my teenage years.
The tailored flowing dresses, and tank swim suits of the women, the period movie camera set up on the sand, and the majestic curving lines of the old automobiles gave evidence of a 1931 Kailua beach scene I could never have known without the magic of film.
The presence of a Hollywood movie crew must have caused quite a stir in Kailua back then. In 1931 the town was really “out in the boonies” and so remote that Kailua Beach was the only beach that Honolulu prostitutes were officially allowed to go to. In THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER, Mamie (a fictional character loosely based on infamous Honolulu prostitute Jean O’Hara) conspires with her journalist friend to be picked up in his car at Kailua Beach and smuggled back to his Honolulu ridge top house, since it was also illegal for prostitutes to socialize with men outside of the brothel.
Like most of Hawaii, a lot has changed in 80 years. Now Kailua Beach is the location of President Obama’s annual Christmas vacation, and on any weekend or holiday hundreds of people flock to it’s southern end.
From the sleepy, surftown suburbia that I grew up in, Kailua has burgeoned into a tourist destination complete with two Starbucks, a Whole Foods Market, a Target store on the horizon, and a growing number of Japanese tourists.
The demise of the good ‘ole days of our youth is happening all over America. Perhaps that’s why we impart so much nostalgia to physical locations and landmarks that remain the same over the years despite the changing populace and politics that flow by them from one generation to the next — why the site of the Lanikai point monument in an old Charlie Chan movie makes me so excited. It’s amazing how a location, a town, a landscape has the power to leave an emotional imprint on a person — and how that imprint changes as layers of memory and knowledge are added to it year after year, decade after decade.
I wonder if it works at all the other way around? Do we leave any imprint on the sites we inhabit?
The next time I visit The Royal Hawaiian Hotel — if I drink a cocktail in particular way and turn my head at just the right angle, might I apprehend the ghosts of Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi coming around the bend?
Will the pink stucco walls echo with the spirit of Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu laughing over a rum punch, or will I be lucky enough to see in a shadow on the lawn the young Li Ling-Ai dancing under the moon?