Kailua Time Warps

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.

Opening Scene of THE BLACK CAMEL shows 1931 Kailua Beach, Mokapu Peninsula in the background

The fake film crew shoots Sheila Fane on the sand near Kailua boat ramp with the first Mokulua Island in the background

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.

Robert Young playing Jimmy Bradshaw talks on the sand with Sally Eilers playing Julie O'Neill. The Bird Lady's house can be seen to the left of Young's head.

As children we always called this the Bird Lady's House since the woman who lived there would nurse injured birds that were brought to her.

But as the movie scene progressed, it was clear that this was not the bikini-strewn, Hobie Cat dotted beach of my teenage years.

Kalua Beach circa 1978

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 monument at Lanikai Point in 1931 Lanikai Point monument 2010

Lanikai Point monument 2010

Robert Young approaches the canal that goes past Buzz's Restaurant. I wonder if the children on the banks are local Kailua extras.

The same canal circa 2010, courtesy Wikicommons Kim Starr

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.

Kailua Beach Park looking towards Lanikai

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.

Kailua Town Starbucks

Kailua Tourists

Kailua Town urban renewal 2010

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.

The Royal Hawaiian or Pink Palace -- hotel of choice for many in the 1930s including Earl Derr Biggers and his fictional characters Tarneverro and Shelah Fane

I wonder if it works at all the other way around?  Do we leave any imprint on the sites we inhabit?

The Royal Hawaiian in 2010

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?

Warner Oland playing Chan and Bela Lugosi playing Tarneverro share confidences in the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel

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?

About nestedegg

Robin Lung is a documentary filmmaker currently producing a film about the first American feature length documentary to win an Academy Award.
This entry was posted in 1930s Hawaii, 1930s movies, Charlie Chan, hawaii history, Hawaii Prostitution, The Black Camel. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Kailua Time Warps

  1. Paul Levitt says:

    Robin is such a good writer. Maybe she should write a book.

  2. Dani Junkes says:

    Robin, this is so awesome! I loved seeing all of the pictures from the past and our old stompping grounds.

    • nestedegg says:

      Yesterday we rode down Palapu St to look at a friend’s new house around the corner — so many memories from the McCombs’s house too — I thought I heard your laugh coming from the 2nd floor window!

  3. Gordon Edgar says:


    Paul is right, you should consider writing a book. You have a comfortable, free flowing style that draws in the reader.

  4. peet says:

    thanks for bringing this film to my attention… I wonder when it was shot, because the hilltop house was only built in the early part of the year it was apparently released! (1931). “the bird lady” was my great-grandmother, Anne Powlison, and her daughter and grand-daughter still live there. I can’t wait to track down this film to see early Kailua/Lanikai/Hilltop House and perhaps search for the face of my young grandfather among the extras!!!

    • nestedegg says:

      According to the amazing research on The Charlie Chan Family Home site http://charliechanfamily.tripod.com/id20.html, shooting for THE BLACK CAMEL began in Hawaii on April 4, 1931 and continued until early May, 1931. I didn’t know that the hilltop house was built that year — it’s amazing to think of it as a brand new home back then. Thanks for sharing the information about your great grandmother. Let me know if you recognize your grandfather in the footage — wouldn’t that be something! aloha, Robin

  5. Gil Ayres says:

    Thanks, alot of great memories from those days gone by. I raised my family on that beach, buzzes was one our favorites. Don Coeulo and his family of girls were our neighbers on Kuupua St. What great times.

    Gil&Carolyn Ayres

  6. John Chris McCarthy says:

    These were great pictures. Much aloha and Kokua for the photo’s. Kailua was my playground. Climbing the ONEAWA hills to diving birdshit rock. THANX… Chris McCarthy and the McCarthy’s of Wilikoki Place.

  7. Shannon says:

    I absolutely adore this post. My great grandparents bought 4 Lanikai lots towards the end of the loop in the early 1900s for $6000 total. My grandparents were given these lots as a wedding present and were one of the first families to settle in Lanikai. My grandmother, mother, and myself all had the opportunity to call this beautiful place home. Although things have changed and Lanikai is now very much a playground for the rich, the memories stay the same in my heart. I hope one day I can call it home again, but only time will tell. I have a few old photos of Lanikai, if you would be interested in seeing them email me: rasmussen6723@gmail.com

    Thank you again, it was interesting and fun seeing the contrast between the past and present.

  8. nestedegg says:

    That really was the good old days of Lanikai– I think those lots would go for over 6 million now! I’d love to see your photos. aloha, Robin

  9. Sue Ann says:

    This was great! I grew up on Lihiwai Road – now part of Kailua Beach park – in the late 40’s through the 50’s. We had the run of the beach, and were on a first name basis with Louie Kahanamoku and the Holumua paddlers who kept their canoe in the empty lot next door- what a wonderful childhood!!!

  10. Awesome! Beautiful Memories forever!

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