February 18, 2015 on the ancient Chinese lunar calendar is New Year’s eve. As I scramble to prepare traditional foods and rituals to usher in the year of the goat, I found myself reflecting on the powerful convictions of a great teacher. You may not have heard of her yet, but I’m sure that in due time, you will because Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu (黄貴光) has an inspiring spirit that shines bright on and off the screen. Hinaleimoana is the starring character in a feature documentary called Kumu Hina showing at CAAMFest this year. Here’s an excerpt of an interview I did with her and filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson.
—Kar Yin Tham
Can you talk about how Hawaiian culture became such an important part of your life, in terms of teaching traditions?
Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu: Well, on both sides of my family, I was exposed to the strength [from] both my grandmothers actually. My Hawaiian grandmother, she insisted that I be staunch and fastidious about language and accuracy of our culture. She advocated for me to establish a Hawaiian sense of place, Hawaiian presence, Hawaiian manner, a Hawaiian sense of decorum. And she did this because Hawai’i in my growing up was such a rapidly changing place that I know now, later in life, that Hawai’i was so very different from what she knew.
So you were raised by your grandmother?
HW: I have been reared primarily by her and my Popo, my Chinese grandmother. She shared much with me that she did not share with my mother and her siblings. My Popo, in her own way, was the same kind of person but more from a place of being. You know, I had this engrained into me growing up that both grandmothers were staunchly holding on to what they could just by virtue of the fact that were bi-cultural.
During Chinese New Year, offering tea to our family is the one of the last few things that I still am able to do. You can’t replace that. [If] there’s any one day out of the year you can’t miss, it’s new year. A birthday you might be able to get away with. But you must show up for Chinese New Year, and wish your elders Gong Hei Fat Choy (“Happy New Year” in Cantonese).
Why is it so important for us to have that connection to tradition?
HW: What is modern life? And who dictates modern life? And who sets the standards? And who says that modern life is equated to Western life? And that it is better? For me, that’s been more detrimental. I’ve had to wrestle with, am I going to embrace the mainstream trends that assimilate my manner of engagement and my interaction with people to something more Western? And I say, no, this how I’m going to be. Because if I don’t say it, that I’m going to [live] in the way that I understand my people to be, then what’s the sense of holding onto language? What’s the sense of trying to hold onto culture? It would become a shell. If I were to engage in the Chinese language, but then I had no sense of the Chinese understanding of respect, but I just used the words, it’s an empty shell. Ornamental culture – I’m not a fan of that at all.
Is tradition something you try to communicate to the students? And do you feel like its working, because there are a lot of factors against it.
HW: Yes, It works in ways that are not always so obvious. They will realize what they’ve learned when they go. Just before I came up here (San Francisco), I ran into one of my former students. And he didn’t graduate with us, but he had a very, very rough road with us, and he was released because of it. He shared with me, “Thank you Kumu. You know, I remember you teaching us this.” He was extending a helping hand with someone he didn’t always get along with when he was in school [Hālau Lōkahi Public Charter School]. But this other former schoolmate was down and out. And he gave him a helping hand and he said, “I remember that you taught that to us. And that’s how it has to be.” So then I know that, this young man who has been through his life ordeals and now is a father of two is practicing what he was taught. So that’s one of the biggest rewards to have.
Can you talk more about how gender is portrayed in the film?
Dean Hamer: I’d say that, the way we made the film was simply to follow Hina. We didn’t set out to say we were going to make a film about gender. We said we were going to make a film about Hina. When Hina lives her life, gender comes up a lot.
HW: You know, in the Western context, for the transgender, “passing” or “being passable” for a female to male that has to tie her breasts, for the male the facial hair, an Adam’s Apple and all of these things that are the giveaways for what your true nature is, but in Pacific Island culture there’s more freedom and fluidity to be somewhere in between, but you find the conflict when you have to engage with Western society.
With more traditional elements of Hawaiian society, there are clear roles for the male and for the female, but the definition and the articulation of that is not the same as Western eyes would have it. So, when I say articulation, I mean the physical articulation of a male and a female.
In the film, it shows my friends on the island of Kauai and, you know, they’re certainly very, very androgynous. There’s elements of them that are feminine—Western feminine—and there’s also elements of them that are Western masculine. And there’s no issue.
These are all things that, by Western context, will divide you. Are you this or are you that? But really, it’s the roles that you live. So, the fluidity comes in when you consider that the mahu can exist somewhere in there, but it’s all context specific.
Joe Wilson: It is for Western audiences to view the film in a way that allows them to see how people live in family, community and society outside of construct of labels and who people are supposed to be.
DH: Outside of strict male female labels.
HW: Yes, and for me, I do not like the fact that we are consistently imposed upon by these values that . . . someone from within the LGBT Western perspective have to be so separate and distinct, and this whole idea about a way of life. But, I do not agree with that. I’d rather just be myself, and encourage others to participate in the larger fabric of community and family life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kumu Hina screenings
Co-presented by Frameline and sponsored by Pacific Islanders in Communications and Cooper White & Cooper.