A space to make our own

Text Summit Staff

Above: Reid Shigemura uses the O'ahu Makerspace to create beautiful musical instruments.

Hawaii has a long history of diverse endogenous economic production, with a donut hole of monocrop plantations somewhere in the middle. The islands have tasted fertile fields of kalo and foodstuffs; wine by Don Francisco de Paula Marin on what is now Vineyard Boulevard; and fine ales and lagers from the Royal Brewery on Queen Street. We even received an invitation from Napoleon III to showcase Hawaiian arrowroot, awa, coffee and kamani wood at the Paris' Universal Exposition of Agriculture and Industrial Products.

This recognition was indicative of Hawaii's place on the global economic stage. In the 19th century Hawaii was the largest economy in the Pacific (excluding Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand), and Kalakaua had grand plans for a Pacific Empire. Egged on by "Minister of Everything" Walter Murray Gibson, Kalākaua sent a delegation to Samoa to meet with King Malietoa and begin the process of agreement- and treaty-making that would lead to the formation of an empire.

The delegation was often drunk, and the Samoan King was overthrown by a rival during the trip, but Kalakaua's vision was for bigger things. His vision built on the considerable revenue the sugar trade brought after the 1875 reciprocity treaty, which in turn brought tax revenue that allowed for the building of the world-class Iolani Palace and other public projects. While sugar was king, the treaty showed the diversity of Hawaii's economy, providing for the export of arrow-root, castor oil, bananas, nuts, vegetables, hides and skins, rice, pulu, seeds, plants, muscovado and brown and all other unrefined sugar (which became known in the markets of San Francisco and Portland as "Sandwich Island Sugar"), syrups of sugar-cane, melado, molasses and tallow.

In the late 1800s Hawaii was a force to be reckoned with. Hawaii had another export that is often overlooked: its men. Beginning with people like Henry Opukahaia—who became the first Hawaiian Christian—and the alii Kaiana, sailors boarded ships and went to work in the whaling industry in the 1830s. The Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau wrote in the 1860s that there were, by that point, 500 Hawaiians living in Oregon and 50 in Peru. A Hawaiian, John Kalama, founded the town of Kalama, Washington. Hawaii continues to export its people.

You might notice that this brief tour through the heart of Hawaii's 19th century economy looks a lot like the new economy of taro patches, microbrews and curated brewpubs which is popping up or digging down in areas like Kakaako, Kailua, or Heeia. New start-ups are updating the "Made in Hawaii" brand with a sense of urban style and global aplomb, with extensions into technology and design. These are exciting days for island industry.

An outpost of this new economy sits in the already-industrial lowland areas of Kalihi. There, Ross Mukai is establishing a place for makers to make together.

By the time he was a teenager, Ross Mukai had the skills to make things. But his neighbors in studious Manoa didn't appreciate the noise of his airplane engines or metalcasting, and they let him know it by calling the police and fire department regularly.

Sometime after high school, after one too many such calls, Mukai says he knew he had to find another space. It was out of his search to find a place to do his "fun stuff" that O'ahu Makerspace was born.

Located in Kalihi at 2004 Kahai Street, the 6,000 square-foot space is a collaborative factory for members to make products, utilizing machinery and expertise ranging from welding equipment to table saws and sanders for woodworking. The membership fee is $89 per month (minors whose parents are members can join too, for $39 per month).

The value of membership isn't just in having a space to work, though. It's also in learning skills through workshops and through networking with other makers. Such learning is important, says Mukai.

"Connecting your mind to your hands is something that is going to be useful to you whatever you do, whether you're actually making something or not."

"There is room for a manufacturing economy," he says. Makerspace is going to have to pretty much help create that manufacturing because of the access it can provide."

Read a short interview with Maker Reid Shigemura of Ho'okani Music.

Read a short interview with Maker Alex Eteuati, a veteran and volunteer teacher at Palolo Public Housing.

Read a short interview with Nathan Higa, staff member at O'ahu Makerspace, explaining the concept behind the Kalihi workshop.


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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