Moiliili, then and now

Place Mōʻiliʻili
Text Summit Staff

Located roughly between McCully Street in the West and Kapahulu Avenue in the East, and stretching from the Ala Wai Canal up to the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Mō‘ili‘ili was part of the ahupua‘a that includes both Mānoa and Waikīkī. The area was formally known as Kamō‘ili‘ili and was owned by King William Lunalilo during the 19th century. Queen Kamāmalu’s summer cottages stood near the present site of the Willow’s restaurant on Hausten Street. Many scholars have documented that the Queen and her court revelled in the balmy summer water of the nearby Kapa‘akea Springs.

Mō‘ili‘ili’s etymology is derived from an ancient legend about Hi‘iakaikapoliopelem (younger sister of the volcano goddess, Pele), Lohiau (a “handsome young chief from the island of Kaua‘i”) and Wahineoma‘o (a friend of Hi‘iaka’s).

In the tale, a large gust of wind blows past the trio, just as they arrive at the place where the old Kamo‘ili‘ili Church once stood (now the grounds of the Kūhi�� Elementary School). Wahineoma‘o and Lohiau feel invisible hands tugging on their ears and cry fervently for the assistance of Hi‘iaka. The goddess knows that a mo‘o is behind this mischief, for the mo‘o are powerful lizard ‘aumakua (spiritual and familial totem gods) who possess potent magic.

Hi‘iaka boldly tells Wahinema‘o and Lohiau to stand beside her and orders the horrible lizard to appear. The storm goddess whips off her outer skirt, which was made of supernatural kapa cloth, and bolts of lighting leap from the skirt's folds filleting the dastardly lizard.

The lizard's body is sliced apart and the pieces become a rock hewn hill which sits near the old Hawaiian Church. As a result, the area was named Kamō‘ili‘ili, which literally translates to “pebble lizard” or “place of the lizard pebbles.” This was eventually abridged to Mō‘ili‘ili.

Flat and wet, Mō‘ili‘ili was a large taro-growing area for Hawaiians up until the 1800s. During the 1870s, many Chinese immigrants began settling in Mō‘ili‘ili to farm taro, rice and lotus root, and continued settling the land there for the next 30 years. Perhaps the most notable of these immigrants was Lum Yip Kee the “Taro King” who, along with Hawaiian and Chinese counterparts, worked hard to develop the well-watered region into a productive agricultural district.

Japanese immigrants, discouraged and disgruntled by the wage slavery and exploitation of the plantations, left behind the luna, his whip and his cane, and settled in Mō‘ili‘ili as well, hoping to create better lives for themselves and their families. Some depended on their own labor, working long hours to tend to their pig farms and rice fields.

The stone quarry (circa 1900), now home to the wonderfully banal Lower Campus parking structure and mazelike University athletic complex, created jobs for many of these newly transplanted residents. Most scholars conclude that “Mō‘ili‘ili residents [during these early years] considered their existence a step up the social ladder and that the economy of Mō‘ili‘ili was primarily agricultural” (Choy et al. 19).

Historian Andrew Lind asserts that Mō‘ili‘ili’s heavy concentration of Japanese immigrants perpetuated “traditional Japanese institutions and patterns of homeland.” Hoping to move several steps ahead of (or perhaps to distinguish themselves from) their country cousins trapped beneath the suffocating hegemony of the plantations, the newly arrived issei endured their “Tiny camp houses and dirt roads”—small sacrifices to pay for personal freedom and relative financial independence.

Numerous business ventures ensued: meat, vegetable and produce markets popped up along King Street. A bit later on, the area became known as the floral capital of Honolulu. If you were to stroll down King Street in the ’50s and ’60s, you'd see a veritable rainbow of flower shops along the way.

During World War II, Mō‘ili‘ili’s Japanese residents rallied around their Community Association and the Buddhist Hongwanji mission as efforts intensified to Americanize them. In 1945, the Mō‘ili‘ili Community Association (MCA) replaced the Ka Mō‘ili‘ili Community Council, the latter of which “had served as the coordinating body and clearing house for all community activities during the war” (Higa 11). The MCA’s role in promoting solidarity amongst community members, during a time when Japanese citizens were distrusted by many, cannot be over-emphasized.

During the 1950s, folklore once again entered the consciousness of Mō‘ili‘ili’s residents. A series of cave-ins caused severe damage to a home and a local department store. Research into these cave-ins demonstrated that “extensive coral formations had [created] underground water passages in the Mō‘ili‘ili area” (Higa 12). One of the main water passages in this system is said to run from the top of the quarry down to an outlet at the Willows Restaurant. Traditionally, the formation of these coral caverns and water channels are attributed to Kamapua‘a, a rascally Hawaiian demi-god that takes the form of a hog-man.

William Westervelt describes, in his Legends of Hawai‘i, the unsuccessful advances of Kamapua‘a toward two beautiful women he meets while walking along a stream that flows out of Mānoa Valley. Kamapua‘a calls to the two women but, after discerning his numerous tattoos and hog's hide exterior, they decide to run away from the demi-god.

Kamapua‘a runs after the women, but he fails to realize that they are goddesses in their own right. They possess powers which prove more than a match for the pig god. Just as he is about to seize the maidens with his porcine hands, the wily ladies disappear beneath the surface of
the earth, seeping through the large beds of petrified coral beneath
the surface.

Kamapua‘a changes his form into that of a giant boar (a form which has been popularized in several children’s novels) and begins to dig up the stones, soil and coral beneath which his “intended lovelies” have dissipated. But the maiden goddesses are able to control the underground stream system and set the infuriated pig-god awash in a torrent of water.

Nearly drowning in the flood, Kamapua‘a gives up the chase. To this day, the wells the goddesses used to foil Kamapua‘a’s amorous plans are known as “The Wells of Kamapua‘a.”

Looking Forward

In many ways, the triangle formed by the intersections of King & Beretania (at Puck’s Alley), Beretania & McCully, and McCully & King is the informal "Times Square” of Honolulu. Some would argue that downtown, with its financial and arts district, would be a better fit. Others might suggest the commercial areas around Ala Moana or Ward, if only for the sheer number of visitors. These arguments have merit, but they’re geographically wrong.

Makai of the intersection at McCully and King Street lies one of the primary entrances to Waikīkī, and the bridge above McCully and Beretania feeds into Makiki and Mānoa. A few blocks away, Beretania and King Street meet at a five-way intersection that leads to Kapahulu, Ka‘imuki, Kāhala, Hawai‘i Kai and Waimānalo to the east. Mauka of this intersection is the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and one of the entrances to the H-1 freeway. When rail transit moves into “Phase II,” one of the proposed stops intended to service the University will most likely be located nearby.

The Mō‘ili‘ili neighborhood is naturally positioned as a gathering place. Decades ago, before the Honolulu Stadium became the Old Stadium Park, the neighborhood served as a commercial area, complete with dozens of shops and restaurants, a bowling alley and a movie theatre.

In time, that past has faded and a new future is coming. But what form will it take?


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