Palaces, Power, & Poetry in Two Parts | Honolulu & San Francisco

Iolani Palace

Iolani Palace NightPart 1 – Honolulu

At the mention of a trip to Honolulu, you may think of beach days, umbrella-topped cocktails, and photo-op sunset cruises. I don’t blame you.

However, for a more discerning traveler, there’s a place in downtown Honolulu that is one of my favorite sights in the city, especially at night, when the buzz of cars has quieted some and the shadows under the banyan trees seem to fill with memories.

‘Iolani Palace, once the official residence of Hawaii’s monarchy, is a national historic landmark with daily tours for those travelers interested in experiencing the magnificence of the Hawaiian royalty of ancient times. Built in1882 and still glorious, the Palace stands as a testimony to power and poetry.

If you drive by at night, you’ll see the Palace as it must have similarly appeared on the night of November 16, 1886, minus the gathered crowds and banners decorating its balconies when it became the world’s first royal governmental residence  lit by electricity. Hawaii’s beloved King Kalakaua, excited about Thomas Edison’s discovery, was drawn to the power of electricity, perhaps for the opportunity it afforded Hawai’i to show itself as a forward-thinking, regal nation among visiting world leaders and settlers, affirming this small archipelago’s sovereignty. The King decided on the luxury of electricity for the Palace during a time of gas lamps at the White House. What he may have been working toward was respect from the international community of decision makers, many of whom kept a covetous eye on his beautiful island nation. Unfortunately, regardless of his attempt at a steadfast hold, the fate of the Hawaiian Kingdom veered in the opposite direction.

As many know, Queen Lili’uokalani, the last ruling monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, was deposed by colonizers in 1893 and imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace for eight months during which she was at times denied visitors, literature, and newspapers. For a worldly queen, writer, poet, author, composer, and musician, this alone must have been its own torture, not to mention the pain brought on by the loss of sovereignty.

What is claimed to have indeed reached her inside the palace were the flowers from her home garden, as the Palace was not her usual residence, which friends smartly wrapped in both local and international newspapers that would serve to connect the Queen to the events of her day. Queen Lili’uokalani continued opposing her wrongful imprisonment by using her creativity and was able to smuggle her songs out of the Palace to be published in Hawaiian-language newspapers. Three of these reached Chicago to be printed there, including the now well-known “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku/The Queen’s Prayer” and her previously published song about a lovers’ farewell embrace, “Aloha ‘Oe/Farewell to Thee,” which is often regarded as a lament for the Hawaiian Islands.

She explains the imposed limitations on her creativity in her memoir: “At first I had no instrument, and had to transcribe the notes by voice alone; but I found, notwithstanding disadvantages, great consolation in composing, and transcribed a number of songs.”

The political and historical situation that led to the colonization of the Kingdom of Hawai’i is layered. The Queen wrote a moving insider’s account of her Hawai’i and its overthrow in the book Hawaii’s Story, published in 1898, the same year that her kingdom was officially annexed to the United States. Lili’uokalani’s powerful grace, noted to have been ever-present in actions and words despite the obscene injustices against her, infuses her story—Hawaii’s story—in her poetic autobiography.


Part 2 – San Francisco

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, built in 1915 as part of an art exposition, also stands gorgeously lit at night—a powerfully poetic sight. This weekend, Oct. 25-27, brings a second dose of both power and poetry as the hula dance company Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu hits the theater on site. These dancers feel their art and transmit an energizing current of magic through storytelling. How do I know? I used to be one of them (full disclosure). This is my old dance troupe, and these are my hula brothers and sisters.

What makes it extra, extra exciting this year is the theme of Hawaiian newspapers. Na Lei Hulu’s new production titled Ka Leo Kanaka/Voice of the People features dances inspired by 100 years’ worth of Hawaiian-language newspapers.

Na Lei Hulu readingThe stories found in them are embodied by the male and female performers dancing Hula Kahiko (ancient hula), Hula ‘Auana (modern hula), and Hula Mua (hula that evolves), the last being choreographer/director Patrick Makuakane’s invention and trademark style. Kumu Hula (hula master) Patrick has been a prominent figure in the dance community for over 25 years, having received several Isadora Duncan awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the reputable San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.


Na Lei Hulu 2Na Lei Hulu’s dances, songs, and chants create a powerful landscape of the human story as found in the Hawaiian-language newspapers of Lili’uokalani’s time. Those interested in stage fashion will enjoy the poetry of one of my favorite hula costumes yet—an ivory tea-length dress stamped with Hawaiian-language newspaper print. Here’s a peek at it from last week’s performances, but you should really go see it koholo across the stage for true poetry in motion.


Na Lei Hulu

The Palace of Fine Arts is located in the Marina District, in walking distance to shops and eateries along Chestnut Street as well as bars and cafés on Union Street. Whether you go for a matinée or an evening performance, head to either street for a pre-show bite to eat or a post-show drink. If it’s just a stroll you’re after, I’d go toward the water onto Marina Blvd. From there, you can travel west past Crissy Field all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge if you’re looking for a leisurely walking tour by the bay—that is, before or after catching the show and loving it.

(Photo Credit: Top black and white photo of Kalakaua Jubilee Parade courtesy of The Friends of Iolani Palace, Palace photo by Macpro. Show photos by Aunty J. Wang.)



*     ‘Iolani Palace, 364 S. King St., Honolulu, HI 96813, Open Monday-Saturday: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. for tours.

*     Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu’s show,“Na Leo Kanaka/Voice of the People” Oct. 25 -27 (or their current annual show production every October) at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, 3601 Lyon Street, San Francisco, CA 94123.


About Sam at Reading the Road

Hello, I'm Samantha, author and editor of READINGTHEROAD.COM, a blog journal of travelogues, travel stories, personal essays, articles, reflections, reviews, and poems in which travel and literature intersect.

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