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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015

 

Kumu in the Middle 
Story By: Chad Blair
Photos By: Eli Schmidt

There’s a scene in the film Kumu Hina in which the hula teacher at Halau Lokahi stands facing six boys slouching in a doorway of the public charter school in Honolulu. The tattooed, five-foot-ten-inch-tall kumu (teacher) looks imposing despite the yellow plumeria tucked behind her ear. “Stand up straight. Stand tall,” she commands. She demonstrates: shoulders back, feet rooted. “I need this. This is what I need from you, all the time.” The boys comply, looking uncomfortable. Once the kumu is satisfied, she invites them to enter and sit before her. She belts the opening line of a chant from Hawai‘i Island hula teachers: “‘Ai ka mumu keke pahoehoe ke!” Her voice resounds in the huge space as she waits for them to repeat it. 

It’s all in a day’s work for any kumu trying to whip a group of hula-challenged high school boys into performance-ready shape. Forty-two-year-old Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu is a kumu hula, cultural practitioner and activist; the acclaimed documentary film based on her life premiered in April 2014 at Hawaii Theatre and has been shown on the Mainland and in Asia. It will be featured at the Pacific International Film Festival in Tahiti this February and air nationally in the United States on PBS in May. Kumu Hina is a portrait of a respected cultural practitioner passing Native Hawaiian values to her students. It is a love story, too, between Hina and her Tongan husband. More than anything it is the story of what it means to be mahu. 

Kumu Hina has a long way to go with these boys. They try sheepishly to imitate her chant, their voices weak. Hina gently mocks them by whispering back: “‘Ai ka mumu keke …? No. Listen to my voice. There’s nothing wahine [female] about my voice. It’s thick and it’s too low.” She clears her throat, then chants the phrase again, deeper, louder and with almost physical force. The boys laugh, embarrassed and unnerved. Then she addresses them seriously, directly. “When I am in front of the entire school,” she intones, “you guys know that I expose my life. What the younger kids think about me, that’s up to them. But you, as older people, know.” What the boys know—and accept without question—is that their kumu was born male. “Now you, gentlemen,” says Kumu Hina, “gotta get over your inhibitions.”

Before the arrival of American missionaries in 1820, Hina explains in the film, every gender—male, female, mahu —had a role. Native Hawaiians believed that every person possessed both feminine and masculine qualities, and the Hawaiians embraced both, regardless of the body into which a person was born. Those in the middle—mahu—were thought to possess great mana, or spiritual power, and they were venerated as healers and carriers of tradition in ancient Polynesia. “We passed on sacred knowledge from one generation to the next through hula, chant and other forms of wisdom,” Hina narrates. After contact with the West, however, the missionaries “were shocked and infuriated. … They condemned our hula and chants as immoral, they outlawed our language and they imposed their religious strictures across our lands. But we Hawaiians are a steadfast and resilient people. … We are still here.” 

From an early age Collin Kwai Kong Wong knew he was “different,” as Hina puts it now. “I wanted to be as beautiful and glamorous and smart as my mother. I wanted to be this beautiful woman. When my mother would go to work and leave me at home alone, I was in her closet.” Hina laughs recalling this, but it was hardly funny when it was happening: Collin was teased for being too feminine, and he didn’t know how to talk to his family about what he was going through. He tried, like others in such situations, to conform. “I had girlfriends when I was younger, and I tried to play the role,” Hina recalls. “I tried to be the person that I thought my friends and family were expecting to see.”

Collin learned Native Hawaiian values through his grandmother, but it wasn’t until he enrolled at Kamehameha Schools that he learned the practices: hula, oli and ‘olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language). After graduating he worked as an assistant to a kumu hula and traveled throughout the Pacific to places like Tahiti and Rarotonga.


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