August 30th, 2016
The newly opened and reimagined International Market Place, in the heart of Waikiki, surely will be equally ballyhooed and booed. It’s grand, it’s gorgeous, it’s about time. Yet its relevance and reception will be determined as folks discover what it offers in the weeks and months ahead.
On the plus side, it boasts 75 shops (50 or so already operating) brightly positioned in a three-level open-air mini-mall that takes advantage of our summery Hawaii weather. In other words, no AC, unless you’re in a shop or eatery. Restaurants are situated on the third level, but they are largely pricey yet precious additions; the jury’s still out on whether locals will be open to tasting and embracing their riches. Luxury costs.
Happily, the shops are meticulously placed around the historic 160-year old banyan tree, with an updated tree house, removing the dark, gangly creepiness of the aging beauty with a savvy reno. The tree stands tall, but altered, in the pristine new neighborhood and it simply magnifies the glory of the IMP, which is how marketers refer to the destination. Not the best of acronym for a mighty grand lady.
On the negative side, there’s apparently no regular showcase for a budding or a proven musical act, to share his/her artistry to patrons in the shopping/dining destination. In days of old, there was the iconic Duke Kahanamoku’s, the launching pad for then-newbie Don Ho, who evolved and became a national and international ambassador and treasure of Hawaiian-style music and partying. Remember “I’ll Remember You,” “Suck ‘em Up,” “One Paddle, Two Paddle,” “Lahainaluna,” and “Ain’t No Big Thing”? It all started here. Remember Cock’s Roost, Canton Puka and Don the Beachcomber? Each had resident acts, to complement the shopping and the and enhance noshing and drinking.
Happily, Hawaiian music is not passé in the International Market Place, which has enlisted Tihati Productions, the state’s premier creator of things Hawaiian and Polynesian, to provide a nightly serenade and performance at dusk, coincidentally in the piko (Hawaiian for center, and also bellybutton) of the IMP: the Queen’s Court, one of three pivotal zones in the center’s history (one other being the Banyan Court, on the Kalakaua side of entry, and the third, the Mauka Court, on the Kuhio Avenue side). For now, the 30-minute show, with photo ops and all, begins at 6:30 p.m. but times will change with the seasons.
The show, a snapshot with narrative, vocals and dancers of the history of the site and the royals (Queen Emma and King Kamehamea IV, who lived here), is in a curious position. It is the lone regular entertainment element, in the heart of the IMP; it attempts to explain the little-known facts about the location, via oli and hula between snippets of shared historical knowledge. It’s the kind of a show that requires a sit-down, soak-it-all-in audience, what with its sometimes wordy academics, so a lot is lost, or not found, for folks who are either traipsing by or sipping beverages from koa rocking chairs on both second decks overlooking the Queen’s Court. Simply put, the handfuls of oval stools (which look like dinosaur eggs from afar) or the benches on the corridors, aren’t engaging enough to sustain a listening, involved crowd. Too far away, for one thing. Sure, the grassy space mighjt work for families with refreshments to nibble, set against that precious water element behind. This is clearly a work in progress; how to capture a crowd with an ensemble (a cast that will alternate over time, not a “name” attraction) of a host who sings and dancers providing precisely the kind of aloha and artistry under the radar in Waikiki.
There is one literal walk-on worthy of mention: Leilani Kahoano makes a brief entrance decked out in a flowing Queen Emma-replica gown, but she neither sings or dances. It’s a happening that will build with time, but its existence, combined with the passionate historical relevance, needs to be nurtured and tweaked to attract viewers and listeners stay for the pageantry, the way a Disneyland/Disneyworld mini-show draws throngs at the precise appointed time.
I attended a preview opening, when Hawaii stars like Jake Shimabukuro, Willie K and Raiatea Helm took turns in the limelight — each a worthy ambassador of the changing spectrum of island music, each playing for a manini crowd. There were hundreds of invitees this particular night, but the action focused on tastings menus at the third-level restaurant zone. When food competes with music, food often wins. Attention to and appreciation of these local luminaries were sorrowfully lacking.
If there is a star headliner of the IMP, it’s gotta be the first Saks Fifth Avenue on the Kuhio end of the property. It’s a clear indication and a beacon of hope that a high-end anchor might generate buzz from some first-time local visitors, along with national and global customers who know the brand. But bargain hunters will have to look elsewhere for trinkets once hawked from shabby carts and, shamelessly, manufactured not in Hawaii but in ports producing ‘em on the cheap.
I remember the time when a Woolworth’s adjacent to the IMP also sold affordable tikis and key chains and curios and aloha attire; stuff that became omiyage when visitors returned home. After it shut down, the carts proliferated, creating a tacky new culture that some folks now miss. Cheap has a following.
New is nice, yes, but some old IMP traditions live only in memory: those overhead lauhala fans, see-sawing over the audience, at Duke’s, where you’d watch Don Ho and order Mai Tais served in Suck ‘em Up glasses you would take home (I still have a few in my kitchen nook); the Crazy Shirts booth that launched a popular T-shirt label, that happily, is reborn in the center’s return; the food court for cheap-eats lunches or dinners, like beef stew and rice and chow mein with walnut shrimp; entertainment by the Surfers group, singing Hawaiian and pop, at Canton Puka; the Elvis Presley “museum” shop on the second level, with mementos linked to the King of Rock, competing with a plethora of Coke-related collectibles; and yes, even the earliest glimpse of Bruno Mars (who then was the Littlest Elvis), performing with his dad’s do-wop group, the Love Notes, at the adjacent Imperial Hawaii Hotel.
Remember? How can you forget. ...