Coconut Willee: Big-Hearted Locals in Waikiki

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BY J. ARTHUR RATH – Spotting me trotting along the Diamond Head Road walkway, Coconut Willee catches up to enthuse over a favorite Waikiki Kuhio Beach spot.

Willee explains:  It’s under a Hau tree (Sea Hibiscus), from benches there you can look at the sea.  This shade tree is trained on an overhanging trellis.  Hau flowers change with moods of the day, opening with bright yellow blooms having a deep red centre, deepening to deep orange, then matching the sunset red before dropping to the ground at day’s end.”


“Didn’t know you were this poetic, Willee, I’ll share my memories of that place:

“My school buddies—Don Ho, Kui Lee, Gino Kaupiko (who grew up to be a professional beach boy), Ed Parker (who helped Father Karate in America along with introducing Bruce Lee, and who was Elvis Presley’s bodyguard) hung out there. This was during the mid-Forties, after war-time barbwire was removed from the beach.

During evenings, I plucked an ukulele and we made kani ka pila (music).  This was a local youth’s hangout; space in front of hotels and The Waikiki Outrigger Club was off limits to us.”

“its still local, “ Willee said.  When I go by I see groups of mainly the same aged kids. There is always an ukulele player and lots of “Hey Brah” chatter.  Tanned guys attract some blond wahine eyes.

“At the end of the day Paul, an older guy, gets out a dust pan and broom and sweeps up sand and opala (rubbish),

“Who pays him,” I asked.

“No one.”  He says, “I like to keep this place clean.   I come here almost every day, it’s like my club.”

Nodding, Willee said, “Me and him are real tight

He tells me of Kawika (David) sort of the spot’s supervisor.  He’s a cheerful chatterer with amusing stories.  He focuses his eyes on those entering the space—not intimidating or putting them in their place, but sort of like a fine restaurant’s maitre d’hote.  He gives one look and folks know to behave.  (His glances include an unspoken thoughts: Go further down in the bushes if you need pakalolo (pot) to be your friend.  Nice wahine stay here.)

Coconut Willee shares further thoughts:  “I like Kawika’s optimism and space protectiveness.  He calls me ‘Uncle,’ a term islanders
use to defer  to elder males and they call women ‘Aunty.’ At an Island party Uncle and Aunty are led to the front of the food line.”

“Willee, that’s manifest knowledge to a one-time local boy me.  Do continue” and he does.

“’Where’d you go to high-school?’” That’s always a first greeting on Oahu after identifying someone as local.  Schools have a way of embedding lasting traits.

“Kawika said his alma mater is a public city school. No, not fabled McKinley High.

“He explained: ‘They never teach us nothing about life such as: Learning a valuable work skill, managing money, becoming a good husband or wife and parent, and continuing to expand our minds.

Guess you get that in college.  But when you no have help in raising your grades to score well on tests and are without money to go further, then you’re destined for the shade.’”

“Like under this hau tree?”

“Maybe, until I become too makule (old).”

“Kawika finished with a smile.  ‘But, hey,  Willee, you listen to me.  Now I bring fun.  I’m local color.  Part of Hawaii’s friendly, carefree people tourists read about, I’m the spirit of Aloha.  I make you smile, right?”

“’Right on,’” I answered.”

Willee then explained he came looking for me.

I ask him, “Tell me more about Waikiki’s local scene.”

“This experience is good for mind and spirit.  On Saturdays and Sundays on Montserrat Drive, where Kalakaua Avenue divides, artists hang artwork on the  Zoo’s fence.  I describe it as ‘Beauty and mind-expanding experiences displayed on chain-wire.’  Artists enjoy socializing with folks who stop by.

“I’m working with Paul Forney, a guy at the far end, on an animated film involving the “Sixties-Type Surfing Cartoon Characters” he draws.  Wish us luck, I walk around crossing my fingers, when not making my “OK” sign.  My pal Paul’s drawings of me are trademarked and so is  the name “Coconut Willee.”  Maybe I’ll go to Hollywood.”

“Be careful, Willee,” I say. “Writing’s my game—please don’t get in the way.”

“Well then, we’ll be collaborators you and me.  I’ll describe our partnership as ‘Willee and Thee.’”

I nod my head and walk on, experiencing enough of his enthusiastic chatter for the day.  Am going to sit a while under the Park’s lovely Banyan Tree, then stroll up the road to listen to Kawika’s joviality.  Sometimes I go there to smoke Dominicans—cigars–downwind from sweet wahine.

A few puffs later last night, I thought of a song we old guys sang,“He Inoa Kawaika.”  It is about the Hawaiian word for ‘David.’  We were told King Kalakaua  loved singing “My Name is Kawika” to proclaim pride in both his Hawaiian and Missionary name.

My Lyman family ancestors always referred to him as “Kawika,”

Uncle Rufus was one of his advisers.

–Another Slices of Life in Hawaii by J. Arthur Rath III.