Hawaii Finger Talk

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“Keep your eyes on the hands, fingers tell the story”,  first-time Hawaii hula observers are told.

Early tourist-era songs advised: “Keep your eyes on the hands, not on her naughty hips, or her opu (tummy) sway.”


Songwriter R. Alex Anderson personified these instructions with his description of  “Lovely hula hands, graceful as the birds in motion (kou lima nani e).”

So many languages are spoken in Hawaii. And even when not swaying in the breeze, hand talk is a quick and easy way to exchange a friendly thought: It communicates warmth, sort of like smiling–a connection. Locals adapted the “V” for Victory as a universal wartime greeting, waving it at each other and to soldiers and sailors, expressing the will to carry on. “Thumbs Up” with another friendly morale-booster, neither originated here, though.

Then, with a heavy influx of mainland service personnel, Hawaii’s own cheerful hand greeting evolved, commonly called “kinipopo” (right on the ball)–the Hawaiian word for “play ball.”

The thumb and index finger form a circle, other fingers are raised straight like a cockscomb.  A smile and the phrase “Right On,” became part of the this greeting, conveying the thought “You’re doing a good job.” This was a universal way of expressing appreciation  to military personnel.

I’ve observed state legislators concocting gestures of their own: Democrats scratch their noses when a member of the Republican minority speaks. Just before a vote, legislators make surreptitious gestures or give instructions to each other–similar to those used after gladiator combat in ancient Rome: Thumbs up (life) or Thumbs down (disapproval).

During the Crazy Sixties, when “Tourism” and “The Hawaiian Renaissance” (meaning an influx of new money) evolved as Hawaii’s economic panacea, the “Shaka” evolved: a pinky and thumb salute.

I read these instructions on how to do it:

“Make a fist with either hand. Extend the thumb and pinky while keeping the middle fingers curled under. Draw an invisible “J” in the air as you give your Shaka a shake and you’re communicating Hawaiian style” (sic).

“Hawaii style”—but not really Hawaiian.  It became integrated into the ersatz culture concocted here with tourist appeal. It was first aimed at me when I returned home to Hawaii in the Sixties for a visit after being away at college.  I thought it was the Italian Satanic hand sign: That is a curse, and an insinuation that your wife is (or will be) unfaithful.

A cartoon of John Lennon using this Italian gesture was displayed on the cover of the Beatles’ new album “A Yellow Submarine.”

Probably it was the English producer’s hope Lennon would use it to ward off bad luck so the album would become a big hit.  (Of course, like everything Lennon signed off on, this worked.)

Almost every week a free Honolulu tabloid newspaper publishes lots of photos of happy folks at a party, many displaying a Shaka!

Hmm… What they might actually be thinking and grinning about could be much deeper than I realized.  I came to this conclusion while researching my new books on Menehunes. I have discovered anthropological meanings for the use of this sign. …And if those who use it here really understand those meanings, they may be using Shakas to express very humorous double entendres.

You’ll never think of a Shaka presenter in the same way after you’ve read this:

The Bushmen of Africa are a mirror to the past.  Hunting in pairs, Bushmen chatter with each other a great deal, but when hunting they stalk in silence using signals to keep each other informed.  Most often these hand signs—identical to the Hawaii Shaka– identify an animal by its salient feature, e.g., outstretched index fingers suggest big horns.  Varied subtle versions of their Shakas convey: Bat-eared Fox, Wart Hog, Crowned Guinea Fowl, Lion.  (Differential is all in the subtlety of how fingers are arranged and displayed.)

This understanding deepens my perception of  what grinning locals displaying Shakas are actually thinking about folks they see in Honolulu’s watering holes. (Example: “Wow, you ought see the antlers on that beast!”)

The Hawaii Shaka is not indigenous, it is not Hawaiian.  It is just another whim that enchants tourism.

Actually, we need more fresh ideas to bring folks here. So whim away smart folks so we can swim.

By becoming cleverer about things, we may be able to avoid relying on the universal up-raised hand symbol that means “Help I’m Drowning!” We’re already in deep water from government debt and the Choo-Choo hasn’t come yet.

J. Arthur Rath III is a Hawaii-based writer, reach him at imua@spamarrest.com