The Brancatelli File



August 1, 1984 --Hawaii joined the union twenty-five years ago this month, but there’s still an undeniably syncopated rhythm to everyday life in this part of America.

Hawaiians buy the same kind of burgers and fries Virginians and Californians buy. It’s just that the McDonald’s shops in Hawaii also sell saimin, a local soup-and-noodle dish.

Hawaii studies the same American history as Texas and Pennsylvania studies. It’s just that Hawaii’s history is also about the old Hawaiian monarchy and royalty like King Kamehameha and Prince Bill Lunalilo.

Hawaiians watch the same bad situation comedies and trashy soap operas Iowans and Oregonians watch. It’s just that the bad sit-coms and trashy soapers reach Hawaiian television a week late.

Hawaii’s everyday business life is also ever-so-slightly out of tune with the commercial realities of the mainland. The major car-rental companies process Hawaiian reservations through their international desks and corporate discount rates don’t apply. Hawaiian business executives pay 75 cents for The Wall Street Journal and copies rarely reach newsstands before noon. Everyone in business in Hawaii wears brightly colored “Aloha shirts." And Hawaiian business conversations are routinely peppered with terms such as mana (power), pau (finished) and hui (a syndicate or group).

That Hawaii remains appealingly exotic and not quite totally American twenty-five years after statehood is hardly a surprise. Hawaiian culture always has been more Oriental than Occidental.

In fact, if there is any real surprise about Hawaii, it’s that this indescribably beautiful and outrageously contradictory chain of tropical volcanic islands smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has become so American after only 25 years of statehood.

But most of all, the Americanization of Hawaii has totally transformed the Islands’ economic system.

For more than a hundred years before statehood, Hawaii was an agrarian society. Its major crops, sugar and pineapple, were the mainstay of the economy and the driving force behind the mostly rural Hawaiian lifestyle. But statehood and the simultaneous arrival of the commercial jet industry in 1959 changed all that. Almost overnight, the jets brought millions of tourists to the newest state. While it only took a dozen years for the booming tourist industry to displace agriculture as the economic core of the Hawaiian economy, the social and cultural adjustments have been much longer in coming.

“In a lot of ways Hawaii is still struggling to make the psychological adjustment to the fact that we aren’t a little farming community anymore," says Henry A. Walker Jr., the chairman of Amfac, Hawaii’s largest company.

“There has been a tradition of agriculture here. Everybody always depended to some degree on sugar or pineapple for a living. There was always the belief that agriculture was the solution to all our problems. But now we have become a tourist-based society and we’re all dependent on tourism for our living. That is an extremely difficult transition to make, especially in such a short time and in a community as small and sheltered as Hawaii."

Statehood also brought twenty years of boom times to Hawaii. Regardless of the economic climate of the other 49 states, Hawaii grew quickly, effortlessly, and consistently. It routinely outperformed the mainland in all of the key economic indicators. But much to the surprise of Hawaii’s business community, the easy-growth boom years ended in 1980 when the whole country suffered through a recessionary period.

“During the boom years of 1960-1980, Hawaii wasn’t affected by the same business cycles that affected the mainland," explains Frank J. Manaut, chairman and chief executive office of Bank of Hawaii, the state’s largest. “But that changed because [by 1980] Hawaii had stopped being a sheltered series of islands and had become an integral part of the American economy. By 1980, Hawaii and the mainland were just too closely tied together for Hawaii to avoid the downturn. Ever since, Hawaii’s economy has moved up and down on the same economic path as the mainland. For better and worse, we are now part of the American economic system."

Which is not to say that Hawaii is hurting. Even though recent growth hasn’t been as easy and as effortless as it was during the first twenty years of statehood, Hawaii still boasts one of the highest standards of living in the nation and the country’s lowest unemployment rate.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1984-2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.