Hawaii in Southeast Asia

In the first half of the 1960s, American singer Elvis Presley made three movies in Hawaii: Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise, Hawaiian Style.


In at least one of these movies (or maybe in all of them?), Elvis sang a song on the beach while wearing an aloha shirt.

Then in the late 1960s, Thai actor Sombat Mathanee acted in a movie that was filmed on Samui Island called Paradise Island (Koh Sawad Had Sawan) in which he. . .


. . . sang a song on the beach wearing (something resembling) an aloha shirt.


Later in the movie there is a kind of beach party where a band plays Hawaiian music. . .


. . . and topless young women wearing flower leis dance a kind of Hawaiian dance.

I think that it’s pretty clear that there is a connection between the films that Elvis made and this Thai film.


As for how someone got the idea to name a movie theater in Phnom Penh in the 1960s the “Hawaii Cinema”. . . I have no idea. The Chinese writing on the building suggests to me that the cinema was probably built by an ethnic Chinese businessman, as I don’t think people of other ethnicities put Chinese on their buildings. If that is the case, then why did he decide to name his movie theater the “Hawaii Cinema”?


Then there is the genre of Indonesian music call Keroncong. I think I read somewhere that with the global popularity of Hawaiian music in the first half of the twentieth century, Keroncong bands started to use the ukulele.

What all of this suggests is that the story of Hawaii’s cultural influence on Southeast Asia has yet to be told.


The other day a friend told me about a recent book called Aloha America that looks at hula dancers from Hawaii who toured the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and argues the following points:

Aloha America reveals the role of hula in legitimating U.S. imperial ambitions in Hawai’i. Hula performers began touring throughout the continental United States and Europe in the late nineteenth century. These ‘hula circuits’ introduced hula, and Hawaiians, to U.S. audiences, establishing an ‘imagined intimacy,’ a powerful fantasy that enabled Americans to possess their colony physically and symbolically. Meanwhile, in the early years of American imperialism in the Pacific, touring hula performers incorporated veiled critiques of U.S. expansionism into their productions.”

The role that Hawaiian culture played in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century was different from what is discussed in this book, but it would be interesting to explore exactly how the image of Hawaii and/or aspects of Hawaiian culture were used in local Southeast Asian contexts.

7 thoughts on “Hawaii in Southeast Asia

  1. Thought provoking post!
    Was the cinema owner influenced by Hawaii the military station? Was the connection due to himself or family being in the sugar industry (with Chinese labor contracts going back to 1840’s)? So many possibilities.

    As for today, local kids have taken up ukulele, privately and in school programs, due to the influence of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” by Braddah Iz and other popular tunes that highlight the instrument, such as:

    1. A friend on facebook pointed out that when he visited Hawaii it reminded him of Saigon when he was young, and he brought up a very good point – the contractors and planners who were helping the new state of Hawaii develop were probably a lot of the same people who were helping the new state of South Vietnam develop. Certainly the contractors/planners with military connections would have been the same, right? I noticed a little of that in Taiwan too, although by the time I was there (late 80s) those traces were not very clear anymore.

    2. Just watched the video – What the heck is going on in Thailand???!!!

      That second song that she sings is one of my all-time favorites: Lanna Commins – “Wai jai dai gah.” I went to listen to the original, and found. . . a “ukulele invasion.”

      Do a YouTube search for “ไว้ใจได้กา ukulele.” A bunch of videos will come up, and all by girls who are around the same age. And check out the first one by SuperAppleshow (10:39). It’s a lesson, and she starts out by doing the shaka sign, and then does a wai. . .

      Did I somehow miss the “aloha-icization” of Thailand?? When/how did that happen???

      Yea, you’re probably right. When they played Braddah Iz’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow” at the end of ER, it’s popularity went through the roof. And now Jason Mraz, Bruno Mars, etc. all have popular songs that feature the ukulele.

      My guess would be that this little girl’s performance must have led to this “Thai girl YouTube ukulele phenomenon.” Whatever the case may be, it’s very impressive!!!

  2. The Hawaiian guitar – đàn ghi Hạ uy di – was a profoundly important part of Vietnam’s musical life from the 1930s into the 1960s. At the same time that Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm was happening in 1958 Hanoi, there was an advertisement for Hawaiian guitar lessons in a Hanoi newspaper –
    It was called an electric guitar, but the Hawaiian guitar was the only electric guitar that existed in North Vietnam at the time. Hawaiian guitar players had to be a little furtive in their music making during the war, but they kept playing and some of are still playing today. Check out the webpage for the driving force of the Hawaiian Guitar Club in Hanoi:
    She studied with the teacher in the above advertisement.

  3. And some friends have offered to take me to a place in Hanoi (if I remember correctly they say it is somewhere around Ho Tay) where we can enjoy good Vietnamese music performed by a singer who plays ukulele. This singer is said to be in his 60s or 70s and considered to be an inspiration on ukulele playing among Hanoiians.

    Please excuse me if I remember things incorrectly here, but just want to share and perhaps someone will know about this place and give the correct information. Thanks.

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