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.