Plantation Housing Isn’t the Answer to Homelessness in Hawaiʻi

A street lined with tents and palm trees

This is the fourth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—an alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

In October 2015, Hawaiʻi declared a state of emergency on homelessness. After officials swept multiple houseless encampments throughout the state and moved hundreds of unsheltered people into temporary housing, Governor David Ige announced a plan to divert state funds to the crisis and expedite housing for families experiencing homelessness. Proclaiming a state of emergency also attempted to raise public awareness of the problem in order to ameliorate the continued lack of affordable housing on the islands. In response to this call to end houselessness, the state of Hawaiʻi, the City and County of Honolulu, and the aio Foundation partnered to construct Kahauiki Village, marketed as “an affordable plantation-style community for homeless families.”

Ad for Kahauiki housing. Blue ocean with white lettering, "Building Better Futures"

“Building Futures,” the homepage of Kahauiki Village’s website. Screenshot courtesy of the authors, 2019.

The website for Kahauiki Village, with its faded background image of a palmed coastline and banner reading “Building Futures,” welcomes viewers with a geographically non-specific tropical setting that combines nostalgia and futurity. Kahauiki Village locates, literally and rhetorically, the coalescing afterlives of Hawaiʻi plantations. On its surface, this is the settler state promoting a “future-thinking” solution that appears ecologically sustainable and infused with Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) ways of living. Indeed, “Kahauiki” (the little hau tree) is named after the ahupuaʻa it is built on, the land division extending from the uplands to the sea, which, according to historian Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa, “would include within its borders all the materials required for sustenance; . . . all members of the [Kānaka Maoli] society shared access to these life-giving necessities.” But its evocations of “plantation-style” and its accompanying imagery forgets the conditions of racial capitalism that engendered the formation of plantations in Hawaiʻi—one that included predominantly Asian migrant labor and was predicated upon the ongoing dispossession of Kānaka Maoli peoples and lifeways.

As a racially and ethnically diverse archipelago with a long history of U.S. imperialism, Hawai‘i is a critical site for questioning liberal multiculturalism’s dream of uniting many different identities into a harmonious social collective. Hawaiʻi currently holds the highest rate of people experiencing homelessness per capita in any state: 487 individuals per 100,000, 42% of whom are Kānaka Maoli. The disproportionate number of houseless Kānaka Maoli—along with the constant commodification of Hawaiʻi as a multicultural “paradise”—make the plantation nostalgia embodied by Kahauiki Village especially troubling.

Forgetting How Plantations “Divide and Rule”

Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing’s notion of the “Plantationocene” offers a useful framework for making sense of a “plantation-style” project that markets itself as a solution for environmental and social woes. In Haraway’s terms, the Plantationocene calls for interrogating the historical trajectory of extraction into the present and how it “reli[ed] on slave labor and other forms of exploited, alienated, and usually spatially transported labor.” In centering both racialized migrant labor and the ecological effects, the Plantationocene informs and makes visible the pervasive structures of racialized dispossession in its multiple ramifications for the planet and for populations. Kahauiki Village offers its plantation ethos as solution, but in so doing reinscribes the histories of Indigenous erasure and cultural appropriation. It ignores traditional and ongoing forms of community for Kānaka Maoli, and asserts instead “plantation” as a traditional labor and lifeway of Hawaiʻi. It also misnames, for both Kānaka Maoli and Asian immigrants, a plantation community formation as a voluntary and positive choice under haole (white) oligarchy.

Plantation nostalgia reinscribes the histories of Indigenous erasure and cultural appropriation.

Sugar plantations in Hawaiʻi began in the 19th century and initially used Indigenous labor before the large importation of predominantly Asian immigrants. The architectural layout of the plantation relied on labor divisions by race to uphold the structure of haole power as Hawaiʻi’s sugar industry was dominated by the Big Five mercantile houses. The first plantation, Koloa, opened on Kauai in 1835. It was started by Ladd & Company and run by one of the partners, William Hopper of Boston, who hired “25 Kānakas at two dollars each per month” to work the plantation. This initial venture, documented through Hooper’s diaries, traces the development of labor and sugar that included the necessity of housing for his workers of all ethnic groups. Historian Ron Takaki emphasizes how, by 1836, Hooper had deliberately organized the plantation into “twenty-five acres of cane under cultivation, twenty houses for the natives, a house for the superintendent, a carpenter’s shop” and other required components to harvest and cultivate sugar. The organizing logics of the plantation crafted race into contained spaces and hierarchies through which “houses for the natives” are accompanied by one for the superintendent, later referred to as luna or overseer.

As sugar began to prosper, Hooper noted the challenges with Indigenous labor. He found that “native workers refused to give him the control and loyalty he expected,” and he often had to surveil them otherwise they would not work. Hooper began to employ Chinese migrant workers and utilize a “pattern of ethnic labor segmentation” between Chinese and Kānaka Maoli in their assignments and living quarters. This strategy, later adopted and referred to as “divide and rule” by the Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Association, attempted to cultivate ethnic differences to quell labor unrest and to amplify separate housing and labor tasks. Given that from 1850 to 1920 over 300,000 Asians from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines immigrated to supply the labor of sugar plantations, plantation owners creatively devised ways to isolate laborers. Thus, plantation architectural design of containment and separation articulates the necessity of ethnic division as a western approach to dominance.

Yellowed map of plantation shows "distribution of races"

Plantation map key, where Japanese, Filipinos, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Hawaiians, and Haoles lived.

1937 map of the “Distribution of Races” at Keaʻau Village in Hilo, Hawaiʻi. Map and key from Local Citing, 2019.

Kahauiki Village presents itself as part of a solution to the settler state’s declaration of emergency and uses personal narratives of those living without permanent shelter to promote plantation nostalgia. It also promises to develop a community grounded in a plantation ethos, which ignores the “divide and rule” layout of the plantation and conceals the deeply uneven structures of racial capitalism and settler colonialism that the plantation relied upon. As stated on the homepage, Kahauiki Village “is modeled after the plantation community culture that has shaped much of modern Hawaiʻi today” and highlights how “cultural diversity and personal pride foster strong neighborhood ties.” The village obscures both the racial capitalist requirements for cheap immigrant labor to Hawaiʻi, erases Indigenous dispossession, and recalibrates a local multi-ethnic affective sociality predicated on a limited settler mentality of relationships to land and community.

Aerial sketch of Kahauki Village Housing layout

The proposed land layout of Kahauiki Village, included in “Executive Order No. 4513 Setting Aside Land for Public Purposes.” Image by the City & County of Honolulu, October 2016.

Kahauiki Village’s celebration of cultural diversity erases the ethnic divisions promoted by plantations to subdue labor coalitions. These historical and rhetorical acrobatics are evident in the reflections of Chairman and CEO of the aio Foundation, Duane Kurisu, in Pacific Business News in 2015: “I was talking to my brother Derek the other day and we both agreed that without the benevolence of the sugar plantation, who provided housing for sugar workers, we might have grown up being homeless ourselves.” In rendering plantation “benevolence” as the only condition of community and housing, Kurisu exemplifies how plantation nostalgia reproduces planters’ paternalist strategy to cultivate docile workers and maximize ethnic antagonisms. Plantations were places of exploitative labor practices, not just housing.

Local is Not the Same as Indigenous

Kahauiki Village’s plantation nostalgia also affirms assimilation ideologies by claiming a “local” identity and not acknowledging that exploitation fell on Asian migrants as well as Kānaka Maoli. Feminist Hawaiian activist, poet, and scholar, Haunani-Kay Trask argues that

Ideology weaves a story of success: poor Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino settlers supplied the labor for wealthy, white sugar planters during the long period of the territory (1900-1959). Exploitative plantation conditions thus underpin a master narrative of hard work and the endlessly celebrated triumph over anti-Asian racism.

This “master narrative” operates to justify the economic, political, and social success of predominantly East Asian Americans in Hawaiʻi through producing a sense of belonging to Hawaiʻi that obscures the settler colonial elision of Kānaka Maoli and their own exploitation by white settlers in Hawaiʻi. To claim a local Hawaiian identity requires the forgetting of Indigeneity, by both Kānaka Maoli and East Asian immigrants. The local became a rallying call in the mid 20th century as a multiracial coalitional position forged by plantation workers, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and others, to strike against the haole elite plantation owners and businessmen.

Sketch of three small plantation-style homes

“Plantation Inspired” Kahauiki Village House Design.

Articulated as a pan-ethnic identity, the local continues to be celebrated as a form of cultural membership. However, the local stakes a claim in legitimate belonging in Hawaiʻi as a replacement for Kānaka Maoli. The local consolidated Asian immigrant descendants against a plantation oligarchy. This articulates what Dean Saranillio names as the lasting symbolic nature of “the local” as an “important liberal component in facilitating multicultural forms of settler colonialism in Hawai‘i while denying the fact that many non-Native peoples in Hawai‘i benefit from and facilitate forms of settler colonialism at the expense of Kānaka ‘Ōiwi.” As a result, local ideology operates through Kahauiki Village’s centering of plantation life as a site to solve houselessness through evoking nostalgic Asian American belonging to Hawaiʻi.

In conflating the extractive plantation history with a local Asian American ethos of belonging to Hawaiʻi through labor, Kahauiki Village perpetuates the erasure of Kānaka Maoli dispossession even as it evokes Indigeneity through its name. This embodies the neoliberal settler state’s appropriation of Indigeneity and illuminates the ongoing dispossessions of Indigenous lands promoted by plantation nostalgia.

A soldier in green camouflage fatigues sends up sparks cutting into a metal grid on the ground with a large sawzall. Two white pickup trucks and another solider are in the background.

A Hawaiʻi National Guard soldier works on the foundation for the Kahauiki Village Homeless Relocation Project. Photo from the National Guard, August 2017.

Kahauiki Village also solidifies public support by appealing to environmental concerns for the future. Offering an ideal community to solve family homelessness, Kahauiki Village plans to be on a separate “sustainable” power grid using an integrated photo-voltaic system with batteries donated by Tesla. Instead of reckoning with Kānaka Maoli lifeways that the village is named after, the Kahauiki ahupuaʻa, its sustainability is visible only through new technologies. Its inclusive vision acknowledges but does not engage in Kānaka Maoli reciprocal relations to ʻāina, land.

While Governor Ige’s State of Emergency declaration galvanized community support and rapid construction, it also makes visible the critical need to do more than replicate historical violences in these projects. Social justice and sustainability movements need to not only provide housing for unsheltered folks, but also require community engagement and education. Kahauiki Village reveals an alternative-historical engagement with plantations, which instead could be mediated through a dual responsibility towards education about Asian labor migration and Kānaka Maoli dispossession.

Advocating for sustainable futures should be predicated on an explicit engagement with Indigenous land and water practices instead of empty gestures towards Kānaka Maoli lifeways. In demonstrating Kahauiki Village’s manipulation of settler colonial history, we hope the pathways of its construction and mobilization of public support will offer opportunities for other cities to tackle similar crises of houselessness with greater care and attentionand, perhaps, create communities attentive to and educated on the multiple layers of settler colonialism and racial capitalism that structure the ongoing rising cost of living and the lack of affordable housing nationally.

Featured image: Tents and palm trees line a Hawaiian street across from a popular shopping area. Photograph by Joel Achatz, March 2011.

Leanne Day is a Florence Kay Fellow at Brandeis University and an interdisciplinary scholar of race, Indigeneity, and U.S. empire with a focus on literary and cultural production in the Pacific. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in English Literature. Her work has been published in Critical Insights and Amerasia. Twitter. Contact.

Rebecca Hogue is a 2019-2020 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in English with a Designated Emphasis in Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include Pacific Islands Literatures, Environmental Humanities, Indigenous Studies, and Settler Colonial Studies, with a focus on Pacific Islander environmental justice writings from 1970 to the present. This summer, as a Mellon Public Scholar, she is building a digital archive of Pacific Islander Climate Change activism in Northern California. Twitter. Contact.