Early 20th century

Duke Kahanamoku, 1915

Ultimately, it was Duke Paoa Kahanamoku who bore the greatest influence on the modern surf revival in Hawai‘i and around the world.  Born in Honolulu in 1890, just three years before the American-supported overthrow of the monarchy, Kahanamoku, like other young Hawaiians who came of age in the American-annexed islands, negotiated poverty through the tourist economy.  Diving for coins as a young boy for tourists on steamships in the Honolulu harbor and working as a “beach boy” for the hotel industry, he grew up surfing and swimming on Waikiki Beach under the gaze of tourists who flocked to the heavily promoted beach, seeking its advertised splendors of tropical paradise complete with primitive natives.  With a twenty-year swimming career that began with gold and silver medals in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Kahanamoku became a global celebrity, playing an important role as unofficial ambassador to Hawai‘i and one of the founders of modern surfing.  Known primarily for his swimming records, Kahanomoku also met Alexander Hume Ford and Jack London and offered to their promotions of the sport his legendary surfing skills, charisma, and global celebrity.  In 1909, Kahanomoku and Knute Cotrell formed the surfing club Hui Nalu (meaning “surf together” or surf organization), an interesting contrast to Hume’s Outrigger Club.  Unlike the latter’s elite, mostly white male membership and country club-like meeting space, Hui Nalu included a diverse mix of women, Native Hawaiians and whites, who met under a hau tree, held “talk story” sessions (a local oral tradition form) and was particularly important in reviving surfing for native Hawaiians.

Makaha, Hawaii, 1964 - The Big Four: Fred Hemmings, Chinn Ho, Duke Kahanamoku and Butch Van Artsdalen

Kahanomoku promoted surfing around the world, giving the first demonstrations to audiences in Sydney, Australia.  His demonstrations in Corona del Mar and Santa Monica in 1912 attracted significant attention (not only to beach goers, but to a burgeoning Hollywood industry who cast him in numerous films in exoticized and racialized roles from Arab prince to Hindu thief). Turning down offers to join the Outrigger Club, Kahanamoku demonstrated his selective participation in the tourist economy of Hawai‘i.

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