Images courtesy of John Hook & Sprout by ARIA Studios
Twice a year, in October and April, the Blaisdell Center exhibition hall in Honolulu is filled to capacity with vendors and shoppers looking to procure wedding services. If you identify yourself as a bride or groom at the entrance, you receive a cute heart sticker and can leave with enough swag to fill a shopping cart. There are brochures for things you wouldn’t even think of: the chocolate fountain guy, the chair ribbon guy, the florist who specializes in sustainably harvested moss, the Christian hip-hop DJ crew. Photographers have displays with tourist couples kissing across the range of human experience: at churches and hotel courtyards, beach parks, nightclubs, shark cages; while skydiving or ziplining—whenever and wherever a licensed practitioner is willing to show up.
Hawai‘i is one of the most popular places in the world to get married. Weddings here are what entertainment is to Los Angeles, finance is to New York City, oil is to Dubai. It is our ordinary workers’ bread and butter, our fish and poi, and everybody knows somebody who works in the variety of secondary industries which weddings supports. For those of us who don’t work directly in the industry, even those of us who do, all this talk of romance is enough to drive a sane person crazy. According to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, in 2013, more than 125,000 individuals indicated that the purpose to their visit on the islands was to get married, and more than 580,000 came for their honeymoons. They come from around the world, but primarily the United States mainland and Japan. Of Japanese tourists, nearly 20 percent come specifically to get married, and leave in a hurry. There are certainly other gorgeous locales to do the deed, so why Hawai‘i? It could be biological: An anthropologist might say human couples arrive on the islands for the same reasons as migrating humpback whales, green sea turtles, and tiger sharks: to court and have sex. A yogi mystic might tell you this place is some version of a portal. Of course it’s not one reason but many. Hawai‘i has been in the wedding business for decades, and as the ladies passing out stickers at the Blaisdell might tell you, business is booming.
On a trip to the beach in Hawai‘i you might be lucky enough to spot a monk seal, a turtle, or even a whale. More likely, you will see Japanese newlyweds. In 1973, Takao Watabe, a Japanese merchant, opened a wedding store on the ninth floor of the Waikiki Business Plaza. He was one of the first to sell wedding packages for Japanese nationals in what would become a national phenomenon. The afternoon I visit, I experience what as many as 50 Japanese couples a day do on the eve of their wedding date: After finding the elevator through a gaggle of visitors, cops, and guys hawking shooting range flyers, I ascend to the ninth floor and the Watabe briefing area. When the elevator opens, it smells like fresh flowers, and I float through the immaculately lit, open salon of Watabe Wedding. Tomoko Bohannon and Bella Sato from the planning department greet me. In addition to planners, Watabe has employees who work as in-house salon attendants, beauticians, florists, media correspondents, cooks, bartenders, chapel administrators, drivers, photographers, videographers, and then some. After a tour of the space, I take a seat where a groom might while waiting for his bride’s fitting.
“Hawai‘i for Japanese is their dream wedding,” Bohannon tells me. “For many of them, it’s their first trip out of the country. And if they want an international wedding, it’s usually here.” As is the custom in many cultures, a Japanese couple’s wedding invitation list may extend into the triple digits back in Japan, with a corresponding event that costs as much as a down payment on a home, a vehicle, the first few years of raising a child. “It’s cheaper to just go with us,” Sato says. “Sometimes it’s just the couple. Mostly the party is about 10, their parents, a few friends.” They often combine the honeymoon and the ceremony. The average stay is five to six days in Waikīkī, usually at the Moana Surfrider, or at Aulani on the west side of O‘ahu. If you head to the carport of the Moana Surfrider at precisely 10 a.m., there are often half a dozen brides awaiting their rides to the chapel. A Watabe staffer picks the couple up, and their precisely timed day, from photos to ceremony to party, begins. It’s a dash across the island: After in-room prep, the couple marries at a chapel, has their ceremony and reception, then hits the beaches and parks for the photo package.
“Unfortunately we can’t take too much time with each couple,” Sato says. Local government could learn much from Watabe’s efficiency: they handle more than 1,000 couples per month during the busy seasons. Watabe’s photo package starts at $700, though most couples pay for the standard set, which goes for around $8,000, not including hotel and flights. Watabe’s three chapels in Ko Olina operate like well-managed train stations. Sato and Bohannon laugh while mimicking the shoulder-strapped walkie-talkie correspondence their planners do every day. “There are codes for a bride going to the bathroom as another is headed toward the chapel,” says Sato, who explains their techniques to ensure the brides don’t see each other and that every couple has their special, private moment.
The majority of Watabe’s customers come from Japan, with a small percentage from the mainland and the emerging markets of China and Korea. In addition to dozens of offices throughout Japan, Watabe maintains locations in Las Vegas, Paris, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Bali, and Florence—all actively selling Hawai‘i as a destination for romance. Unlike Americans, who plan much of the ceremony themselves, Watabe’s Japanese customers are perfectly happy with receiving exactly what the brochure and wedding package lays out. “If they’re getting the photo package at Kualoa Ranch, they want a picture with the bride on the horse,” Bohannon says. “But we have to tell them that it’s just a promotional picture—the horse is scared of the dress.”
Behind the Veil
Marriage, and the weddings which demarcate them, are social constructions not universally common to humanity. For many cultures, a wedding and the party that accompanies it is a cogent example of generational cultural transmutation and how we pass on our ideologies and customs. In 1958, acclaimed scholar, educator, dancer, and composer Mary Kawena Pukui co-authored a book titled The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘u Hawai‘i, an attempt to transcribe and preserve the memories of hundreds of years of familial experience. “Amongst commoners there were no formalities. When a lad saw a maiden that he wanted for his wife, he spoke of it to his parents or grandparents,” the book reads. If all was kosher, “the young man simply came to her home to live with her, becoming one of the household.” For the elite, there was always an event. “If the period of ho‘opalau (betrothal) lasted a long time, the young man sent gifts every now and then to his wife-to-be, perhaps a pig, a catch of fish, chickens, a feather lei or a fat dog. A kahuna (priest) prayed that the union be fruitful. In his prayer occurs the phrase: ‘E uhi ia olua i ke kapa ho‘okahi,’ or ‘You both shall (forever) share the same kapa.’
Fast forward to the present, and there are some problems with marrying, besides the whole finding somebody part. Mid-century feminists argued that it was a suffocating morass tying women to economic dependence and stifling identity. Irina Dunn’s famous quote, that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” remains true, and has been proven in Hawai‘i by countless women who swim like fish and are quite adept with gears. But it’s the institution of legal union that still warrants critique, not the personal decisions. Marriage in Hawai‘i is the culmination of a tourism- and military-based economy, a celebration of settler colonialism, conspicuous consumption, and the continued misappropriation of Hawaiian culture for outsiders. Marriage is also a positive and powerful economic force. These discussions remain valid. One thing that came of the discussions of same-sex marriage in recent years is that (surprise!) everybody likes weddings. Patriarchy and inequality can go, but weddings, with all the joy they bring, can definitely stay.
Though technology has forever altered young people’s landscape of human interactions, and dating is weirder than ever, the vast majority of us dream of getting hitched. In Hawai‘i, it is now easier than ever: It is possible to elope at lunch with two bus passes and a $100 bill, and return by dinner legally married. (In Hawai‘i, a marriage license, the document necessary prior to a ceremony by a sanctioned individual, costs $60, plus a $5 online service charge).
Local weddings defy categorization. If you live in Hawai‘i in your 20s and 30s, chances are you’ll gain experience as a caterer, performer, crasher, and sometimes guest in the industry. There are innumerable ethnically specific behaviors at receptions: Many local Japanese wedding guests defer attendance of the ceremony to party at the reception; historically, Shinto weddings were for families only, and Buddhist weddings, something of a recent phenomenon, were usually just for the couple. But regardless of the constraints a couple’s culture might impose, local style has them doing what they like. I have seen Filipino weddings where a kung fu troupe performs as a dancing lion, a Japanese wedding with a full Tahitian dance revue, a haole wedding with 1,001 Okinawan paper tsuru (cranes) hanging over a wedding cake, and Hawaiian weddings where the bride wears cowboy boots and grandmas dance to the raunchiest hip-hop. My favorite customs involve raining dollar bills. Gratefully, the unsanitary Filipino practice of putting folded bills into the bride’s clenched teeth has been replaced by pinning them to her veil or the groom’s barong (shirt). At Samoan and Tongan receptions, a taualuga is performed by the bride in which family members dance and toss small fortunes in the air. If you wait for it, there’s always an auntie who holds a child with one hand and tosses a wad of loose bills right at the bride’s head with the other, the wad exploding in a cascading flurry.
A Royal Wedding
Hollywood never seems to get it right. Hawai‘i remains the tropical backdrop of outsiders’ fantasies dating back to the 1940s.The iconic wedding scene from Blue Hawaii, the Elvis Presley musical from 1961 filmed at the long-since defunct Coco Palms hotel on Kaua‘i, has passed through the generations via cultural osmosis. It’s a doozy of technicolor corniness: Elvis, clad in all white with a red sash and carnation lei, stands regal while being paddled to the shore by shirtless local guys on a double-hulled canoe. He disembarks, takes his bride’s hand (Joan Blackman, playing his Hawaiian love interest named Maile), croons, “This is the moment,” as the music swells, and is paddled to the opposite shore, all while a gaggle of tutus in mu‘umu‘us follows along the banks of the canal singing the chorus.
“We did something like that recently,” says Bill Hedgepeth, the director of catering and event management for Starwood Resorts of Waikiki, which includes The Royal Hawaiian in addition to its neighbors, the Sheraton Waikiki and the Moana Surfrider. “An Indian couple wanted to get paddled to shore, as if they were on an elephant,” he explains. “We made it happen and coned off the beach so they could make their procession.” Remodeled in 2008, the Royal, with its iconic pink art deco architecture, has become the deluxe destination of local weddings. “Many of our couples were raised here and left, had careers in big cities, and came back to get married,” Hedgepeth says. The experience does not come cheap: the Royal starts at $140 per head with a minimum headcount, not including the space rental. As I’m given a tour, Hedgepeth pulls aside one of his colleagues who is supervising the setup of chairs on the hotel’s ocean lawn, with a view of Diamond Head and the break at Pops. “I’ve got a bride in the King Kamehameha suite,” he tells him. “She wants to toss her bouquet from the balcony to the crowd below. Let’s set that up tomorrow.” Dream wedding stuff. “Anything they ask for we can accomplish,” Hedgepeth says. “This is an open and public hotel, and the receptions have no walls, so the parties can get quite a crowd. But everybody’s respectful here. It’s a bit magical. Our destination weddings—the folks that come from Australia and the mainland and from around the world—they get that. Much of our business is from folks who are on vacation and just walk in, completely enchanted by the place.”
Hearing Hedgepeth speak, it’s hard to stay cynical. Only misanthropic psychopaths actually hate weddings. Everyone from Shakespeare to Judd Apatow has used them as the premise for foolishness. There are scrolling feeds on Netflix and racks of magazines, books, and manuals at Barnes and Noble devoted to the subject. Academics continue to dissect the practice at universities around the world. Ritual unions bring the most bizarre and hilarious out of the drabbest among us: There’s no better send-up than a betrothal gone awry, a drunken uncle speech. Wedding marketers in Hawai‘i have the luxury of selling an obscenely attractive product. It’s the idea of this place, really: Far from home, where fragrant air meets sea spray and technicolor tropical sunsets serve as a backdrop, love blooms eternal. Weddings can be ridiculous affairs, often as improbable and foolish as the love that inspires them. But that never stopped anyone before. People will continue to come to Hawai‘i to fall in love, marry, and embarrass themselves. There are far worse things upon which to build an economy. I’m reminded of a line from the 2005 classic romantic comedy Wedding Crashers: “You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.”