Saturday, December 08, 2007

Polynesian Cultural Center, Oahu

We arrived at the center shortly after it opened, found our way to the right line up for our pre-booked tour. We were expecting the tour guide to escort us around on a 45-minute or hour-long overview of the facility, and then let us take in particular exhibits at our leisure as our inclinations and the kid’s patience allowed. But it turned out our small tour group (less then ten people per group) stayed together for the next six hours! The guide made sure we reached each exhibit at the precise moment the demonstrations for that exhibit were scheduled, got us seated in the best seats, and on several occasions, got us involved up on stage. At the conclusion of the six-hour tour, we were deposited at an excellent dinning room for– supper and then a two-hour show. It was a pretty sweet deal.

I was constantly impressed by the scale of the facility, it’s very high staffing ratios, and the overall quality. Every exhibit seemed to involve at least half a dozen dancers or warriors or drummers or whatever, and often much larger casts, and every “island” had its own shops, interpreters etc.

The shows were often very good, my favorite being the Samoan, a one-man show by the muscular gentleman shown here who was very funny as well as informative. He demonstrated how islanders made fire (in about 4 seconds compared to the “two weeks” or “never managed it” typical of North Americans in the Survivor series) and how to crack open and milk a coconut; a younger assistant demonstrated how to retrieve a coconut from the tree. All accompanied by a very funny running dialog. Great stuff!

I did, after six hours or so, grow a bit bored with yet another set of island dancers. Although not wishing to denigrate the importance of dancing in Polynesian cultures, there is more to a culture than dancing and drumming, and I would have liked to have seen more information on other aspects of the culture. There were, to be fair, some printed displays here and there that I was unable to access as the tour moved to the next exhibit, and one or two of the interpreters did mention other aspects in passing, but the visual appeal of the dances make them just too easy to emphasize. It’s what the Decore Report labeled ‘the dancing minority trick’ in its analysis of Alberta Social Studies materials, complaining that showing a minority member in traditional clothing and dancing is the easiest visual to add to a textbook, but it has the unfortunate cumulative effect of convincing Grade 6 students that all minorities are defined by weird clothes and dances, and when you come right down to it, why bother preserving those. The subtler and more profound cultural differences concerning, say, the nature of time, the different conceptions of ‘family’ or ‘honor’ or ‘property’ tend to get short shift in such treatments.


That one cravat notwithstanding, the day was a huge success. To our great surprise, it maintained even four-year-old Kasia’s interest throughout, her only falling asleep briefly during the evening dance extravaganza, but even there, coming awake again for the astounding and (slapstick funny) fire knife dances. We were on site for almost 11 straight hours, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment.

Highlights included the Marquise display at which I got to participate in a mock wild boar hunt to prove my worthiness to marry Mary; the tribal dances of the Aotearoa (New Zealand); and the very lavish Broadway scale evening show (I counted at least 60 performers on stage at any one time).

So, I’d have to say, I would highly recommend the Ambassador package to anyone able to travel to north Oahu.

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