Explore the History of Hawaiian Sculptures in Cheryl Soon’s New Book

The author of Reflections in stone and bronze will be at the da Shop in Kaimukī on Saturday August 6 for a conference and a signing session.
Photo: Courtesy of da Shop: Books + Curiosities

Aas traveler and self-proclaimed “naturally curious person,” Cheryl Soon in her new book, Reflections in Stone and Bronze: Exploring Hawaii’s History and Culture through Sculpture (Mutual Books), survey of 60 statues on Oʻahu, their origins and makers, from the earliest (of King Kamehameha, erected in 1884) to the most recent (of Kamehameha III at Thomas Square and Patsy Mink at the State Library , both erected in 2018 ). By sharing the story behind each statue, Soon weaves a rich, all-encompassing tapestry of history among us. This book invites readers to put on their walking shoes and join her on a journey of rediscovery.

Soon’s fascination with statues began with pre-COVID trips to Europe (Queen Victoria, she notes, was everywhere) and grew as contemporary stories related to the removal of Confederate and other statues in the states United started airing on news channels around the world.

She brought her curiosity back to Hawai’i, where she and her husband began visiting the statues of Oʻahu on weekend explorations. She started documenting everything she learned. “I spent a lot of time trying to decide [how] to organize the material, geographically or chronologically,” she says, “but settled on, ‘Who is the subject? Who chose to erect it? What kind of place-making was happening?’ Her interest began to feel encyclopedic, and she realized she had the makings of a book in her hands. As an urban planner, Soon is an accomplished writer, and the stories she discovers in the book, with photographs by Renea Gavrilov Stewart, are accessible and fascinating.

Every statue has a story, says Soon. Her audience, she says, is “people who live in Hawai’i and are curious about their surroundings,” and she is satisfied when they are drawn to stories and excited by familiar characters.

However, John de Fries, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, says the book’s audience extends far beyond Hawaii residents. “In Reflections in stone and bronze, each statue depicted serves as a unique portal to Hawai’i history and lore. The author has found and raised the voices of these “silent storytellers”, he says.

Soon’s silent storytellers fall into four categories: royal, religious and spiritual, music and entertainment, and national and international. Examples include King Kamehameha the Great (commissioned by King David Kalākaua), Queen Liliʻuokalani (sculpted by international artist Marianna Pineda), Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, waterman Duke Kahanamoku, and musicians Don Ho and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Less known but equally interesting are the statues of Joseph Kekuku (father of the steel guitar) and Hamana Kalili (the Lā’ie native credited with popularizing the shaka sign), both at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Mākaha’s revered boatman, Richard Kaloloʻokalani “Buffalo” Keaulana, was notably buried in a sand pit on the beach in order to be cast in a composite of fiberglass, resin and sand to create the “Buffalo’s Cloak” statue of artist Joe Yamakawa Hadley.

SEE ALSO: What to read in summer 2022: 5 Hawaiian books to bring to the beach

During his research for the book, Soon came to appreciate the void left in the 19e century following the elimination of the kapu system, a void quickly filled by Christianity and later, with more immigration, Eastern religions. “I realized, she says, how much the 19e century was in Hawaiian history. So many of the institutions that we have and our sense of ourselves as a people started then.

King Kalākaua commissioned the first Western-style statue, honoring King Kamehameha I (1884). As a world traveler, Kalākaua introduced new things, blending the old with the new. The statue of Kamehameha is modeled on that of Caesar Augustus. Visitors will notice that the sandals are Roman sandals. Once Kalākaua immortalized Kamehameha, statues of other royals followed.

Important and controversial figures are featured in the book, including Captain James Cook, Abraham Lincoln, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Mohandas Gandhi, Qin Shi Huangdi (founder of the Qin dynasty), Siddhartha Gautama (considered the original Buddha) , Jose Protacio Rizal and Syngman Rhee (heroes and patriots of the Korean and Filipino communities) and others, reflecting Hawaii’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity over the centuries. Elvis, says Soon, may be an outlier, but he genuinely loved Hawaiʻi and fresh lei are placed on his statue at the Blaisdell Center daily.

More controversial is the statue of President William McKinley, who played a key role in the annexation of Hawaii to the United States. The principal of McKinley High School refused to allow a photo of the statue to be included in the book. An artist rendering was done by Hitoshi Hida.

Soon, there was no fixed view on whether statues such as McKinley’s should remain. McKinley’s statue could be brought inside, she said, and a variety of perspectives explained. Europe has many examples of preserving, contextualizing and reinterpreting history without celebrating it. But the McKinley conversation became a battle. Conversely, at the base of the statues of Damien, new plaques recognize the patients with Hansen’s disease he served. One of the Kamehameha statues was moved from Kauaʻi to Hilo, and the dates of Queen Lili’uokalani’s sovereignty were adjusted on her statue at the Capitol to reflect that she was queen until her death.

SEE ALSO: After the fact: Let our monuments tell lesser-known stories

Soon interviewed all of the living sculptors featured in the book, outstanding artists including Sean LL Browne, Holly Young and Kim Duffett. She also discovered some fun facts. When Duke Kahanamoku’s widow first saw his statue, she informed sculptor Jan Gordon Fisher that his shorts were too long. The artist adjusted the length of the shorts and its original line is still visible on the statue.

Soon’s next book will be about the statues of neighboring islands. “I hope some of the stories will lead [people of Hawai‘i] visit what we bypassed. Aren’t we lucky to have this story at our disposal?

Interested readers can find out more when Soon joins State Librarian Stacey Aldrich for a conversation on Saturday, August 6 at the da Shop in Kaimukī from 2-4 p.m., with music by Peter Apo. The event is free. RSVP here. The book is available for buy online in advance if you want to pick it up at the event.

da Shop: Books + Curiosities, 3565 Harding Ave., (808) 421-9460, dashophnl.com, @dashophnl