I first came across the word kaukau in a note that the Hawaiian Princess Ka‘iulani wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson more than a century ago.
The Scottish novelist and his family had arrived in Honolulu in the afternoon of January 24, 1889, and the beautiful princess dropped them a short note, inviting them to her family’s estate and adding that “Papa promises “good Scotch kaukau….”
To try to track down the word’s meaning, I went to the Hawaiian Electronic Library Web site, which searches several Hawaiian dictionaries simultaneously. But because Hawaiian words can have multiple meanings depending on their diacritical marks (which weren’t used in the 19th century) the modern Web site offered an array of possible spellings and definitions.
Could it mean “to slow down, linger or procrastinate?” Hmm. Stevenson and Ka‘iulani did famously sit together under the spreading banyan tree at ‘Āinahau, her family’s estate at Waikīkī. But probably not, given the context of the sentence.
Or did kaukau mean, in another definition, “a hemorrhoid or exterior obstruction to bowel evacuation”? Almost certainly not. A well-educated Victorian lady, no matter how earthy her humor might have been, would never had written such a thing to the eminent author of of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped!.
Or could it be Pidgin, the uniquely Hawaiian language that developed from the islands’ mix of immigrant influences? Checking a Pidgin-specific dictionary at e-Hawaii.com, the definition was “food; meal; to eat.” This clue led me to the right entry on the original dictionary site.
This week in Honolulu, I came across the word kaukau again, in a small notice for a talk on Sunday afternoon by Arnold Hiura at Native Books in the Ward Warehouse. In his first book, titled Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands, Hiura relates that growing up, “when someone bellowed, ‘Kau kau time,’” it was the equivalent of saying “Chow time!” or “Come and get it!”
Originally he’d thought the word was from the native Hawaiian language. But over the three years he took to write his marvelous food history of the islands, he learned the original derivation of the word, stemming from “chow chow,” which is Chinese for “food.”
The mystery deepens, though. Chinese contract workers were first brought to the islands in 1852 to labor on sugar plantations. Would the princess, who was born in 1875 and died at age 23 in 1899, have known the slang that these workers used to describe their food?
The fact is that by 1889, when Ka‘iulani wrote her note, Chinese cultural influence on the islands was ubiquitous enough to have influenced everyday language at all levels of society. By the 1884 census, according to Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual, there were nearly 18,000 Chinese in Hawai‘i, making them the largest immigrant group by far – dwarfing the American presence and rapidly catching up to the native Hawaiian population, which had dwindled to just over 40,000. Honolulu’s Chinatown had long been a bustling waterfront commercial hub, and in 1889 the district was rapidly recovering from a fire three years earlier that destroyed 7,000 Chinese homes and caused $1.5 million in damage (more than $30 million today).
Hiura himself grew up on a sugar plantation on the Island of Hawai‘i, working there periodically until his early twenties. He remembered how he and the other workers would stop work when the whistle blew mid-day and take out their metal lunch cans – the bottom half filled with rice and the top with vegetables or pickles. They’d all squat down to eat, reaching over and picking from their co-workers’ cans for tastes of different toppings.
The night before his book talk, he and his wife Eloise had attended a “plantation potluck” in Hilo in which everyone brought their favorite dishes from the old days, when the islands still had sugar plantations (there is only one left now: the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on Maui). As they described the way in which sharing their food created feelings of closeness, another Pidgin term popped up: real ono – an allusion to the prized ono tuna fish, slang among young Hawaiians for something truly fabulous.