When the Ukulele Came to San Francisco

Hawaiian ukelele maestro Hiram Kaailau Bell.

This Saturday, San Francisco will celebrate the centennial of a major piece of its history: the Panama Pacific International Exposition.

It was a world’s fair timed to showcase San Francisco's recovery from the 1906 earthquake, and to display U.S. imperial might in the Pacific, just after the completion of the Panama Canal.

But the expo also introduced the nation to a new musical instrument, and if you’d been there a hundred years ago, here’s a song you might have heard.

What you’re hearing is a 1915 recording of "On the Beach at Waikiki," written by Henry Kailimai. He led a delegation of Hawaiian musicians to the fair, where he introduced this famous song.

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“On the Beach” is just one of the songs ukulele master and teacher Hiram Kaailau Bell will play on Saturday, at a "Uke-a-Thon" under the rotunda at the last surviving remnant of the fair, the Palace of Fine Arts. The Uke-a-Thon is expected to draw hundreds of ukulele players.

Bell plucked and strummed a bit of "On the Beach..." and some other songs for me recently in his South San Francisco music studio.

(Listen here to Bell playing “Ulili-E”).

The ukulele was a Hawaiian adaptation of the machete, a small four stringed guitar brought to the islands by Portuguese workers in the late 19th century.

Bell says the fingers of the workers “were moving up and down so quickly, they looked like jumping fleas. ‘Uku’ means flea, and ‘lele’ means jump. I don’t know if I believe that story or not.”

Of course the ukulele is a hotter instrument than ever these days, with the popularity of songs by Jake Shimabukuro, Amanda Palmer, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, Zooey Deschanel, and the appearance of hundreds of ukulele clubs around the country.

But the uke was a rarity on the U.S. mainland in 1915, until millions of people got a taste for its sound at the fair.

“Not only the ukulele, but the steel guitar became very popular. Five years after, Hawaiian was among the most sought after music on the mainland.”

Almost 19 million people visited the expo during its nine-month run, and the Hawaiian Pavilion was among the most popular, recording 34 thousand visitors in one day. People were charmed by the music, the hula dancing and an exotic beverage new to the mainland -- pineapple juice.


“White Hawaiians were interested in using the fair to advertise Hawaii as a tourist destination,” says Abigail M. Markwyn, the author of Empress: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Abigail M. Markwyn.
Abigail M. Markwyn.

Markwyn’s book details the social and political tensions that were the backdrop of this international bash. She details how, almost by accident, the fair showcased the colonialism that had prompted U.S. business leaders to overthrow Hawaii’s ruling Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, with the help of U.S. Marines. Hawaii became a U.S. territory five years later, in 1898.

Markwyn describes one evening in June when an estimated 2,000 Hawaiians staged a pageant on the lagoon by the Palace of Fine Arts, attracting 25 thousand attendees. The event included a pageant in which the “Queen of Hawaii” appeared with her princesses in native canoes.

“The Queen,” Markwyn says, “was a white Hawaiian socialite. And the princesses that were supposed to represent the five islands were all mixed race, young, native Hawaiian women. So it really encapsulated that relationship of the colonizer to the colonized to a pretty profound way, from our 21st-century perspective.”

The expo also featured delegations and pavilions from China and Japan, wooed by organizers of the fair, despite federal laws barring Chinese immigration, and state laws aimed at barring Japanese-Americans from buying land.

Markwyn says fair organizers arranged a publicity stunt, advertising the wedding of a white sailor with his mixed-race Hawaiian girlfriend.

“And then a few days later,” Markwyn says, “there was an article that said this marriage could not happen, because she was of Asian descent, and he was white, and therefore under California law their marriage was illegal.

“So they were actually not allowed to perform the marriage at the fair, because when they went down to the County Clerk’s office in San Francisco, they found they couldn’t get a license. And I just found this such a fascinating story, because it demonstrates the way in which the politics in California intruded onto the fairground.”

Ukulele master Bell, born in Oahu, says the Panama-Pacific Expo’s sometimes ugly racial history doesn’t make him any less eager to share his love of the ukulele, and the joy its music brings. For him, it’s a reminder of “How we can overcome hardships and come out celebrating.”

At Saturday's Uke-a-thon, Bell shares a stage with Dr. Marc Goldyne, a non-Hawaiian ukulele fanatic.

Goldyne says he plans to sing and play the popular “Aloha Oe,” also known as “Farewell to Thee.” It was written by Queen Liliuokalani as a lover’s goodbye. For many Hawaiians, the song has come to symbolize the loss of their independence.

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