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Where EAST meets the Northwest

PRESERVING PIDGIN. Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai’i, a documentary chronicling the use of Pidgin, a language spoken by more than half of Hawai’i’s population, airs September 11 and 16 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. Pictured are Pidgin producer Kanalu Young’s uncle and father near the ocean and ready to surf in 1944 (top photo) and a photo of an elementary school class in 1927. (Photos courtesy of Pacific Islanders in Communications )

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #35 (September 8, 2009), page 11.

Documentary promotes Hawai’i’s unofficial native tongue

Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai’i

Produced by Marlene Booth and Kanalu Young

Airing September 11 & 16 on

Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus

By Allison Voigts

You likee banana, you wikiwiki kaukau, maitai."

This sentence may not sound like English, or Chinese, or Hawaiian. That’s because it isn’t any one of these languages, but a mash-up of all of them — and more — known as Hawai’i Pidgin English or Hawai’i Creole English. Translation: "If you want this banana, eat it up quickly. It’s okay."

Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai’i is a documentary chronicling the origins and modern-day stigma surrounding the Pidgin language. It airs September 11 and 16 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus.

The language originated on Hawai’i’s multi-ethnic sugar plantations, where Hawaiian workers interacted with workers from China, Portugal, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. To communicate with one another, the non-Hawaiians tried to speak English, but inevitably peppered their speech with words from their native languages. Thus the Hawaiians, as well as the other ethnic groups, picked up vocabulary from more than half a dozen languages.

A generation later, during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Pidgin language spread from the confines of the plantations to mainstream Hawaiian culture. Children who didn’t hear it from their parents and grandparents learned it from their classmates in public schools. By the early 20th century, Pidgin had replaced the languages it originated from to become the primary spoken language in Hawai’i.

But when English-speaking mainlanders began pouring into Hawai’i in the middle of the 20th century, it created a problem. The official co-languages of the State of Hawai’i are English and Hawaiian. The Hawaiian language had nearly died out, and the new haole (Caucasian) residents weren’t keen on letting their children learn a Creole version of English.

So the public school system established "English standard" schools in the 1920s, which segregated Pidgin speakers from Standard English speakers for three decades. Non-haoles were not excluded from the schools, but they could only enroll if they passed an oral examination.

"The teacher would hold up a card with the number three on it. If you said "t’ree," then that was a dead giveaway," says one woman, who passed her test and went on to teach in Hawai’i’s public schools as an adult. Even after the segregation ended, public schools considered banning Pidgin in the classrooms during the 1980s.

The documentary focuses on exposing common misconceptions about Pidgin, such as the belief that those who speak it must be illiterate or backwards. Many Pidgin speakers encounter discrimination in the job market, even if they use Standard English vocabulary, because they have a "native accent" and stress the syllables of words in the way Pidgin would. In 1987, a local weatherman was denied a job promotion because of his accent and took the National Weather Service to court. He lost.

Some well-known Hawaiian poets, authors, and performers have taken up the promotion of the language, a few working entirely in Pidgin, including poet/professor Lee Tonouchi. Tonouchi, who calls himself "Da Pidgin Guerrilla," penned his master’s thesis in Pidgin and produced the first Pidgin dictionary, Da Kine Dictionary, in 2005. Others teach Pidgin courses in college classrooms, and there is even a Pidgin translation of the New Testament, Da Jesus Book (an Old Testament translation is in the works).

"Once you view Pidgin as a language, you can see it has value," states one Pidgin advocate.

The film follows Tonouchi as he conducts even his wedding ceremony in Pidgin, which many Hawaiians describe as the language of their hearts. When the priest asks Tonouchi if he will take Tracie, the bride, as his wife, he replies "Shoots, I chance ‘om!"

Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai’i airs Friday, September 11 from 1:00 to 2:00am and repeats September 16 from 2:00 to 3:00am on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. For more information, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <>.