Meet Native Hawaiian Māhū Activist Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu

 

WORDS BY ALEXIS CHEUNG
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOSIAH PATTERSON

The Kapaemahu short film director is one of the most visible māhū women today. She explains why equating her Hawaiian third gender with Western terminology constitutes another kind of erasure.

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Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu has always occupied spaces in the middle: between male and female; between Indigenous and Western cultures; between her Chinese and Hawaiian heritages. 

 

“My entire life has always been in the middle,” she explains. The Native Hawaiian educator, activist, and director became Hinaleimoana—meaning Hina, the goddess of the moon, and “the child of Moana,” her mother’s name—after transitioning in her early twenties. She is one of the most visible māhū, the Hawaiian third-gender identity, women in the Islands and the United States today.

 

Her life’s work is devoted to exploring the interstices of identity and culture, specifically through a Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian, lens. Most recently, she narrated, directed, and produced the short animated film Kapaemahu, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was shortlisted for an Oscar. Narrated entirely in Olelo Niihau, a form of Hawaiian spoken since before the arrival of foreigners, it recounts the legend of four stones in Honolulu’s Waikiki—and the third-gender māhū healers for whom they were erected.

 

Below, Wong-Kalu speaks to Atmos on the history of Kapaemahu, her personal journey to becoming Hinaleimoana, what she hopes audiences will take away from the story, and why Native peoples shouldn’t equate their ideas and understandings of the self and world in a Western framework.

The “Stones of Life” (four stones) monument in Waikiki.

Alexis Cheung

What is the mo‘olelo (story, myth, legend or history in Hawaiian) of Kapaemahu, your recent short film?

Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu

The story of Kapaemahu speaks to four legendary healers who came from Kahiki. In the context of Hawaiian history, Kahiki could mean Tahiti proper, as Tahiti is one of the ancestral homelands of our people, or any foreign lands outside of Hawaii. So it’s a very Hawaii centric way of looking at our world. These four legendary healers bring with them the knowledge and skills of healing. Their time here was so appreciated and they became so beloved that four great stones were erected in their honor. One of the unique elements about the healers is that they were actually recorded as having many elements about them that were female, although they were physically male. When we refer to people like this, the term “māhū” is used.

Alexis

And māhū are defined in Hawaiian culture as someone ‘in between,’ is that correct?

Hina

That’s how I like to speak about it. When you look for historical writings speaking towards the topic of māhū, there are very limited examples. And it’s not because we didn’t exist, but it’s because we’re a part of society. We know this because we have the term, and it’s an adjective to describe the individual. Clearly within our language, too, the pronoun for he, she, and it is one word: either ‘oia or koia. The fact that we have a pronoun that does not acknowledge a male or female should give you some insight as to how our people felt about fluidity between the sexes.

Alexis

So in the Hawaiian conception of gender pronouns, there really was no need for distinction, which leads to my next question: How is māhū similar or different from our Western conception of transgender?

Hina

The understanding of māhū is not necessarily something that you can just easily transpose a Western understanding upon. It’s easier for the native view of it to find itself in a Western articulation, but it’s very difficult to try to transfer it from a Western understanding over to native one. Māhū is understood in a LGBTQIA+ context in the Western world. However, it’s far more inclusive and encompassing and complex than that, and I find that using a Western conception of māhū to be very compartmentalized and restricted.

Alexis

In what ways?

Hina

When I say I identify as male and female, that’s mentally and emotionally. Perhaps spiritually, as well. That’s what I’m referring to for me. Western culture doesn’t necessarily speak to the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of people.

 

I would also say that Westerners tend to have the need to identify by genitalia, sexuality, and individuality. There seems to be a fixation on it, because by default, Western culture does not account for fluidity nor flexibility. And only in recent years has there been an effort to really try to address that. Nowadays, it’s practice to ask someone their pronouns. 

 

In Hawaiian culture, we’re identified by our genealogy and our land. So we don’t necessarily introduce ourselves as individuals or compartmentalize ourselves from solely [a gender or sexuality] perspective. There’s almost a disdain around trying to identify yourself as what makes you stand out because we come from a collective culture where the we is far more valuable than the me. In Hawaii, we often ask, “What school did you go to?” Which means we’re also asking, “What area are you from?” And then we ask, “Oh, who’s your family?” So that’s a far different cry from asking someone about their gender identification and their sexual orientation, which, until this day, I struggle to engage with because it’s not anybody’s business.

Alexis

In some interviews I’ve read, you prefer being known as a Native Hawaiian advocate versus a transgender advocate, is that right?

Hina

Yeah, I’m not a transgender advocate. I mean, by default, by being considered transgender in the Western world, yeah. And obviously, when necessary, having to stand up for others like myself [who are māhū], then you might view me as a transgender advocate. But that’s not something that I immediately avail myself to because my work over the years has really kept me focused on advocating for issues that impact my people—my fellow Kanaka, my fellow Hawaiians. It’s always been my first and foremost priority. When I have to stand up and advocate for the element of cultural understanding that covers the topic of māhū, that’s how I approach it. The work I do has been done for others on the behalf of others. And yes, those said others could be from amongst the māhū members in the community, but most of the time, it’s for Hawaiian or Pacific Islander issues.

Alexis

What Hawaiian and Pacific Islander issues do you specifically advocate for?

Hina

I’m always an advocate for language, and the usage of our language to reinforce our identity, our relationships to ourselves and to others. I prioritize my people, the issues that affect my people, and because of that, my people have been very loving and giving to me as a result.

 

In that way, I can actually engage in different circles that other people like me don’t have access to. I can sit at any business or political table here in Hawaii and be an active part of the conversation. Because I’m very keenly aware of the duality within, I consciously engage and exercise my knowledge of the difference—between communication, expression, movement, and engagement, between men and women or the same sexes, in both Island and Western settings—because it often helps me to achieve what I need or what I’d like to see on behalf of my people.

Alexis

That sounds like a freeing and expansive way of being and relating to others.

Hina

There are subtle differences when I’m with women and likewise when I’m with men. You know, it’s just a different way of engaging. I use all that I understand about both to walk me through my days.

Alexis

Why was it important to tell the story of Kapaemahu, and in Olelo Niihau? Was it mainly for the record of Hawaiian culture or to broaden the understanding of māhū in Hawaiian culture?

Hina

My desire to bring this story forward is to help bring greater depth and greater understanding to the concept of māhū. This particular segment of my work [Editor’s note: Hina was also featured in a documentary called Kumu Hina, which traces her personal story and experience leading an all male hula troop] best speaks to the fact that māhū are different in terms of the traditional Hawaiian understanding of it. We cannot and should not be assessed or evaluated according to modern Western definitions. This film really tries to show who we were, how we were treated, and what were the views of our people before the coming of foreign Westerners to Hawaii. 

Alexis

What do you hope people will keep in mind as they’re watching?

Hina

I hope that they will look at Hawaii and Hawaiian culture as separate and distinct. We are not American, for one. Number two, we come from a larger family of people across the Pacific Ocean. We have a distinct perspective and understanding that we don’t necessarily have to try to equate to somebody else’s. We can acknowledge commonalities with other Native peoples. We can acknowledge commonalities even with our Western colonizer, foreigner people, but we shouldn’t necessarily have to or always try to reconcile ourselves in a culture and in language that’s foreign to us. I hope that the film will serve as a stepping stone and a conversation piece to explore: What does our culture really hold for people like me [and other māhū]? What do these understandings tell us? What can we learn? Hopefully because it’s in animation those learnings are accessible to everyone.

Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu at the “Stones of Life” (four stones) monument in Waikiki.

Alexis

What was your own journey identifying as both male and female?

Hina

When I was younger, I only clearly knew that I wanted to be like my mother. I wanted to be beautiful like her. And up until this day, much to her dismay, she insists that I look nothing like her. [Laughs] Even now, she gets compliments from people telling her how beautiful she is, and I wanted people to look at me like that. That was just my earliest feeling. It wasn’t something that came easy for me because I was not in an environment where it was okay to be distinguished outside of the gender binary, male and female, [or in Hawaiian] kāne or wahine. So I did what I could to try to divert attention and overt situations that would talk about it. I struggled with it. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I was actually able to engage it.

Alexis

How did your heritage play a role in your transition?

Hina

In both my Asian and Polynesian heritage, the most important thing in assessing or evaluating someone is to ask: Well, what do you do? What do you do to earn somebody’s respect? In order for my father to respect and support me, I had to honor him and what he needed me to do. My father said: “I only have two things I want from you: I want you to finish school. I want you to take care of your grandmother.” That became my given task. And I did that. By prioritizing my grandmother, my father cut me a lot of slack. He provided for me without question.

 

As I transitioned, with every passing day, week, month, year, and every family engagement, my appearance changed, my attire changed, and my family watched it. But, you know, what were they going to say? I was the caregiver for the matriarch of the family. Thanks to that situation, I was under her grace. I don’t think I would have been given as much leeway if I was from one of the other siblings down the line. But, you know, on the Chinese side of the house [my father’s side], I was always the Hawaiian one. And then on the Hawaiian side of the house [my mother’s side], I was always the Chinese one. So I was always in the middle and never really fit anywhere.

Alexis

For anyone who’s either in between ethnicities and cultures or potentially between gender identities, is there anything you want to say to them or want them to know?

Hina

To anybody who’s a Native person, especially Pacific Island people, we should continue to look within rather than look to the outside world to help articulate and reaffirm who we are and who we can and should be. Rather than always taking everybody else’s example, we can help set an example by following and honoring our cultural identities. So let’s not be so quick to devalue or disavow ourselves from those cultural identities, and that’s inclusive of gender and sexual diversity. The whole concept of having a conversation about gender expression, sexual identity, and sexual preference—that is a matter of Western construction. In my culture, that’s not the basis of evaluating or assessing someone, so I hope that people will not keep trying to pull us into the American construct of looking at the world. I think it does us a great disservice. It’s great for money and getting funding to someone’s program. But it doesn’t really reinforce our traditional attitudes and behaviors and ideology about us in relation to our world.

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