Native Hawaiians Keep Their ‘Aloha Spirit’ in NYC

At only 24, Crystalyn Costa opened a Hawaiian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

At only 24, Crystalyn Costa opened a Hawaiian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

With pictures of volcanoes and waves, ukulele music playing in the background and a flower in her hair, Crystalyn Costa has created a Hawaiian heaven in the center of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“Hawaiian customers said it is just like home,” said Costa, owner of the restaurant Onomea on Havemeyer Street. “They say it is very relaxing, very peaceful, easygoing, very Hawaii, and that’s maybe the best compliment.”

Since September, Onomea has been offering Hawaiian dishes like “loco moco,” a teriyaki burger served on a bed of rice with a sunny side egg topped with gravy, and “poke,” ahi tuna with onions and sesame seeds. Costa, who arrived in New York City from the Big Island of Hawaii four years ago, said she was surprised not to find any Hawaiian food in this multicultural city.

With ahi tuna and onions, Poke is the most traditional Hawaiian dish. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

The Onomea restaurant serves poke, a traditional Hawaiian dish made with ahi tuna, onions and sesame seeds. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

“It didn’t make sense,” she said. “There is food from all around the world out here, but Hawaiian is pretty much the only kind not in New York.”

Costa, 24, leaped into the unknown and decided to share six generations’ worth of family recipes with adventurous New Yorkers and Hawaiian customers like Ren Chang, who ordered the Shoyu chicken – marinated drumsticks with rice and macaroni salad. After 10 years in the city, Chang said she was happy to finally see a Hawaiian restaurant right where she lives.

Hawaiian Ren Chang, a New Yorker for 10 years, said she misses traditional Hawaiian food. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

Hawaiian Ren Chang, a New Yorker for 10 years, said she misses traditional Hawaiian food. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

“Multiple friends massively emailed us saying we should try this new Hawaiian restaurant,” she said. “We all tried it, and it’s pretty good and authentic.”

Like Costa and Chang, 4,000 people moved from Hawaii to New York between 2006 and 2009, and that number doubled from 2009 to 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The main reason for their migration appears to be professional.

Kimo Gerald, a member of Halawai (which means “Hawaii”), an organization that promotes Hawaiian culture, said the addition in June 2012 of a Hawaiian Airline daily nonstop flight from Honolulu to JFK has contributed to the trend.

“There are hundreds of seats coming every day,” said Gerald, who arrived in New York in 1971. “People from Hawaii prefer to fly with Hawaiian Airlines, where they have miles.”

But living 5,000 miles from home is not always easy. Kaina Quenga, a hula teacher, said New York is probably one of the states most opposite to Hawaii culturally.

Kaina Quenga, a hula teacher said the dance connects here to the islands. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

Hula teacher Kaina Quenga said the dance connects her to the Pacific Islands. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

“Usually people move from Hawaii to California or Vegas but New York, this is always a big change,” she said.

In the Big Apple, native Hawaiians have own secret ways to connect with their home state. Like Costa with food, Quenga connects with Hawaii through hula. This traditional dance focuses on each word of the songs to elaborate specific and delicate movements with the hands and hips.

“Pua, take a flower… yes, very gentle,” said Quenga miming the gesture for her students in Park Slope, Brooklyn, “Lā, feel the sun,” she continued, raising both hands.

For almost 10 years, Quenga has been giving hula lessons in New York City. She said it is a way to share and honor her culture. In her classes, flowers in the hair and Hawaiian outfits are required so that students feel transported to the Pacific Islands for an hour.

“When you enter the door, you enter Hawaii and you forget it is cold outside,” Quenga said. The students smiled and agreed.

Hula students are transported from Brooklyn to Honolulu for an hour. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

Hula students are transported from Brooklyn to Honolulu for an hour. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

Halawai, formed seven years ago, also tries to bring the “Aloha Spirit” to New York with hula and ukulele workshops, concerts and language classes. Gerald said he sees more and more people interested in learning about Hawaiian culture. Its annual picnic in Central Park, the first Sunday of June, has become more and more popular.

“Every year we see more people coming,” he said. “The average is around 300 people, even though we don’t really promote it.”

The smaller Na Ōiwi NYC (which means “natives of Hawaii”) association has been promoting Hawaiian history and heritage since 2009 and is more political, claiming independence for Hawaii after it became the 50th state in 1959.

In October, Leon Siu, the minister of foreign affairs of the self-declared “Hawaiian Kingdom” flew from Hawaii to New York City and spoke in front of two dozen people, half New Yorkers and half Native Hawaiians.

“We have the right and the obligation to restore our independence for our children,” Siu said. “We can manage our own country.”

Leon Siu talked about the independence of Hawaii with New Yorkers on October 1. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

Leon Siu argued for Hawaii’s independence at a meeting on October 1. (Photo by Juliette Dekeyser/Voices of NY)

With their hearts still in the Pacific but their feet in New York City, the Native Hawaiians, like Gerald, say the dynamism and the energy of New York is what makes them stay.

“In the evening, in Honolulu, I can do 20 interesting things or stay at home,” Gerald said. “In New York, I can do 500 things or stay at home. There is so much going on here.”


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  4. anonymous says:

    As long as they keep THEIR culture to themselves and not push it onto others. I lived in Honolulu for 4.5 years. Their culture, aside from the Asian predominance, is exactly like the South on the mainland. The same mentality, social infrastructure, religion, politics, personality, interpersonal relations, interconnectivity, interdependence, codependence, and lack of or no individuality, etc.It MUST be noted and be made known that Hawaiians do NOT accept New York City mentalities or attitudes. Period! One cannot even obtain or maintain a job in Hawaii if one comes and keeps the New York City mentality. Period.

  5. The key phrase above is “keeps the New York mentality.” If indeed one goes to Hawai’i with an attitude of superiority and arrogance, guess what? You will not be welcome. But if you come with an attitude of humbleness and fraternity as equals, and you show proper respect, you will be accepted,though it may take some time. I speak as one who came from Maine, went to Hawai’i, stayed for 36 years and raised my family there. I would not trade that experience for anything, though now I am back on family property in Maine. Hawaiians have a depth of wisdom that apparently was lost on the person who posted above.

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