story by Stu Dawrs
photos by Dana Edmunds
This is Las Vegas, after all. The casinos never close, the neon turns night to day and everything is super-sized and then some. You can walk the streets with a cocktail in your hand and legally hang a U-turn pretty much anywhere you please. It s the American Dream taken to its ultimate extreme.
So when I asked Hawaii-born chef Kevin Martinez what he likes to do on his nights off in Vegas, I guess I was expecting something glitzier than a simple: "Eat ox-tail soup at the California Hotel!" It was a joke, mostly a local-style ice-breaker between two strangers who share the Hawaii connection.
But sometimes you really do just want a taste of home, and Kevin a thirty-ish executive chef who spends his time creating high-end cuisine was raised on the comfort foods of Oahu s down-to-earth Waipahu district.One of those culinary wizards who picked up his craft largely on the job (he s worked in the kitchen of Honolulu s Palomino Eurobistro, among others), Kevin came to Las Vegas in 1999 to help open Malibu Chan s a Pacific Rim/Southwestern fusion restaurant owned by fellow Hawaii expats Warren and Cathy Seta, who have lived in Vegas since 1981.
"This town has changed tremendously," says Warren, not long after we d all sat down to coffee one morning in the restaurant, located about twenty minutes west of the Strip. "If you had asked me even six years ago to open an upscale fusion restaurant with a sushi bar and a chef from Hawaii, this far away from the Strip ... man, you couldn t give it to me for free."
One aspect of this tremendous boom has been a huge influx of Islanders ... and not just as visitors, though some 500,000 people fly between Hawaii and Las Vegas each year. Martinez and the Setas are among an estimated 50,000 former Hawaii residents who now call Las Vegas home, earning it the nickname of "The Ninth Island." Today, Hawaii s rubber-slipper imprint can be seen all over the desert floor, from the Las Vegas Hawaiian Civic Club s annual, two-day hoolaulea each September, to the shelves of Longs Drug Store. The latter, a well-known chain in the Islands, is doing big business by stocking once unheard-of items like poi (fresh or frozen), laulau, lomi salmon and more.
As a Hawaii person who has visited Vegas only as a wide-eyed tourist, I was curious what real life is like for the former Islanders there, and how they ve adapted to such a seemingly alien environment. So when I had an opportunity to visit last summer, I took the chance to look up several friends of friends who now call Las Vegas home.
Warren and Cathy Seta
According to Warren, it s important for Hawaii expats to hold on to their Island values. "We have an official aloha spirit policy in our employee handbook," he says. "It doesn t mean we re going to give you a lei or be here in grass skirts. It s about what the word really means: Most people think I have to take first, and then when I have enough I ll give some to you. We believe you give first."
July is monsoon season in Las Vegas, with the weather fluctuating wildly between 100-plus degree heat and sudden, thundering downpours. One stormy afternoon, I drove a few miles up from the Strip to eat potluck at the home of prominent expat Jimmy Gomes, along with some members of "Team Aloha" a community-service group that Jimmy helped to found, and which is made up largely of former Island residents.
If things keep going the way they have in the valley, Jimmy s two-story home will eventually be surrounded by Las Vegas ever-expanding suburbs, but at present it s relatively secluded, with the desert stretching out beyond the well-watered lawn. On Oahu, a house of this size and seclusion so close to the city would be priced out of reach of most residents. Here, Jimmy owns the entire cul-de-sac, including the house next door.
Even with the air-conditioning, the atmosphere inside was pure Hawaii: Shoes were parked on the front porch, everyone was speaking Pidgin and large, foil-covered pans of food occupied every flat surface. There was beer and soda in the cooler, which someone was always sitting on. (No worries, though, everybody here knew the etiquette: When the lid s open, grab one for everyone.)
It was the kind of laid-back, Saturday afternoon paina you d find at any given beach park in Hawaii. The only difference was that the people here all come from different parts of the Islands back home, they might never have known each other. Here, Island culture was the common ground and food was once again a shortcut to defining shared experiences.
"When I first came to Las Vegas, you couldn t get Hawaiian food," said Kuemanu "Manu" Purdy-Schmidt. "I used to eat poi for breakfast every day when I was growing up after I left, it was two years before I had it again. When my mom came up to visit, she brought fifty pounds and I froze it."
The granddaughter of World Roping Champion Ikua Purdy (he won the rodeo title in 1908, when a contingent of Hawaii paniolo traveled to Wyoming to compete), Manu was one of the veterans in the room. Like her friend Kiki Overholtzer, seated nearby, Manu came to Las Vegas nearly forty years ago to dance in Nalani Kele s Polynesian Revue, which began its run at the Stardust Hotel in 1959. Both Kiki and Manu have been here pretty much ever since.
"I left Hawaii because I wanted adventure," Kiki said. "I came from a family of eleven, and they couldn t afford for all of us to go to college, so I had to make it on my own. Nalani s show was a great opportunity: I made good money and did a lot of things that Hawaii people had never done before."
Manu jumped back in: "In the beginning, yes, we cried a lot: We just wanted to go home and be with our families. Now, two weeks is my limit I go home, party hearty, see everybody and then I m ready to come back. Of course, ohana is important to me, but my family comes here all the time."
The Watson ohana
At the mention of family, Herbie Watson put down his chopsticks and joined the conversation. Herbie moved to Nevada a decade ago, and as owner of "Holo Holo Las Vegas" he now makes his living shuttling visitors back and forth between their downtown hotels and the Belz Factory Outlet a massive complex of 155 discount stores on the outskirts of the city. The vast majority of his customers are Islanders, lured by the combination of inexpensive gifts for the folks back home and the good-fun, Hawaiian-style commentary Herbie provides en route.
From the way everyone in the room began to chuckle, it was obvious they d heard the story of his arrival before: How, after his eldest daughter announced she wanted to go to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Herbie and his wife Bernie figured it would be more cost-effective to buy a house for her to live in than to pay out-of-state tuition and dormitory fees. How their daughter then changed her mind about leaving the Islands, which convinced their other daughter to stay on Maui as well.
"We d heard all these horror stories from friends who said, My kid is forty years old and still living with me, " Herbie said, laughing so hard that tears formed in the corners of his eyes. "So we said, OK, you kids can have the Pukalani house mommy and daddy are leaving. "
Asked why some Hawaii people can make it in Las Vegas and others can t, everyone floated a different explanation: Jimmy pointed to the twin dangers of gambling and a nightlife that doesn t quit when the sun rises; others spoke of culture shock and the risk of being "taken" when one is already culturally inclined to give. But I liked Herbie s theory the best: "The ones who go back are the ones who are strongly tied to the ocean: The beach people. I mean, you go to Lake Mead and there s no opihi."
For most of the afternoon, Kevin DeFrancia had been the man on the cooler. In his late twenties, he was the youngest in the room and also the quietest. Herbie, his father-in-law, convinced him to come up six years ago, and now he works as a maintenance supervisor for an apartment complex. Like many Island youth, his options in Hawaii were few the prospect of owning a home, for instance, was virtually nonexistent.
Still, when asked if he likes Las Vegas, he was guarded in his response. It s clear that his choice to leave was made out of necessity. "It s not easy living up here; it s not easy leaving the Islands. We work to get where we are," he said softly, as everyone nodded in agreement. "It s a totally different world from back home, but what we have here, we couldn t have there: It s still a struggle, but sometimes it s just an easier struggle here."
Among my plans in Las Vegas, I had two major goals: to track down Island musician Gary Haleamau and to visit the Liberace Museum, which to me is as Vegas as you can possibly get. Imagine my joy, then, when I finally heard back from Gary and discovered that he was by sheer coincidence working at the Liberace Museum. Talk about killing two birds with one rhinestone.
I met Gary at the museum, and we spent an hour or so engaged in the surreal process of bonding over our common Big Island connections while wandering through collections of Liberace s classic cars, grand pianos, candelabra and memorabilia including his legendary 200-pound, rhinestone-encrusted "King Neptune" costume.
Three years ago, Gary told me, he and his wife Sheldeen were making a successful living on the Kona coast of the Big Island. He was a well-known musician. Their home was paid off, and they d just finished renovating it. So why would anyone give all that up?
"The Polynesians here needed help," he said simply. Devoutly religious, the Haleamaus moved to Las Vegas to help open a church. Gary took a pay cut of nearly $20,000 per year when he first got here, working for Delta Airlines before landing his current job, as facilities manager of the museum. He told me all of this without a hint of regret, though there was a slight tone of wistfulness in his voice when I asked if there s anything he misses. The list was a familiar one family, ocean, food, community.
"It was a challenge adapting to the different personalities," he said with a slight nod. "Back home, everybody is like, What s up? Howzit! Aloha spirit, yeah? You can be the spirit here, but sometimes people look at you and they go, You weird or what? "
But here he grinned. "Every once in a while, I get together with some friends and we play music, and my wife is in the kitchen cooking laulau, and it s like we never left Hawaii. We re making a good life for our sons and I m happy" he paused for effect and then busted up "and Spam for 77 cents? Can t go wrong, brah!"
As I was leaving, we shook hands once, stepped back, then shook hands again and hugged. Driving away, I thought of something Herbie Watson had said earlier in the week: "As far as moving to Las Vegas, Hawaii people are Hawaii people. For whatever reason they move and wherever they go California, Kalamazoo they still take the aloha spirit with them. I know when someone is local: I give him the shaka sign and if he returns it we chat for a while, make that connection and then go on our way."