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When Strange Gods Call

Revised 2011 edition

When I was a child in Hawai`i, whenever our family gathered, the evening would end with stories. My grandmother, aunts, uncles, and parents remembered the Territorial Days when life was simpler—planting taro in the terraced rows, running barefoot, and climbing trees after school. But when the moon mounted the warm dark nights, my cousins and I craved the ghost stories for in those days, gods and goddesses, ghosts and spirits were very much alive.

After a sunset swim and barbecue on the beach, all of us gathered around the glowing hibachi coals, knee to knee in the darkness. Did we know that a little boy had drowned right here at this beach, an uncle would ask with a glint in his eye. We shivered when we heard the tale of how this seaweed-dripping ghost haunted the sea waiting for an unsuspecting victim.

On the way home, we would pass darkened houses, supposedly haunted. My father would point out trees where ghosts could be seen luring drivers.

When my father turned onto our street we were instantly silent when we passed the three old cemeteries and four temples and churches—a richly fertile haunt for spirits.

Early one morning, my mother’s cousin woke us with her frantic pounding on our front door. On her way to work, traffic had slowed to a crawl. A man and woman, drenched in blood, beckoned to all the drivers from the wall at Kipapa Gulch, a treacherous road. The couple had been driving home from a school meeting and died in a car accident the night before at that very spot. Her cousin had seen the couple’s spirits luring the morning commuters to “take their place.”

While the Chinese and Hawaiian ghost stories—of which our family had an endless supply—shaped our imaginations, we were trying to be as American as the people we saw on television and in the movies. Our school curriculum covered American history, not Hawaiian history. Our teachers emphasized speaking good English, not the pidgin we used to communicate with our friends and neighbors who spoke dozens of languages. But we always remembered that spirits inhabit trees, rocks, mountains, and the wind. Ghosts return to homes and roadsides. Strange gods and goddesses take human form to confound us.

Hawai`i is a mix of many cultures and languages from ethnically diverse lands of the Pacific. Perhaps it is Hawai`i’s tumultuous history—a Hawaiian kingdom overthrown by American businessmen, ruled by a Provisional government and a Republic, annexation, and Statehood—that allows us to be comfortable with both the mystical world of Hawai`i and the logical Western world of America. It has taught us that what matters most are the people and our ability to get along and adapt.

WHEN STRANGE GODS CALL takes place in the 1970s, a decade after Hawai`I has reached statehood, a time of transition, when generations struggle between cultures. For the older generation, the Confucian ethics of family, honor and scholarship conflict with the American goals of individuality and assertiveness. For the traditional Chinese, an individual is a part of the family unit; the Chinese culture values inter-dependence within the family, restraint in emotions and personal views, and conformity to the rules of good behavior. In contrast, Western culture values independence, autonomy, assertiveness and creativity and encourages each person to express their feelings and opinions. With each generation, children become more assimilated and westernized.

The central characters are Miki Ai’Lee, the great-granddaughter of a Chinese advisor to Hawai`i’s monarchy, and Alex Demming, son of the arch rivals of the Ai’Lees whose family has grown wealthy on the lands which had once belonged to Miki’s ancestors. Their childhood romance ends when Miki becomes a professor of art in San Francisco and Alex stalks high-stakes international art thieves. Years later, their paths cross at a time when both are faced with difficult choices: strong parental expectations at odds with their own desires combined with four generations of death and deceit between their families.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are more Hawaiians living on the United States mainland than in Hawai`i. Even though we keiki o ka `aina—the children of Hawaii—have left the Islands for political, economic, or educational reasons, we have taken the tales and myths and legends of Hawai`i with us.

WHEN STRANGE GODS CALL evokes these ghosts and spirits of Hawai`i. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The gods and goddesses, ghosts and spirits, however, are real.