Following in the footsteps of his mentor Glenn Grant, local storyteller Robert Lopaka Kapanui was honored last year at the State Capitol with House Resolution 185, which commended him for bringing alive the ghosts of the past through his tales and perpetuating Hawaii’s cultural legacy and history.
For political observers, it was a sign that Kapanui had arrived as more than just a master of local legends, but as a revered leader among the Native Hawaiian community.
In Kapanui’s humble estimation, the resolution belonged more to the memory of his late mentor, and was “20 years late for Glenn.” Still, the achievement was the pinnacle of Kapanui’s Mysteries of Hawaii ghost tour business, and it seemed as though he was just getting started with plans for even more ambitious plans for tourists and local participants.
Then, 19 days later, Covid-19 breakouts in the Aloha State forced Gov. David Ige to sign a stunning special proclamation that shuttered most nonessential businesses and put residents under stay-at-home orders.
During a Zoom interview last week, Kapanui recalled that he found himself at a loss for what to do next until his wife, Tanya, urged him to keep telling stories by whatever means necessary, to fill the void that had just formed in Hawaii’s collective hearts. Right then and there, Kapanui and his wife went virtual on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube with free, weekly hour long broadcasts for anyone who would listen.
Dressed in a sharp suit, seated in front of a library of ghost books, and speaking by the light of a dim lamp, Kapanui began telling his stories online.
Now, I personally believe that Hawaiians, who began as a seafaring people, have a historic, cultural and epigenetic gift for the art of storytelling. To migrate on pure faith and cross vast oceans in small vessels, one must be able to remember exacting details – in essence, carrying an entire civilization in one’s heart.
Then, having arrived at the destination, one must raise a new generation through retelling complex concepts and imparting memorable virtues. This “gift” blossomed in a powerful way for Kapanui as he began telling stories from his home during the pandemic, and in a very short time, an entire online community began to form around his channel.
One might ask what telling ghost stories has to do with Covid, or why one would want to hear potentially macabre and spine-chilling tales of hauntings, spirits and Hawaii cryptids during a such a serious time as a pandemic. But, as anyone who has ever listened to Kapanui’s stories knows, his storytelling is didactic at its deepest levels and is really about a common set of living themes rather than just ghosts.
Among these is the concept that Hawaiians are an important people with a special history, and that there are consequences for forgetting one’s past, abandoning one’s virtues or disrespecting one’s culture.
Humanity’s best stories are always those that teach values, and Kapanui’s stories reminded Hawaii in the middle of the pandemic that life is a precious gift, that family should be cherished because our time is so short, and that we have a certain responsibility to one another.
One of Kapanui’s most stunning stories is about a poor, old lady who is mistreated by one of Kamehameha’s guards after she asks for a few fish to eat from the king’s royal pond. The story ends with the guard discovering the woman he mistreated was actually the goddess Pele in disguise. He also receives a rebuke from the king who insists that anybody asking for help should receive it no matter who they are – a lesson that is easily applicable to today’s politics of economic scarcity and tightfisted approach to governance.
As Covid cases started to diminish and the proliferation of mRNA vaccines made it safer to gather again, Kapanui and his wife resumed their in-person tours throughout Honolulu and Waikiki early this year.
Outdoor gathering restrictions amid the delta breakout have made business challenging, but Kapanui continues to tell stories both online and with group tours. Despite all the obstacles placed on his business, Mysteries of Hawaii even made it this year to the No. 2 spot on USA Today’s list of the “Ten Best” ghost tours in the nation, a triumph that speaks to the power of his storytelling.
Kapanui says he hopes that our state and county governments will work together to take care of our people and our islands first, before trying to add anything else to the “stew” of what is cooking in politics. He is hopeful that by providing first and foremost for the community, we can rebuild a post-Covid resilience that would allow Hawaii to offer a better outcome for locals. But until then, he will keep telling his stories and keep giving people hope in his own way.
I told Kapanui that since the dawn of humanity, whenever mankind has been threatened by events beyond its control and forced to withdraw into caves, basements or missile bunkers, one pattern has remained and that is when sheltered together, we tell each other stories, talk about the past and plan for the future.
In a way, the pandemic gave many of us a chance to learn more about Hawaii’s past, and about each other – and maybe we need to do more of that moving forward.
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