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[Interview] with Patrick Moser

David M. Olsen interviews Patrick Moser about his past books, and his upcoming book Waikiki Dreams, his love of surfing, and living in the Midwest.


We had ukes and guitars, and one fella had a

trumpet, and we used to have big luaus. After

we’d surf, we’d go back to the beach and just eat,

then we’d play Hawaiian songs till midnight or so.

Just Hawaiian music because that’s all we liked.

We used to listen to this radio program called

Hawaii Calls, it was broadcast out of Waikiki, and

we’d all dream about going to Hawaii.

—Calvin “Tulie” Clark, Palos Verdes Surfing Club


A storm brews in the South Pacific, sending waves thousands of miles

across the ocean to break on the shores of California in the summertime.

Waves come from other directions, of course, during other seasons, and

they are often bigger and better shaped. But summer waves are special.

They speak to our collective fantasies in ways unmatched by winter surf.

It’s why Rincon, some fifty miles north of Malibu and often a superior

wave, sits in relative obscurity outside the surf community while its flashy

sibling, Surfrider Beach, commands the world’s attention when it comes

to California dreamin’. Yes, Malibu’s fame partly owes to the Hollywood

stars who live right around the corner from the break. And yes, it’s also the

influence of Los Angeles, longtime mecca of hope and health despite the

gritty details of living beside millions of people. But here’s the real reason

why Malibu shines so brightly: it breaks best in the summer, not in the

winter like Rincon. Cold water and wetsuits just aren’t sexy. Sunshine,

tan skin, athletic young bodies performing dazzling maneuvers in warm

waves—that’s sexy. More than a century of marketing has told us so. That

image is based on Western fantasies of the people and places of the South

Pacific, where the waves come from.


Hawai‘i, in the path of those waves, forms part of the tropical fantasy

largely because of Waikīkī, which also faces toward the South Pacific and

breaks best in the summertime. But honestly, the islands are so temperate

that mainlanders imagine them existing in a state of perpetual summer,

their palm trees, trade winds, and year-round warm water beckoning to the

imagination. Few eras summoned the dream of Waikīkī more strongly than

the Great Depression, when mass unemployment, poverty, and displace-

ment fueled strong desires for a faraway life of romance and easy recreation.

With the promise of developing these ideas in later chapters, we can make

a couple of statements here about the general impact of the Great Depres-

sion on California beach culture. First, high unemployment rates gave

young people the gift of time, which allowed them to spend more days

at the beach developing their sports and leisure activities. Second, beach

culture also thrived during the 1930s because beaches were both a cheap

form of leisure and readily accessible to the majority-white population in

Southern California.


The story of California beach culture’s growth during the Great Depres-

sion really begins in the 1920s with the influence of Native Hawaiian Duke

Kahanamoku. Beach culture has existed, of course, as long as people have

lived on the California coast. Native American communities occupied and

worked the Southland’s coastal areas for thousands of years—some of their

ancestors still do today—from the Kumeyaay in present-day San Diego to

the Chumash in the northern counties of Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa

Barbara. The long history of settler colonialism in California—Spanish,

Mexican, and American—cleaved indigenous peoples from their ancestral

lands, specific examples of which are treated in Part Two. Generally speak-

ing, settler colonialism represents the precondition for the beach culture that

is the focus of this study. That culture first developed in Southern California

upon the arrival of mixed-race Hawaiian George Freeth (1883–1919), whose

combination of surfing and lifeguarding changed people’s perspective about

the beach. Over nearly a dozen years working as a lifeguard and swim coach

in the Golden State (1907–1919), Freeth showed Southern Californians that

the surf zone, while certainly dangerous and the cause of many drownings,

also offered them a tremendous amount of pleasure. His development of

lifeguard programs from Los Angeles to San Diego, which included teaching

lifeguards to surf to become more effective rescuers, created the foundation

of California beach culture as we recognize it today, from Gidget and the

Beach Boys to Baywatch and the billion-dollar surf industry. Freeth’s sud-

den death in the 1918–1919 flu pandemic created a void soon filled by his

friend and protégé, Duke Kahanamoku.


An all-around waterman and Olympic champion, Duke spent the latter

half of the 1920s playing small roles in Hollywood. When he wasn’t on

location in Wyoming filming a western, or traveling to Southern California’s

Channel Islands to play a South Seas chief, he spread enthusiasm for beach

culture by giving surfing exhibitions and making headlines with dramatic

rescues, how-to articles on bodysurfing, and teaching water sports to top

Hollywood personalities. His fame, good looks, humble personality, and

athletic abilities captured the attention of an entire generation of Califor-

nians and encouraged them to swim and surf the way he did. Duke’s Hol-

lywood experience encapsulates in many ways the contradictory impulses

that run through California beach culture of the 1930s: a reverence for all

things Hawaiian that typically stopped short at the color line. Hollywood

promoted South Seas films while denying Kahanamoku and other islanders

leading roles because of their skin color. In a similar fashion, surfing clubs

and municipal lifeguard organizations, whose heroes and role models were

Native Hawaiians and mixed-race Hawaiians, excluded people of color (and

women) from their ranks as a matter of practice. This disconnect between

embracing an ideal of Native Hawaiian culture and yet ignoring substantive

relationships with Native Hawaiians themselves surfaces time and again

among the leading beach influencers of the era.


Beach culture developed so strongly in Southern California in the 1920s

and 1930s because the region became one of the nation’s biggest manufac-

turing centers. California beach culture was literally built in Los Angeles—

surfboards, paddleboards, lifesaving gear, water camera housings, to name

a few. The most iconic products to come off the assembly lines—Pacific

System Homes surfboards and Tom Blake paddleboards—played a part in

the complex dynamic that was essentially colonial in nature: appropriating

the tradition of indigenous people in a way that cast them as extras in their

own cultural production. The result was a California surfboard manufac-

turer that became the purveyor of traditional Native Hawaiian craft. Once

Native Hawaiians are separated from their own cultural products, space

is left open for others to fill that gap. Historian Kevin Starr describes how

Californians of the 1920s materialized their dreams of health and prosper-

ity through great building projects across the state. The same was true for

individuals looking to fulfill personal dreams that centered on Waikīkī. In

the most extreme case—that of mainland surfer Tom Blake—the dream

was not simply to idealize the life of a Native Hawaiian, but to actually

become one himself.


As California beach culture depended upon mechanisms of settler

colonialism, so too Blake’s appropriation of Native Hawaiian identity. In

both cases—and we’ll have more to say about these issues throughout the

study—the ultimate motivation can be traced back to deep-seated cultural

imperatives to both remove and replace indigenous peoples. Because set-

tler colonialism, as a structure and ongoing process rather than a finite

historical event, has enduring consequences, we can retrace our steps a bit

and reason that one of those consequences manifested itself in the lack of

substantive relationships between Southern Californians of the era and their

Native Hawaiian counterparts. That is to say, the disconnect between white

Southern Californians and indigenous Hawaiians would be an expected

outcome of a broader system that placed the two populations at odds. One

would have to work actively against prevailing social biases and structures

to develop meaningful bonds across cultures.


Los Angeles turned into a hotbed of Hawaiian culture in the 1930s, the

fertile soil in which California beach culture thrived until Pearl Harbor

seized the world’s attention on December 7, 1941, after which much of

California beach culture shut down. During the preceding decade, how-

ever, California exerted increasing control over images of Native Hawaiians

through its movie, tourist, and surfboard industries. Matson Navigation

Company, based in San Francisco, owned the steamships and major Waikīkī

hotels that catered to Hawai‘i’s tourists, the majority of whom came from

California. The movie studios, of course, and the majority of “Hawaiian”

night clubs, were run by Californians. The official surfboard company of

Waikīkī’s iconic Outrigger Canoe Club, which provided “Genuine Hawai-

ian surfboards” to the equally iconic Waikīkī beachboys, was California’s

Pacific System Homes. The first builder of Tom Blake’s “Hawaiian Hollow

and Paddle Surf Boards” was the Thomas Rogers Company, based in Venice,

California. The general upshot of California’s “kona storm,” to echo Georgia

Stiffler, meant that Californians were selling California-made “Hawaiian”

products mostly to other Californians (and other mainlanders). The effect

was to generate the kind of colonial attitude toward Native Hawaiians that

arises in the title of the Santa Monica Outlook’s article on Captain Watkins

sending Chauncey Granstrom to the islands: “Santa Monicans To Teach

Hawaiians Surfboarding Art.” The newspaper title expresses a basic symp-

tom of settler colonialism by appropriating cultural knowledge—in this

case of Native Hawaiian surfing—and then bestowing it back upon the

indigenous population. In this dynamic, Santa Monicans take possession

of the art of surfing, part of an invidious colonial process that ultimately

seeks the replacement of natives themselves.


Three beach centers—Palos Verdes, San Onofre, and Malibu—helped

shape the ideal of Waikīkī surf into a recreational activity that became

particularly Californian. Depression-era surfers at each break were looking

for waves that rolled like those beneath Diamond Head, but the specific

geography of California—the river mouths at San Onofre and Malibu, for

example—transformed those southern swells into waves that were unique

to their respective surf spots. The long rides at Bluff Cove, San Onofre, and

Malibu may have recalled Waikīkī in a general way, but the cobblestones

and other geologic factors created surf that had its own particular demands.

Californians derived their surfing heritage entirely from Hawai‘i, but the

necessity to adapt to the demands of local surf spots forced them to begin

building their own beach culture. The most obvious example is the role that

automobiles played in the development of surfing. Cars didn’t really factor

into the surf life at Waikīkī—locals and tourists had relatively easy access to

the waves. But California surf spots were spread out, and surfboards were

heavy, so wheels became a necessity. Car culture begat accessories like surf

racks, tires to burn on the beach after a cold winter session, and terms like

“klunker” for a used surfboard. The era’s premier surf photographer in

California, “Doc” Ball, framed his photographs with Waikīkī in mind, but

the coves, cliffs, piers, and beaches that filled his lens captured a nascent

culture establishing its own traditions.


World War II drained California beaches of many young people who

enlisted in the military, and still others joined the war effort as civilians in

the Southland’s booming aviation and shipbuilding industries. Gas ration-

ing restricted excursions to the coast, and though most beaches remained

open to the public, a heavy military presence owing to fears of a Japanese

invasion probably further discouraged ocean recreation at a time when the

nation’s energy remained focused on defeating Adolph Hitler and the Axis

powers. Down but not out, California beach culture bided its time and even

maintained some momentum despite the sudden evaporation of surfing

clubs and contests, Hawaiian-themed social events, and the brutal reality

of a South Pacific bathed in war. California beach culture had gained solid

traction in the early 1930s when lifeguard organizations incorporated Blake’s

hollow paddleboards as lifesaving gear, thus ensuring a nexus of young men

who regularly trained and competed on the craft. By maintaining their skills

in ocean rescue and the use of watercraft, lifeguard programs ensured the

continuity of beach culture during and after the most destructive event of

the twentieth century. The new materials that came out of war technol-

ogy—plastic foam and fiberglass—soon emerged in the home workshops

of a younger generation of shapers in Southern California. These protégés

of prewar surfers, inspired in their turn by the lure of Hawai‘i, became the

builders of a new beach culture that turned Malibu into the center of the

surfing world as California looked toward the 1950s.


From Waikīkī Dreams:  How California Appropriated Hawaiian Beach Culture. Copyright 2024 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

Patrick Moser is a professor of writing and French at Drury University. He is the author of Surf and Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture and the editor of Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing.


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