‘Hawaii, Hawaii/ Like a dream/ So I came/ But my tears/ Are flowing now/In the canefields’: Beauty’s Price in Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo


  • María Isabel Seguro




Hawaii, american imperialism, Ballad of Yachiyo


Oftentimes popular culture depicts Hawaii as an ideal paradise, represented by images of ‘[p]alm trees, a distant mountain (frequently a smoking volcano), and a hula maiden, all surmounted by a splendid full moon’ (Brown 1994). Such a picture clearly contrasts with the labour song quoted in the title of this article, which reflects the exploitation, mainly of Asian workers, in the sugar-cane plantation system—the original basis for (white) American prosperity in the islands since the mid-nineteenth century.

Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Ballad of Yachiyo, which premièred at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1995, takes place within a Japanese community in early twentieth-century Hawaii. It is loosely based on the silenced story of the playwright’s aunt who committed suicide for bringing shame to the family as a result of an extra-marital pregnancy. Gotanda considers that this particular work is not so much about politics, but about ‘a tone’ and a ‘kind of beautiful sadness’ (1997). Despite the author’s words, Ballad of Yachiyo inevitably has embedded within a political message insofar as it makes references, for example, to working conditions in the sugar plantations, the formation of the first inter-ethnic (Japanese/Filipino) trade unions and the expectations of Japanese immigrants in search of the mythical paradise Hawaii was meant to be. That is, by recovering what was once a lost voice, Gotanda reconstructs part of his family’s memory as forming part of Hawaii’s recent history.