LAIE, Hawaii — The luau hosted by the Polynesian Cultural Center is hard to beat.
Each guest is greeted with a fresh flower lei, then led to a table in a covered, outdoor venue surrounded by lush tropical gardens and waterfalls. There's a buffet of traditional Hawaiian food, including kalua pork, papaya, pineapple chunks, purple taro rolls and poi, along with the choice of guava cake, bread pudding or other desserts. As guests savor the food, Sia Tonga, the host for that evening's luau, introduces a parade of colorful costumes and lively dancing, including a 10-year-old boy who knows how to handle a fireknife.
But what visitors seemed to appreciate the most is how Tonga acknowledged the name and hometown of each person with a birthday, each military veteran, and each couple celebrating an anniversary, all from an audience of several hundred people.
"When you are here, you're family," Tonga said repeatedly.
Tonga's thoughtfulness illustrates the warm family feeling that permeates the paths of the 42-acre Polynesian Cultural Center, consistently one of Hawaii's top attractions. Whether visitors are playing Aotearoa stick games, learning to cook in the Samoan "tunoa" (kitchen) or watching Tongan men beat their "nafa" (skin drums), it's a family affair. Honoring your heritage, serving others and loving family are also themes conveyed in the PCC's signature show, "Ha: Breath of Life."
"Family matters, and family is everything. This place tells it all and I love it," said Mele Suiava Latu, a tour guide in the Tongan village, one of eight Polynesian cultures represented at the PCC. "There is a special spirit about this place. It is such a joy to share our culture and see the difference it can make in somebody's life. It's very rewarding."
The PCC, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1963 by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a three-fold mission. First, keep the culture, arts and crafts of Polynesia; second, contribute to the education of students at Brigham Young University-Hawaii by providing employment opportunities; and third, "demonstrate and radiate a spirit of love and service which will contribute to the betterment, uplifting and blessing of all who visit," according to the center's mission statement.
The PCC features authentic villages or exhibits from Samoa, Aotearoa (from New Zealand), Fiji, Hawaii, Marquesas, Tahiti, Tonga and Rapa Nui. Around 700 of the 1,100 employees are students at BYU-Hawaii, according to information from the PCC.
Over the years, the PCC, with its activities, friendly staff and entertaining atmosphere, has received several accolades and grown to become one of Hawaii's top paid attractions. The PCC averages about 1 million visitors each year, according to its website polynesia.com.
P. Alfred Grace, the first BYU-Hawaii graduate to serve as president and CEO of the PCC, is a native of New Zealand. He met his wife at BYU-Hawaii and they raised their family in Laie. The center's focus on families has been a factor in its success, Grace said.
"The Polynesian Cultural Center encompasses a wholesome, family-centered environment … appropriate for family members of any age," Grace said in an interview with the Deseret News. "The experience is also highly interactive, making a day at the center fun, rewarding and memorable. The center's standing as a family focused attraction is validated by the numerous awards it has consistently earned throughout the years."
Tipa Galeai, an employee of 35 years, agreed.
"The park is family oriented. Everything we do in our culture is all about family," said Galeai, who works in the Samoan village. "To serve our fellow-man, to serve parents and grandparents, is a highlight of our culture. The young serve the older ones, so someday you get your turn. It’s all about respect and service that we render to our families."
In 2009, the PCC debuted "Ha: Breath of Life," a 90-minute production with more than 100 performers (mostly BYU-Hawaii students) in its 2,600-seat Pacific Theater. Through music, dance and cultural displays, the performance tells the story of one Polynesian's journey from infancy to getting married and starting his own family. Commitment to family and service are key messages of the award-winning show, Grace said.
"It’s a message that we are proud to share every day," Grace said. "The show is exhilarating and inspiring at the same time."
Two years after celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013, the PCC completed a major project that included refurbishing the island villages, facility upgrades and the addition of the Hukilau Marketplace, a collection of stores, shops and dining establishments.
In a 2013 interview with Hawaiibusiness.com, Grace said people generally love their first visit to the PCC. One of the biggest challenges is persuading them to return. He hopes the new marketplace and other improvements will help with that.
"The Hukilau Marketplace has been a grand success in sharing the legacy of Laie and the roots of the Polynesian Cultural Center," Grace said in an interview with the Deseret News. "For anyone who hasn’t been to the Polynesian Cultural Center in recent years, I urge them to return. I am confident they will be impressed by the improvements made and how we are continuing to live up to our mission and vision of the LDS Church."
T. David Hannemann
T. David Hannemann, affectionately called "Uncle David" by PCC employees, was the center's first employee in 1963.
The 91-year-old with flowing silver hair still walks the PCC grounds sporting a Hawaiian-style flower shirt. He also serves as its unofficial historian.
One of Hannemann's duties was to train PCC tour guides. He was living in Southern California at the time and felt inspired to consult with people at Disneyland. Not only did they open their doors to him, they allowed him to take copies of their employee manuals. Hannemann incorporated those ideas and principles at the PCC, he said.
One of Hannemann's favorite and tender memories of those early days came in 1964. He was serving as an assistant to the general manager when he learned of a serious problem. "We were informed we might not meet the payroll," he said.
Management shared the bad news in a staff meeting. Amid flowing tears, many courageously stood, including a non-LDS man recently hired in Fiji, and vowed to continue working at the center with or without pay, Hannemann said.
Three wealthy men on the PCC's board of directors secured a loan to cover the payroll. The budget was tight for a while, but the PCC family stayed together and believed in what they were doing. In due time, the situation improved and has not been an issue since, Hannemann said.
"It took faith to get through those early years. Employees could have quit but they didn't," Hannemann said. "My favorite memory is the faith of our people."
Canoes and islands
The PCC has employed some families for more than a generation. Talk to some of the longtime employees and they can tell you about hosting royalty, meeting celebrities and shaking hands with multiple LDS general authorities.
Hannemann recalls meeting Elvis Presley as parts of his movie, "Paradise Hawaiian Style," were filmed at the PCC.
Norris M. Alaiasa of the PCC's Northshore Explorers has spent time with Minnesota Vikings' star Adrian Peterson and actor Adam DeVine ("Pitch Perfect") at the center.
"If you think this is a job, you're crazy," Alaiasa said with a laugh. "It's not, I love it."
U.S. Naval Academy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who is the first Samoan head coach in college football, recalls working at the PCC as a canoe boy while his father managed a restaurant.
"I don't know if you can call it work, it was more fun," Niumatalolo said. "All my relatives worked there, it was a part of everybody's life."
Kap Te'o Tafiti, of the Samoan village, recalls meeting and entertaining LDS Church Presidents Spencer W. Kimball, Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, as well as others church leaders.
"I have met many people, leaders of countries, the church, and made many friends, which I would never have met had I not worked here," said Tafiti, who earned his BYU-Hawaii education while working at the PCC (he also sells art depicting scenes of Polynesian life). "That is the power of this place. We learn about each other."
Terry N. Panee, who teaches Hawaiian language and studies at BYU-Hawaii, has worked at the PCC for more than 30 years. He explained the friendly, respectful approach by staff towards visitors through an old Hawaiian proverb: "He wa‘a he moku; He moku he wa‘a," which translates into, "The canoe is an island, the island is a canoe."
Everyone is in the same boat, Panee said.
"If you are in a canoe in the middle of the ocean, that's your island and you can't vote anyone off. You need to learn to live and respect everyone in the canoe because one day one of those guys is going to save your life," the BYU-Hawaii professor said.
"You should have the same mentality on land," he continued. "Treat everybody with the respect they deserve so that they will be there to help you out when you need help. Appreciating cultural values allows us to understand each other."
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