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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 25, 2005

Theorizing about birth of shaka

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

We now have testimony that the shaka sign originated in both Italy and China. We have been assured that Lippy Espinda, that great pioneer of pidgin on TV, gave birth to the shaka sign and that Lippy was merely a copycat. There is good evidence that the shaka sign got started on Moloka'i, in La'ie and at sea.

What should a serious student of local culture believe?

The best way to settle this question is to present the evidence and let experts such as yourself decide. Here's the evidence:

1. Italian Theory: Reader Henry Nakasato quotes an unnamed source who said that farmers in southern Italy made the shaka sign to passing visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries.

2. Chinese Theory: Kadaysay@aol.com writes that "when trading in China, the hand is used to count one, two, three, four, five and six. Since we only have five fingers on one hand, what is known as the shaka is really the hand signal in trading for the number six."

3. Hawaiian Migration Theory: Annamaria Preston of Waikiki testifies that she was told in her youth that the shaka sign was a measurement that the Polynesians held against the stars to guide their canoes to the Hawaiian Islands.

4. Sign-language Theory: Tom Look says he learned the shaka in the 1940s as sign language for the letter E, for "easy."

5. Lippy Espinda Theory: Fritz Amtsberg, a former altar boy at St. Augustine Church, remembers that Lippy was an usher there. He greeted the altar boys with the shaka. Another Lippy supporter is Don Terada of Honolulu, who says Lippy originated the shaka sign and the word during commercials on TV in the 1960s.

6. Beer-drinking Theory: Quite a few people believe the shaka sign began with construction workers drinking beer after work. Musician Byron Yasui points out that tipping up a can of beer requires a dainty extension of the pinkie and the thumb. Ergo, while drinking beer, workers originated the shaka. Larry Shawhan of Kapahulu agrees. He learned on Moloka'i, as a school teacher in 1966, that "when you pass someone camping on the beach or sitting under a mango tree, they inevitably exchange a shaka sign. It means, 'Come join us for a Primo.' "

Betty Ling of Kailua remembers from the 1940s how construction workers looked forward to pau hana time on Hobron Lane, where they drank beer at picnic tables or under a mango tree. She said, "Workers driving home signaled to others with a pau hana sign, wiggling a hand with only thumb and pinkie exposed, the thumb pointing to the mouth. I remember the children copy-catting it."

7. Playing-marbles Theory: Here's a strong contender for how the word "shaka" originated. Yasui said adults used to watch kids play marbles. The comment for a good shot was , "Sharp eye." "Us kids heard this as 'shaka' eye. In pidgin, it means shark eye." Claude Ortis, born and raised in Kapahulu, said that in his day, kids who were good marble players were called "shaka shooters." This was in the 1940s. You can add Kiyoshi Taba to the list of shaka marble shooters. He weighed in with a letter to the editor last week.

8. Hamana Kalili Theory: The strongest evidence of all comes from La'ie, where the whole community contends that the shaka sign originated with Mormon elder, legendary fisherman and tug-of-war champion Hamana Kalili. They say everybody knows that he lost the middle fingers of his right hand so that only the thumb and pinkie stood up when he raised his arm in church as a sign of approval.

Ron Walker of Kailua, Kona, remembers the beach house of his parents, who lived next door to the Kalilis in La'ie.

"An eel bit off his fingers," said Walker. "It was common knowledge that he originated the shaka sign."

Ortis, in Kapahulu, said over the telephone that he was a friend of Kalili and that he originated the shaka sign. "It was spread by tour drivers because Kalili used to wave at them from the beach with his right hand that had the fingers missing," said Ortis. "They teased him about it, and his gesture came to be the shaka sign."

It is possible, of course, that the shaka sign and the word "shaka" originated independently, that they came together like bread and jelly because they both mean the same.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.