By Napua Heen
Carole Kai Onouye may have made her name in the glitz and glam of showbiz, but it’s clear when speaking with her that her heart is tied to the simple and humble things in life.
The days of eating around the two-foot tall table
Still strikingly beautiful in her 70s, Hawaiʻi’s sweet starlet reminisces about the dirt floors of her childhood with a longing in her voice. It’s almost as if she aches to go back to the days of eating around the two-foot tall table, bathing in the furo and sleeping on the floor with her cousins. The yearnings are subtle behind her seasoned stage presence but detectable as she goes into detail about growing up in Kakaʻako.
“The first floor of the house was a mud floor, packed down. The neighbors all had mud floors, too. And we had a community bath. You sit on the stool, water yourself down, soap yourself up and rinse yourself off with a pail. Then you jump into the furo that’s kept hot with a fire. Three or four of us [cousins] would jump in at the same time,”
Carole Kai, born Carole Shimizu, technically lived at 1128 Kamaile St. just off of Piʻikoi St. when it was nothing more than a dirt road. Her mother, Ethel Iwamoto Shimizu, worked long hours as a barber on Kapiʻolani Boulevard at the location that is now The Green Comb. So Carole spent her afternoons, evenings and many nights at Uncle Mutt and Aunty Kay Mishima’s home in Kakaʻako, growing up alongside her cousins.
The Mishima home was on Pohukaina Street where BJ Penn’s UFC Gym sits today. There were no streets, only dirt roads, back then. So when it rained, they walked up to their calves in muddy water. A two-story home, the first level floor was packed dirt. There was an eating room one step up from the packed dirt floor; the eating room floor was made of wood and covered with a thin layer of linoleum. This is where they sat together on mats, Japanese style, around the low table. There were steps leading up to the second floor. The upstairs consisted of two rooms. “We all slept on the floor; six of us [cousins] slept on the floor. The front room was for Aunty and Uncle,” Carole says.
Saving up money for the saimin stand
The children would save up their money for movies and saimin. Those were the popular things to do in Kakaʻako, and it was fun! The movies were at the corner of Cooke St. and Queen St. where the Sunshine Scuba shop is today.
After the movies, if the children had enough money, they would go to the saimin stand. Owned by the Matsuda family, the saimin stand was quite famous and known to be the best saimin on the island. Carole giggles when she talks about it. “It was open air, you know? It was not a structure,” she says. “They put up fencing around and put plants to cover, but it didn’t have walls.” Nonetheless, this is where the community gathered, and they loved it there.
Views of Makiki Roundtop Drive
In the 1950s, Kakaʻako was “home to many people, but everyone got along together,” recalls Carole. No one really wanted to leave Kakaʻako. This is where their friends were.
Sometimes they wondered, though, what it would be like to live on Makiki Roundtop Drive. As they looked up toward the mountains and saw the lights from the houses, they were never jealous but would wonder what those houses looked like on the inside and what the people there ate for dinner: “Eh, cousin Gail, I wonder what their house looks like. I wonder what they’re eating tonight,” Carole said as a child.
The most notable characteristic about the people of Kakaʻako was their work ethic; they were hardworking people. “Parents worked really hard,” shares Carole. “And the attitude, at least among the Japanese parents was, ʻYou gotta go to school. You gotta go to college. We’ll find a way to pay for it.’”
Carole remains a firm advocate of education. “When you have education, you start to see what could be,” she says.
She majored in piano and minored in voice at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. This led her to a gig at the Kahala Hilton with mentor Anna Lea, where she got “bit by the performance bug” which started her down her star-studded career.
The making of Carole Kai
There was a television station on the makai side of Kakaʻako. Carole laughs as she remembers making a television appearance there as a child. Once in awhile, the kids from the neighborhood were invited to be part of a television program. Carole remembers promoting a package of saimin as her first experience on TV. Later, she and a friend, now retired State Circuit Judge Marie Nakanishi Milks, sang a duet together. Those were fun times for Carole, and little did she know back then that she’d one day be an entertainer and actress, singing and dancing on stage and making regular television and movie appearances.
Carole Kai, as she is known, became a popular singer and pianist, frequently headlining show rooms here in Hawaiʻi. Carole also spent some time performing in Las Vegas where she would make one of the best decisions of her life. While in Las Vegas, the Johnny Carson group wanted to manage her. They put her on contract for $5,000 per week, and she was opening in big hotels. It seemed like a charmed life until they asked her to pay a visit to a married hotel manager who “liked Asian girls.” This was a rude awakening for Carole. She knew she would never be able to compromise herself. She sought the wisdom of a trusted critic, a writer for the Daily Variety (the entertainment “bible” of its day) who had given her a decent review. Carole learned that it was very difficult for women to be successful in Las Vegas without compromising themselves.
Carole made the decision to move back home and took a huge pay cut, going from $5,000 per week to $800 per month. Carole firmly believes, however, that this was the “best decision.” She was able to come home and be “a big fish in a little sea” and make a big difference.
A lifetime of achievement
Carole has indeed made a big difference here in Hawaiʻi. In addition to headlining show rooms, Carole recorded two albums, “All at once…” (1967) and “Let Me Love You” (1978). Several appearances in shows such as Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I. between 1968 and 1980 made this starlet’s face recognizable across the country. In 1992, Carole helped to found, Hawaii Stars, the most popular locally produced television show of the 90s. Alongside Kimo Kahoano, with Dirk Fukushima behind the scenes, Carole continues to highlight the talent of Hawaiʻi’s people with each new season of Hawaii Stars.
Aside from her entertainment career, Carole has become a great philanthropist. So much so that in 2015, Governor Ige named November 7th “Carole Kai Day”. Carole’s philanthropic achievements include creating and sponsoring “The Carole Kai International Bed Race,” co-founding “The Great Aloha Run” and being the recipient of the 2015 March of Dimes Franklin Delano Roosevelt Award for Distinguished Community Service. Carole’s charitable giving even extends beyond Hawaiʻi, reaching Guam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia. She credits her mother for her generosity.
Longing for Kakaako
When asked why so many children who grew up in Kakaʻako went on to become successful members of Hawaiʻi’s community, she responds, “If we did prevail in later life, it was because of, ‘I wonder how they live.’” It was those nights looking up at Makiki Roundtop Drive and wondering how the people there lived their lives.
Armed with strong values, an emphasis on education and an excellent work ethic passed down from the previous generation, the finer things in life once wondered about became attainable for Carole. And true to her nature and the way she was raised, she never stopped caring for those around her.
The spirit of Kakaʻako may live on, but as Carole says, “Every last vestige of what used to be is no longer.” And her heart is saddened that our generation will never know the humble dusty lanes of Kakaʻako. She wishes she had a camera so we could see the neighborhood as it was. Again she laughs, “But who had a camera back then? Everyone was poor.” And there it is again, the longing under the laughter, the aching behind the eyes, a yearning to return to Kakaʻako.