Performing Imperialist Nostalgia

An Analysis of the Polynesian Cultural Center

To Yearn for What One Has Destroyed: An Introduction to a Paradox

Our continued interest in the study of imperialism is not so much concerned with the actions and particulars that led to its development and global proliferation. Ever since the advent of postcolonial thought, research and discourse have been much more focused on imperialism’s extended aftermath, i.e. those long-term residual effects (both tangible and intangible, apparent and unapparent) that have propagated and instilled vast and deep changes in the cultural identities, moods, and formation for either the colonised and the coloniser. In her comprehensive book, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, Leela Ghandi reminded us of prominent critics in the field such as Albert Memmi and Edward Said, both of whom argued and maintained “that the colonial aftermath does not yield the end of colonialism” (1998:7). The condition between the empire and the subaltern is more than just a historical encounter, but a lingering and ongoing relationship that struggles between ambivalence and symbiosis, resistance and collaboration, regret and complicity.  


Among those who did in-depth analysis into imperialism’s aftermath, this paper will particularly concentrate on Renato Rosaldo’s compelling notion of imperialist nostalgia. Renato Rosaldo, a recognized anthropologist and author of the influential book, Culture and Truth: the Remaking of Social Analysis, described imperialist nostalgia as a cultural phenomenon that plays around a simple yet remarkable paradox: a person kills somebody, and then mourns the victim (1989: 69).  According to Rosaldo, imperialist nostalgia is an occurrence that stems from the imperialist ideological mission, “the white man’s burden”, wherein a so-called progressive and civilised nation finds that it is its utmost duty to intervene, domesticate, and uplift uncivilised nations. Ironically, however, after seeing that the process of civilising also generates instances of destabilisation and destruction to other forms of life, the agents of change interestingly reaches a profound sense of personal loss and regret over what s/he transformed and eventually eradicated. Hence, an overwhelming mood of nostalgia ensues.  Rosaldo expounded further:

 “Curiously enough, agents of colonialism—officials, constabulary officers, missionaries, and other figures [...]—often display nostalgia for the colonised culture as it was ‘traditionally’ (that is, when they first encountered it). The peculiarity of their yearning, of course, is that agents of colonialism long for the very forms of life they intentionally altered and destroyed. Therefore, my concern resides with a particular kind of nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”. (1989: 69)

Rosaldo, however, reminded us to be wary of such nostalgia, and to be critical of the difference between what it projects versus what it eclipses. He writes:

“[...] Imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ both to capture people’s imagination and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination”. (1989: 70)

While the agents of colonialism evoke nostalgia in an attempt to re-establish one’s innocence, Rosaldo stated that such tactic is also a means to mask one’s direct (and indirect) participation in the imperialist process of civilising and destroying. To demonstrate the theory into practice, Rosaldo cited case studies from various ethnographic field work—including his own work with the Ilongot tribe from Northern Philippine back in the 1980’s, in which, Rosaldo observed, that the missionaries assigned to the said community conveyed a curious attitude of respectful sentimentality for a pre-intervened culture that they themselves transformed.

Exploring and Extending the Dialogue Further

But beyond the community field work, Rosaldo noted that imperialist nostalgia also stretches its phenomenon to the pop culture, art, and media surrounding us. He particularly mentioned films such as Heat and Dust, A Passage to India, Out of Africa, and The Gods Must be Crazy as examples that demonstrate the imperialist nostalgic illusion: the colonised culture portrayed in its traditional form and habitat, and the white colonial societies depicted in its respectable and orderly decorum. Other than these examples, however, Rosnaldo did not expound further, thus leaving ample room to build supplementary cases studies around the notion of imperialist nostalgia—cases that are not necessarily limited to the perspective of anthropology.

Given this reason, the overall objective of my paper is to continue the discourse of imperialist nostalgia by extending the dialogue onto the area of performance studies, a field of scholarship that strikes many similarities with anthropology since it views performances, not merely as samples of artistic practice per se, but more so as symptoms and artefacts of behavioural patterns that are conditioned by cultural, social, economic, and historical realities. Specifically, this paper will explore on the subject of cultural and heritage tourism, and illustrate how this can also show manifestations of imperialist nostalgia.


In doing so, I will be spotlighting on the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC hereafter) as the main object of study. Owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (otherwise known as the Mormons), this Polynesian-themed theme park is located in the northern shore of Oahu-Hawaii, stretching at about 42 acres across Laie. The PCC not only attracts millions of tourists from around the world, but also draws debates, enquiries, and even sprouts of controversies from within the Polynesian community—mostly directing criticisms towards the institution’s level of (cultural) authenticity. This essay seeks to participate and add a different angle to the said dialogue by utilizing Renato Rosaldo’s notion of imperialist nostalgia as the primary critical framework in investigating the PCC. In particular, the analysis will uncover the nuances of imperialist nostalgia embedded in the PCC through a two-tier approach: first, analysing it at the macro-level (the implications circling around its historical and institutional development); and second, examining how imperialist nostalgia finally seeps into the micro-level (a close reading of its cultural show).

Because cultural and heritage tourism is not only about providing an outlet or escape from the everyday cosmopolitan routine. Rather, it is also about the Western’s experiential consumption of the exotic Other. Furthermore, it is about carving a definitive time-space that perpetuates the binary positions of Us and Them, Subject and Object, Coloniser and Colonised, Imperial and Subaltern. As Richard Schechner puts it curtly yet aptly: tourism is no simple matter. (2002:235)

A Historical Overview of a Paradox

Although the PCC was first established and launched to the public in 1963, the events leading up to its creation can be traced as far as 118 years earlier. It was in 1844 when the Polynesian islands started to see the arrival of missionaries from the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), who began to conduct their evangelical work in Tahiti as well as the surrounding islands. However, it wasn’t until 1850 when the missionaries started to penetrate into the Hawaiian shores. Finally in 1865, the LDS Church purchased and owned a 6,000-acre plantation in Laie, thus officially cementing their long-lasting and influential presence in the islands.


Before anything else, it is important to note the cultural and political climate that was happening in Hawaii at the time of LDS’ settlement the late 19th century. Culturally, Hawaii was at the verge of reviving its previous indigenous identity. In contrast to the early part of the 19th century, wherein the Hawaiian kings Kamehameha I and Kamehameha II saw the abolishment of traditional Hawaiian religion and practices in light of strengthening colonial alliances with America and Europe, the Hawaiian monarchy of the late 19th century, particularly King Kalakaua (1874-1891) and eventually his sister Queen Lili’uokalaki (1891-1893), pushed for the gradual restoration of these traditions and customs. An example of this is during Kalakaua’s reign, wherein he brought back the hula dance (after having been banned in 1830), surfing, and the Hawaiian martial art, Kapu Kuialua, to the public. 

However, apart from issues of reinstating traditional cultural practices, the late 19th century also witnessed the monarchy’s desperate struggle to restore and maintain its political power and authority. In 1887, a controversial constitution—infamously regarded as the “Bayonet Constitution”—was issued: its objective was to limit the monarchy’s authority, thus prompting the transfer of power to a group of anti-monarchists, elite businessmen known as the Hawaiian League (mostly comprised of Americans and Europeans) who are interested in accessing commercial privileges over the islands. Queen Lili’uokalani opposed the constitution. So when she ascended to the throne in 1891, she lobbied for the support of the natives in pushing for a new constitution that would fully reinstate the monarchy’s power. However, a U.S.-backed coup ceased her efforts, resulting to the illegal overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. Lili’uokalani was the last sovereign of Hawaii. In 1898, the American government annexed Hawaii, making it an official U.S. territory two years later.

By the turn of the 20th century, Hawaii became less in touch with its indigenous culture, and more adaptive of the American lifestyle. Simultaneously, the LDS cultivated a stronger presence in Laie, having established the LDS Temple in 1915, and conducted a more expansive church mission across the Polynesian islands by the 1920’s. According to the PCC’s website that described the historical development of Laie, the town eventually became more cosmopolitan by 1921. As the Mormon community flourished in the Laie area in years to come, the Church College of Hawaii was finally built in 1955, which would later be renamed to the Brigham Young University of Hawaii in 1974.

Although the missionaries achieved a successful expansion of the LDS faith amongst the Polynesian communities, interestingly enough, they also expressed concern towards the erosion of traditional Polynesian cultures. Matthew Cowley, one of the LDS leaders who mostly conducted missionary work in New Zealand, said that he had hoped " see the day when my Maori people down there in New Zealand will have a little village there at Laie with a beautiful carved house...the Tongans will have a village too, and the Tahitians and Samoans and all those islanders of the sea." His vision would later initiate the materialisation of the PCC, whose mission statement, according to its website, is to “preserve and portray the cultures, arts and crafts of Polynesia”, and “contribute to the educational development and growth of all people” at the BYU-Hawaii and PCC. The latter objective is particularly carried out by providing students from BYU-Hawaii with employment opportunities at the PCC, especially in the area of performance. Intriguingly, because of this arrangement, cultural performers at the PCC are not necessarily of Polynesian ethnicity. And if they are, they do not exactly perform for the islands that they themselves originate from. Richter takes specific notice of this:

“There is some attention to accuracy in terms of the cultures presented, but the performers—from the Mormon college—may or may not be from the group they are depicting. Fijians and Tongans may be doing Samoan dances. The individuals are merely acting. Does it matter?...The more interesting question is ‘who gets what?’ Who controls what is presented?... Do the visitors get an appreciation of South Pacific cultures or a sense of superiority over these societies? We do not know.” (1997: 96)

Given the historical landscape that had enveloped and shaped the PCC, one cannot help but draw connections with Rosaldo’s notion of imperialist nostalgia. While the LDS missionaries were not directly involved in the political group that deposed the Hawaiian monarchy permanently, they were still, in fact, agents of colonialism that somehow took advantage of the situation and flourished in it. Whether they admit it or not, the 1989 annexation of Hawaii especially opened up opportunities and benefits for the LDS church, as they were able to expand and develop their missionary services remarkably in Hawaii since the beginning of the 20th century, and converted thousands of Polynesian natives into the LDS faith through institutions like the LDS Temple and the BYU-Hawaii.  


And yet there is a curious display of psychosis in all of this. Even as there is a sense of pride in having instilled a steadfast Western faith in an otherwise animist-centred tradition, the church still somehow exudes a curious sense of remorse and reminiscence for a traditional culture that had long been abandoned and destroyed. Indeed, on one level, the PCC was definitely created as an agency to preserve and continue ancient traditions—even if we are only dealing with the remains of those traditions, and even if preservation means inevitable modification of certain practices to suit the modern palette. However, on another level—and a significant one—the PCC can also be seen as a manifestation of an overwhelming sense of colonial guilt—an elaborate expression of imperialist nostalgia. After all, it is imperative to remind one’s self that it wasn’t the Polynesian natives who initiated and orchestrated the creation of the PCC, but the agents of colonialism themselves—the Mormon church. It is as though the Mormons created the centre as a form of reparation for the numerous forms of violence that Hawaii had undergone in the past: the suppression of the traditional practices as a way of strengthening colonial alliances, the brutal—almost illegal oust of the Hawaiian monarchy, and the gradual decline of indigenous cultural identity since Hawaii’s annexation in 1898. And yet, this does not necessarily acquit the LDS church from any involvement with Hawaii’s submission to U.S. imperialism —for indeed they were still co-participants in the process of colonising (though theirs is from the area of religion), and they acted upon this alongside the tumultuous political landscape of Hawaii. Furthermore, their “reparation”, in the form of the PCC, is but a mask that conceals the underlying racial domination. To echo Rosaldo, the entertainment aspect of the PCC is all but “innocent yearning” that distracts you from the brutal complicity and reality of colonial domination.  

The Canoe Pageant and the Production of Difference  

In a case like Hawaii in which its main economy primarily revolves around tourism, the notion of geography projects more than just a physical site but an idealised and mythical construct of paradise. More than a place, Hawaii is a package—a living commodity interminably designed to host, entertain, accommodate, and fulfil the tourist gaze[1]. The illusion of Hawaii’s legend reaches and inhabits our perception way before we physically reach and inhabit the location itself. Even more so, once you finally step into the site,  the exotic appearances unfold and elaborate further and further it seems, as though Hawaii is programmed to perpetually remind everyone—including its own self—of its complete and utter otherness. More often than not, its sense of otherness precedes and overtakes its sense of authenticity.

When I was living in Hawaii from 2006-2008, I also couldn’t help but be drawn to its mythical projections even though I was also fully aware of Hawaii’s exaggerated exoticism. Perhaps this was because I was young and impressionable back then. But also because the tourist fever was too overwhelming to avoid and resist, as everything was constructed and maintained according to the Hawaiian ideal: the Waikiki Beach with its man-made white sand laid out in smooth and glistening perfection, the row of trimmed palm trees lined up neatly alongside the roads of Honolulu, the gentle ukulele music being played and replayed in almost every establishment there was, and the colourful souvenir shops that sprouted in nearly all corners of the Oahu island. Needless to say, I also found myself joining in with the tourist fever and practically visited all of the known tourist destinations—one of those, most especially, was the PCC. While Hawaii is definitely the main feature of PCC’s showcases, the centre’s overall curation encompasses the customs, performances, and practices of all Polynesian cultures, chiefly highlighting those from Aotearoa (New Zealand), Fiji, Hawaii, Rapa Nui, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. This same array of Polynesian identities is especially encapsulated, emphasised and paraded in one of PCC’s most popular cultural shows called, The Canoe Pageant.

According to Michael Haldrup and Jonas Larsen, even though tourism and Orientalism operate from different fields of study, the evolution of the two disciplines eventually led to each other’s intersection wherein “both emphasize the production of difference as the key for explaining preoccupation of the Western consuming Subject with the Other”. Furthermore, both fields “depict Self and Other as mirror images reflecting distorted fragments of each other”. (2010:17) In relation to this, the Canoe Pageant presents a unique case study, not so much for its clever use of techniques and style of execution, but more so for its schema of demonstrating the same production of difference between the consumer Subject and the consumed Other.

The pageant is typically programmed at around two o’clock in the afternoon, a time of day when the sun is still at its hottest and brightest. Organisers usher the tourists to assemble around a tropical lagoon—a picturesque yet artificially-made stretch of water situated in the middle of the theme park, further surrounded by and decorated with smooth, polished rocks perfect for sitting, healthy green grasses pruned to the tip, and tall, manicured palm trees conveniently providing cool shade from the midday heat. The tourists hail from different parts of the world. Some are from local Hawaii themselves, while others are from Japan, Canada, and Europe. But notably, majority of the visitors are especially coming from the U.S. mainland (based on their distinct accents)—primarily those coming from the Pacific-West region[2]. They gather and occupy around the lagoon; their summer fashion of pastel-hued tank tops, flashy floral shirts, sunny beach shorts, and vibrant saris pop and burst in an assortment of cheerful, bright colours.

And cheerful and bright are their moods as well. They wait around the lagoon in eager and heightened anticipation, for they immediately understand that the water in front of them is more than just a waterscape, but rather, a unique and special performance space. An emcee welcomes the tourists with a warm and jovial aloha greeting, and afterwards announces the commencement of the pageantry. Some tourists begin to stand excitedly in order to gain a better view. They whip out their cameras and get ready to click or hit record. The water ripples as canoes sail into the lagoon one by one, with every canoe simulating a distinct traditional dance from each of the six[3] Polynesian islands: The canoe representing Hawaii, with performers in shiny blue costumes, dancing delicately and gracefully to the tender, soothing sound of the hula music; the canoe from Tonga, with performers in feisty red costumes, shrieking and stomping in robust rhythm, rocking the canoe almost to the point of collapse; the canoe from Tahiti, with female performers in stunning yellow costumes and golden yellow headdresses that fan like grass from their foreheads, dancing in a sharp beat that emphasizes the seductive punch of the women’s hips; the canoe from Aotearoa, with performers in lush green costumes, demonstrating a dance that concentrates on dynamic arm movement and strength with matching warrior-like stance; the canoe from Samoa, with performers in deep maroon costumes, performing the most boisterous dance of them all, and embodying the Samoan stereotype with men wearing massive bone necklaces and women exhibiting voluptuous body structures; and finally the canoe from Fiji, with performers in earth brown costumes, executing a dance with escalating beat, and finishing on a high note by having the male performers hitting the water increasingly with their paddles, delightfully splashing the audience in the end.

The entire parade is finally capped with a seventh canoe: a portrayal of the Hawaiian monarchy. The actors depicting the Hawaiian king and queen are fully clad in majestic orange and yellow robe, and are surrounded by their red-dressed attendants who steer the canoe through the water. There is no dance to accompany this concluding display—only a quiet, almost nostalgic tableau of an ancient, long-extinct monarchy. The canoe cruises through the lagoon proudly, and yet melancholically at the same time. It glides through the water as one would glide through memory, through history. It reminds everyone present in the vicinity, whether they are performer or tourist, of the once sovereign Hawaiian kingdom. The spectators pause and marvel at the final instalment. The air is filled with the sound of clicking cameras.

In the obverse, one would instantly perceive the Canoe Pageant as, simply, a loose and informal event; a performance operating on the pretence of cultural entertainment, an engaging festivity of traditional Polynesian songs and dances aimed not only to amuse but to immerse and somehow educate interested spectators. However, in the inverse, the pageant fulfils the machinery of otherness and, subsequently, imperialist nostalgia by orchestrating specific stage elements and patterns that signify and define the civilized from the primitive, as well as the lingering space of nostalgic guilt in between these two partakers.

The tourists are perceived as the civilized group. Located just in the outskirts of the lagoon, they are seated within the refined rocks, grasses, and palm trees. They are sheltered and protected by the dry stability of the earth where they obtain the comfortable privilege to gaze upon the exotic spectacle like imperial voyeurs. The performers in the canoe, on the other hand, are the primitives. Exploited in overly ornate and stylized costumes, it doesn’t matter whether their garments authentically reflect the traditional attire or not, just as long as they satisfy the ideal Polynesian exotic. The scenographic arrangement suggests that their existence is twice limited, twice removed. First, their movements are restricted within the boundaries of the canoe—a wobbly, unsteady piece of platform. Although having a canoe as a stage is a fascinating theatrical choice to the spectatorial experience, it also signifies vulnerability for the well-being of the performers—and therefore, the well-being of the primitives. Second, the performers/primitives are further isolated from the spectators/civilized by the water itself. In the Canoe Pageant, the water functions not as a solvent but as an isolator: it keeps the civilized at a safe, surrounding, and almost superior bay, and the primitives within the centre of the gaze as the small, remote, yet ever so exposed, ever so susceptible island. Indeed, the water acts as a gap, further exemplifying the theme of otherness.

But the symbolisms do not stop there. Apart from indicating the production of difference, it also evokes a profound spectacle of guilt and melancholic longing of a once sophisticated and authentic culture. This is best punctuated at the revelation of the seventh canoe that holds the simulated Hawaiian monarchy. The procession of this canoe is not so much a portrayal of a significant political and cultural institution in Hawaii’s history as it is a reminder of a significant political and cultural trauma in Hawaii’s history. Harking back to the abrupt and cruel overthrow of the once-sovereign kingdom in 1893, the seventh canoe is the preeminent example of imperialist nostalgia in performance. Mounted and orchestrated by the agents of colonialism themselves (Mormons) and viewed by a largely white American audience, it laments a great sense of personal loss and regret over a life that it had once destroyed.

(Non)Conclusion and Recommendations

Throughout this essay, I have presented how Rosaldo’s concept of imperialist nostalgia manifests itself even in the area of performance studies. Using the PCC as the focus of the analysis, I have mapped out the occurrence of this phenomenon as it is embedded in the centre’s creation and development, as well as the theatrical codification of one of its cultural shows, the Canoe Pageant.


Yet while this essay was able to accomplish the agenda that it sought out in the beginning, it is imperative to note that the analysis conducted here need not be all-conclusive. Much can still be explored and uncovered in this subject matter, not only in the case of the PCC, but also in the wider context of cultural and heritage tourism. After all, Rosaldo has already given us the tools that would help locate and dissect the machinery of imperialist nostalgia. What it needs now is for us to take his ideas by the helm, and drive it to other territories and possibilities of critical analysis. If anything, this essay hopes to be an additional springboard, a catalyst that would help further the discussion of imperialist nostalgia especially in the area of performance, post/colonialism, and globalisation.


[1]  Borrowing the term from John Urry, the tourist gaze refers to the construction and reinforcement of our process of gazing as tourists. (1990:1)

[2] In a North Shore Visitor Study conducted by BYUH students in 2012, majority of the tourists come from United States comprising at 46%.

[3] Rapa Nui is not usually included in the program of the Canoe Pageant.


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