A World of Wonders: Waikiki’s International Market Place

November 7, 2013 | By Waikiki Magazine Team

Delve into the history and beginnings of this Waikiki institution, and find out about its plans for the future.

Imagine it is 1957, over a half-century ago, and your family has packed their bags and boarded a Pan Am airplane for a coveted trip to Hawai’i. Transpacific air travel was booming by the late ’50s, making it possible for middle-class families to see and experience the Hawai’i they had only dreamed about. It was this same year that Donn Beach, leasing land from the Queen Emma Foundation (the landholding division known as the Queen Emma Land Company), followed his own dream and began the creation of a quaint yet curious collection of island shops, gift stands and restaurants. Waikiki’s International Market Place, throughout the last five decades, has been a staple stopping and shopping place for visitors from around the world.

Donn Beach, born Ernest Gantt but also known as “Don the Beach-comber” for his chain of restaurants by the same name, envisioned a fabulous open-air mall that celebrated the islands and that offered tourists inexpensive knickknacks with which to remember their island travels. Known as the originator of the “tiki bar,” and a true connoisseur of all things Polynesian, Beach took a South Seas trip and collected cultural objects and artifacts, along with building materials like raffia and thatch. He brought the items back to Honolulu and commissioned artist and renowned wood carver Edward “Mick” Brownlee to create much of the tiki decor for the market place. According to tiki collector and enthusiast Phillip S. Roberts, author of Waikiki Tiki: Art, History, and Photographs, “Beach wanted to show people the wonders of living in Polynesia that was being ignored throughout the most of the rest of Waikiki. He wanted it to be a real island experience.”

Beach’s original name for his market place was the “Hawaiian Village.” However, the story goes that, upon sharing the name with industrialist and hotel owner Henry J. Kaiser, Kaiser liked the name so much that he borrowed it for his own “Hilton Hawaiian Village” (formerly known as the “Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel”). So Beach’s “International Market Place” was born honoring cultures even beyond the Hawaiian Islands, featuring over 80 shops and restaurants, live musical and hula performances, and master wood carvers sharing their craft, along with carts and kiosks offering affordable treasures for visitors to take home.

In the center of the market place, one can still find the famously giant banyan tree. During the time that Beach maintained the lease for the 4.5-acre land parcel of Waikiki, his office was nestled in the branches of this amazing living landmark. Important to note is that, even with the massive changes in both architecture and landscape planned for the market place, the banyan tree will remain.

The International Market Place Revitalization Project is scheduled to begin some time in 2014. The project includes complete replacement of all buildings on site and the inclusion of a Saks Fifth Avenue. Some are troubled by the idea that what was once a kitschy gathering place for people of all cultures and all socioeconomic backgrounds will become another addition to the high-end retail development that has largely come to define all of Waikiki.

However, the Queen Emma Land Company (along with a mainland development company affiliated with Taubman Centers) promises that all elements of the revitalization will “convey a Hawaiian sense of place incorporating historical, cultural and educational features and opportunities.” In addition to fresh new shops and restaurants, they are committed to bringing back the live performances and to showcasing local artisans so as to share island traditions that continue to make these Hawaiian Islands so vibrant and unique. Also significant, according to Queen Emma spokesperson Cedric Yamanaka, is that “revenue from the revitalized market place directly supports the mission of The Queen’s Medical Center—to provide quality health care to all the people of Hawai’i.”

Although the heyday of Donn Beach’s “Coconut Bazaar” has passed, the refurbished area for shopping and for cultural sharing will maintain the welcoming atmosphere that was essential to the original International Market Place while hoping to bring vitality back in a way that honors the nostalgic Waikiki landmark.