Mark Panek’s Big Happiness tells the true story of Hawaiian sumo wrestler Percy Kipapa and his tragic murder on May 16, 2005. On the surface, the investigative journalism narrative reads as a mystery, a meditation on what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and a commentary on the ice epidemic and the tangled Yakuza-Hawaii webs of commerce, money, and prestige. It’s compelling and raw. Knowing one of the key participants personally, I found it both hard to read and tough to put down.
You see, it’s also the story of one of my childhood calabash cousins, Tyler Hopkins.
After I left Hawaii for the mainland, Tyler went to Japan and became best friends with Percy. According to the Mark Panek, who knew the adult Tyler in ways I didn’t, Tyler’s life paralleled Percy’s in every significant way. Big Happiness details how they rose to become professional Hawaiian sumo wrestlers in Japan and what happened after they retired and returned to Hawaii.
I remember when Tyler was first going to Japan. He told me about it at my wedding reception at Mid-Pac Country Club thirty-one years ago, the last time I saw him in person. He was happy, and the extended ‘ohana was excited. Sumo was something my big-hearted and athletic cousin was sure to succeed at. His future was assured. Good for him!
Tyler’s sumo name was Sunahama. Living far from Japan and Hawaii before the age of internet video, it was hard for me to follow his career. Over the years, whenever I met up with my calabash Hawaiian ‘ohana, I asked aunties, uncles, and cousins for updates. Each time I was told he was doing well—first climbing the sumo ranks and then retired and working in Hawaii. Tyler was always on the verge of doing something—tourism with Japanese groups, teaching Japanese, finding his groove as a school counselor, or starting a new business venture.
In Big Happiness, Mark Panek paints a different picture.
I knew to be a foreign sumo wrestler in Japan would be rough. I knew the pressures local kids face to “make good.” I knew how the ideals of sacrifice of self for a greater good—however that’s defined—were ingrained in Tyler. Suck it up was something our uncles told us all the time, and it applied to everything from wiping out on a wave and spitting sand to breaking a bone playing baseball to studying hard in school when playing seemed more fun to never, ever failing to be loyal to ‘ohana no matter what the personal cost.
I even suspected how the Yakuza would be involved.
But what I didn’t understand was ice. Or how much that changed Hawaii in the years after I left. I also didn’t think too deeply about how few opportunities Tyler would have had once he returned to Hawaii. Unlike Japan, there aren’t cushy jobs in corporate America waiting for retired sumo wrestlers.
I’m old enough to know that there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help Tyler. But my heart hurts when I remember the kid I had to swim out and rescue when his raft went out too far at Waimanalo Beach or the time we made homemade pizza and Tyler complained I added too much cheese. “No such thing,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his opu and the scar he got when he fell through a glass shower door and almost died, “there is.”
But mostly, I can see all too clearly a moment Mark Panek describes during the trial where Tyler almost snaps. I thank God that Mark intervened.
Big Happiness by Mark Panek is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. For anyone wanting an insider’s view of sumo wrestling or the life of local boys in Hawaii, this book is a must read. Compelling, real, and full of heart and tragedy, it’s a story of sacrifice, privileges of race and class, and the devastating effects of ice and all the vested interests in keeping the status quo.
I’m five years old, laying on the carpet in our living room in Kahului, Maui. Evening trade winds tiptoe through the lanai door, bathing the house with the scent of Mom’s gardenia and naupaka bushes. On top the tv, an animated Santa Claus dances with a big red sack, singing about ashes and soot. My eyes dart to the flimsy cardboard cutout of a fireplace and chimney taped to the wall next to the Christmas tree. Panic bubbles. I can’t breathe.
He doesn’t even look up from the Honolulu Star Bulletin. “What?”
“How does Santa Claus come into the house?”
“Down da chimney, lolo. You deaf or wot? Jes’ listen to da song.” He turns a page.
I bite my lip. I have to know. “But Dad, Mom bought our chimney at Long’s. It doesn’t connect to the roof. Plus we no more snow! How da reindeer gonna land da sleigh on top da roof if no get snow?”
He flicks the edge of the newspaper down and peers at me. He shakes his head. “Moemoe time, Lehua. You need your rest.”
Tears well. No Santa. No presents. So unfair. Mainland kids get all the good stuffs. I try again. “Dad, fo’reals. Is Santa going skip us?”
Dad presses his lips tight and gives me small kine stink eye. He clears his throat and looks around the room. When he spocks the lanai door, his eyes light up. “You ever seen a house in Hawaii with no more sliding door?”
He nods. “Maika‘i. Every house get sliding doors. Das because in Hawai‘i, Santa comes through the lani door instead of down the chimney. In Hawai‘i we invite our guests into our homes like civilized people. We no make dem sneak in like one thief.”
I tip my head to the side, thinking. “But what about da reindeer?”
Dad clicks his tongue. “Da buggahs magic, yeah? They no need land. They just hover in the backyard and wait for Santa fo’ come back. Mebbe snack on da banana trees. Now go to bed!”
It’s not the first time I have to perform mental gymnastics to bridge what I see in movies, tv, and books with my oh, so different reality, but it’s one of the most memorable. At school the teachers try to prep us for mandatory standardized testing, tests we island kids consistently score lower on than our mainland peers.
“Class, what does it mean if the trees have no leaves?” Ms. Yamaguchi asks. “Lehua?”
“Uh, da trees stay make die dead?” I say. “Dey nevah get enough water?”
“No! It means it’s winter! The correct answer is winter! Coodesh! Pay attention. You kids trying fo’ fail?”
It would be many years later, when I am in college in Utah and walking through a virgin snowfall along a wooded path that I finally understand the imagery and symbolism in Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in ways more profound than no leaves equals cold equals winter.
Which brings me, finally, to my point.
We need diversity in literature. Kids need access to stories that resonate with their experiences, that are full of people they know and love, that show themselves—their fully authentic selves—as powerful, valued, and real. We need Pacific voices raised in song, dance, print, film, tv—all forms of media, some not even invented yet.
I remember the profound impact of hearing Andy Bumatai, Frank Delima, and Rap Reiplinger on the radio. Hawaiian music, for sure, all the time, but spoken words, Pidgin words, so fast and funny, just like Steve Martin and Bill Cosby! To this day, my old fut classmates and I can still recite all the words to “Room Service” and “Fate Yanagi.”
And finally, I find them. Words on paper, in libraries, in books. Stories by Graham Salisbury, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Darrell H. Y. Lum, Kiana Davenport, and Lee Tonouchi open my eyes to the possibility of using my history and experiences, my voice, to tell stories to an audience that didn’t need long explanations about why whistling in the dark is not a good thing, that a honi from Tutu was a given, or that wearing shoes in the house is the ultimate outsider insult.
I could write stories where the burden to bridge is on the mainland, not the islands. I could write stories for kids in Waimanalo, Kona, Hana, Lihue.
But there’s a catch. The reality is that there are many more readers outside of Hawai‘i nei than in it. Books for niche audiences are a tough sell for traditional publishers who are driven by the bottom line. And while self-publishing or small press publishing is viable for genres like romance, thrillers, and sci-fi, it’s next to impossible for middle grade and young adult books who need the vast marketing channels of a traditional publisher to reach schools and libraries.
I try not to let that matter.
On the mainland, I tell people my books are not for everyone. If you don’t know the difference between mauka and makai, you’re probably going to struggle a bit with the language. You’ll miss a lot of the in-jokes and clues as to what’s really going on with the characters and plot. You’ll have to work a lot harder.
But it will be worth it.
It’s my mantra for 2018.
If I were hiding the truth, I’d say something softer like simplify. Thanks to a bunch of silly horror movies, people think of mayhem when they hear the word purge. But it’s not chaos that I’m embracing this year; it’s the opposite. I’m chasing the calm that comes after a cathartic release of unwanted feelings, things, memories, and conditions that have kept me stymied for far too long.
There’s been a war inside of me over the safety of not trying and the desire to do the work I was meant to do. I know now that a lot of the barriers are of my own making. I’ve seen where I’ve wanted to go, even found the path, but I’ve been afraid of what could happen if I head there. Based on previous experiences, the journey could be really rough and uncomfortable. Rejection sucks. Period. However, the only thing I have control over is whether or not I head down that path.
For a long time safety won.
2017 was the start of a slow, reluctant burn. I knew significant changes were needed, but I buried my head in the sand. As long as I was focused on doing good things for other people, I still felt like I was making progress toward becoming what God needed me to be.
But like a sweater with an itchy tag, there was always a twitching between my shoulder blades. Most of the things that took a lot of my time only fed other people and their dreams. While I could ignore the niggling that my own dreams were getting sidelined, I couldn’t ignore the impact this was having on my family.
It took a trip back to Oahu, fan letters from kids, long swims at Waimanalo Beach, talks with the ancestors, the #MeToo #KidLit movement, introspection, and embracing my soon-to-be-empty-nester life for me to commit to throwing gasoline on the fire—to purge for real—and walk a new path. Call it a mid-life crisis, a post-child rearing phase, becoming a Crone Goddess—what have you—I’ve finally seen my real self and know that I’m too old and wise to stay enmeshed in the world’s shibai any longer.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
As my husband reminded me, I’m not who people see. Who they see is really a product of their own experiences and expectations. Most can never see the real me. That doesn’t take away one iota of who I am.
It’s started with my home, with removing what doesn’t work, reimagining spaces that do, and making the changes happen. Late spring, I’m planning to park a 30-foot horse trailer in my driveway for a month. Seriously. It’s the only way to deal with the junk that accumulates when a family of pack rats lives in the same over-sized space for twenty years. The pre-sorting has begun, but we’re finding that stuff is surprisingly hard to let go. We have a lot of money tied up in stuff. We bought this once. We might need it again. Or someone else might. You never know. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around, right?
I’ve recognized that somebody does need these things, now and not someday. Anything we don’t need—high chairs, old rugs, old furniture, baby clothes—and still in serviceable condition is heading to charity. I’m throwing the rest out. I’m done pretending I’ll have a garage sale. That’s just more busy work getting in the way of real work.
But purging is more than getting rid of stuff; it’s getting rid of unwanted feelings and memories. The half-truths and lies we tell ourselves are like deep-fried crack cocaine rolled in cinnamon-sugar and topped with whipped cream. They distract us from understanding the why behind our actions. They give us a feel-good boost that only leads to addiction and diabetes; not the health we desire and deserve.
In my adult life, when things have been mostly safe, I’ve swallowed too many awful things in the guise of doughnuts and ice cream, burritos and burgers. I can’t any longer. It took a trip to the ER for me to figure out that at my hidden core I thought death would mean escape from the effects of childhood trauma, and my suicide weapon of choice is food. Addicts can live without cocaine. Alcoholics can live without booze. Everybody needs food. It’s frustratingly complicated. For now, I’m satisfied that I’ve named the beast. What can be named can be faced.
During a purge, all that’s ephemeral evaporates like smoke. What’s left is more precious than gold. If you’re still here with me, thank you. I promise I won’t hide any longer. Things will be real—battle-scarred and held together at times with spit and duct tape—but true. The words that are coming are those that I’ve held back in fear. But with a purge comes freedom. I no longer care if people see me, for I have seen myself.