In traditional Polynesian cultures, people who embraced the spirit of a third gender, who embraced a blend of the constructed notions of male and female, were accepted and even revered. Among the kanaka maoli—the Native Hawaiians—men who fluidly move between roles of male and female are known as mahu. Mahu were often guardians of traditional cultural practices, such as hula. However, the 18th century introduction of Western European cultures and religions brought disease and war, in addition to a clash of values that continues to this day. No longer was it OK for aikane, or men who loved other men, to freely express affection for one another. Western religion said it was wrong.
Fast forward to contemporary Hawai‘i, and mahu still feel the affects of this intolerance of a traditionally-accepted group of people. Those who choose not to hide their identities must constantly fight barriers in family life, school, the workplace and politics. Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, born male as Colin Wong, is one such example of a fierce mahu who decided to pursue a life that spoke to her true self. “My progression is simply indicative of me coming to a different understanding. It was my own process of self-decolonization,” said Wong-Kalu to the International Examiner. It’s this attitude that garnered the attention of accomplished filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson of qWaves Films.
Through Honolulu-based film producer Connie M. Florez, Hamer and Wilson met Wong-Kalu and filmed her from 2011 to 2013 for a documentary titled Kumu Hina. “They came to me and said that my life was interesting. I said, ‘Oh I don’t think so,’” said Wong-Kalu modestly. But in being a true individual with unwavering principles, Wong-Kalu went on to share about the film, “I wanted people to focus on me and my name, Hina … I just wanted it to represent my life. I don’t want the emphasis to be placed on transgender, though it can show me having challenges sometimes.”
During this time, Wong-Kalu was the Director of Culture at Halau Lokahi Public Charter School. As a kumu, or teacher, of traditional Hawaiian cultural practices, Wong-Kalu was the bearer of culture, as well as a role model for her students. And as if almost meant for film, three major developments created a trifecta of stories for the documentary: Wong-Kalu’s background and continued journey to become herself, her mentorship of a young girl determined to join and lead an all-boys hula troupe, and Wong-Kalu’s new marriage to a young Tongan man, Haemaccelo Kalu. With a prolonged lens into one’s private life, Wong-Kalu’s answer to a question about the camera’s constant presence was, “I simply said to myself that I have to be as honest and myself as possible. So that way, I don’t have an affected kind of representation in the film.”
In the past year, the documentary Kumu Hina has played around the global film festival circuit, from the Pacific Islands to Scotland, to China. While grounded in Hawai‘i, the documentary’s universal message of overcoming adversity has resonated with audiences. “It’s been a very powerful film and very well received in the places that it shows. Many people come up and are very expressive and appreciative about bringing the story to the forefront,” says Wong-Kalu. And true to her continued journey to becoming herself and connecting with her genealogy, Wong-Kalu shared, “My most significant [film festival] trip was to China. I got a chance to connect with my family there.” She is of Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, and English heritage, and can speak English, Hawaiian, Tongan, Samoan, and Tahitian. As a self-professed “fan of languages,” Wong-Kalu looks forward to one day learning Cantonese in order to further get closer to her Chinese heritage.
While the cameras stopped rolling in 2013, the chapters of this kumu’s amazing life continue to be written. Having left Halau Lokahi Public Charter School in November 2014 after more than a decade on staff, Wong-Kalu is now an independent consultant currently working as a Native Hawaiian cultural adviser to the development group Howard Hughes Corporation. “I’m much more confident now to sit at the table with men in business and politics. Those are the kinds of tables that I sit at now, where you don’t usually have transgenders,” said Wong-Kalu of her current position. When asked if she was still teaching, Wong-Kalu responded, “I don’t teach anymore. Well, I do—I teach adults.” Continuing to build bridges and encourage understanding between communities seems to be in Wong-Kalu’s blood.
As for her hopes for what audiences will take away from watching Kumu Hina, Wong-Kalu said at the end of the International Examiner’s interview, “I’d like them to have unconditional love and understanding and acceptance of people who are different. I’d like them to understand that there are different paradigms of life that can exist. All are acceptable. … To other transgenders out there, all they have to do is put their heart and soul into their mind, and go north toward it.”
Kumu Hina screens at Northwest Film Forum Screen 1 (large theater) on Saturday, February 14 at 3:00 p.m. and at Northwest Film Forum Screen 2 (small theater) on Sunday, February 15 at 6:00 p.m. Kumu Hina is preceded by the short films Intersections and To Sit with Her. For tickets and more information, click here.