Dinengdeng & Pinakbet

Some Traditions are Worth Continuing

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran | Photos courtesy Gil Keith-Agaran

You kinda knew it would happen sooner or later. Postponing during the pandemic was understandable and predictable. But then it got canceled again and again. Another small kid time memory fades away.

The Maui Fair Alliance, the group organizing the Maui Fair for many years, announced it is disbanding, after again suspending the tradition. The venerable annual community past time (so important the Maui Interscholastic League football season would take a break to allow coaches and community volunteers to participate in the Fair) was not held since 2019, and likely is done, three fairs short of its centennial. The Maui County Fair started in November 1916 during Territorial Days and for many years was staged on the Alexander & Baldwin-owned Fair Grounds on Pu‘unēnē Avenue. For decades, it was the largest fundraiser for many Maui non-profits, schools, churches and community organizations.

County Fair circa 1930s.
From the collection of the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum

Ironically, the Maui Fair Alliance (and its predecessor organization before the re-branding as the “Maui Fair”—lawyers were involved) had stepped in after the Maui County Fair and Racing Association decided to stop planning and running the Maui County Fair in the 1980s, and then moved the event from the Fair Grounds (the landowner redeveloped that area into affordable apartment housing, retail sites and car lots) to the County-owned and operated War Memorial Stadium complex.

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the fair in 2020 and 2021. In 2022 and 2023, the Maui Fair Alliance cited operation and logistic concerns as the reasons for not holding the fair. The challenge with providing a Joy Zone (carnival rides)—including shipping, erecting and providing labor—compounded the difficulty for providing the traditional event. And likely the greying of community organizations in getting commitments for the number of volunteers required in filling the four days of shifts demanded at the Fair.

Kuwada Fair 1927 food booths.
From the collection of the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum

It is not just a Maui problem. Other neighbor island fairs also have challenges and venerable events on O‘ahu—Punahou Carnival—featured truncated Joy Zones without thrill rides.

Over the years, I scooped ice cream as the designated “parent” for a Maui High cheerleader niece, worked shifts in the flying saucers production line to assist the Maui Veterans of Foreign Wars, heated up chili for chili dogs with the Maui High Band Boosters (another niece in the flag corps), cooked chicken hekka with Kahului Hongwanji Mission, grilled steaks with the Jaycees and soccer clubs, raised and fried and tossed malasadas in cinnamon and sugar with the Kiwanis, accosted and interviewed fair goers for Focus Maui Nui surveys, manned a table for my then-church and marched in the Fair Parade. I will miss most annual Ferris Wheel evening rides on Fair weekend, trying to win some soda in the ring toss and walking through and admiring the student art and photography exhibits and the orchid displays.

Greased pole contest in circa 1983.
Photo courtesy Maui Filipino Community Council

I am not sure if younger families and their children share my disappointment. They may have had less experience with the fair weekend. There’s simply less joining of community service organizations and volunteer groups forming the backbone of fair labor (your kid is a Boy Scout, then you’ve got a pronto pup shift; if your child is in our pre-school, you’re gonna learn how to make chow fun; if you’re in the Kiwanis, you’re gonna supervise Key Club students in the malasadas booth; your son or daughter is on the soccer team, you’re helping grill steaks).

Chelsea Guzman emcees the ‘virtual’ Barrio Fiesta during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Screenshot: Alfredo G. Evangelista

Later this month, Binhi at Ani will be holding the Barrio Fiesta again. Except for the virtual event held in the fall a few years ago, the celebration of Filipino culture has been a Memorial Day weekend tradition. Even the Barrio Fiesta has undergone some changes due to the greying of Filipino community organizations and perhaps more secular sentimentalities. The Barrio Fiesta likely had its inspiration in the events held in many barrios, provinces, towns throughout the Philippines (just as the Maui County Fair followed the example of County fairs held on the mainland U.S. to mark the end of harvests in farming communities), celebrating patron saints, ethnic and local culture and commemorating important events. The parade of Madonnas and beauty queens is still held to open the Barrio Fiesta but fewer of the parish Filipino Catholic Clubs (although other churches have more of a presence), regional and barangay associations participate in food booths. And no one does halo halo anymore since the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church no longer treats the Barrio Fiesta as an extra sacrament.

Good Shepherd church sells halo-halo in 1972.
Photo courtesy Maui Filipino Community Council
Aerial Kahului Fairgrounds 1921.
From the collection of the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum
Santacruzan procession at War Memorial Field in Wailuku 1971.
Photo courtesy Maui Filipino Community Council

BREAKING NEWS: The Maui Revival Church will be selling halo halo! Alleluia!

Except for the annual greased pole climb, traditional clothing contests, and the folk-dance entertainment, the organizers now hold da pancit eating contest, pabitin prize grabs for the kids, barrio voice (Filipinos invented karaoke), Any Kine Sisig™ competition and Filipino games. With the Maui Fair gone, it also is one venue for student art to be displayed and seen (although with Filipino themes). If the lawyers can work it out, the Barrio Fiesta should revive, appropriate, re-brand or otherwise steal a fan favorite from the old Maui Fil-Am Heritage Festivals: the Master P-Noy Chef™ contest which showcased the many Filipino chefs in the local visitors and restaurant industry.
Some traditions are simply worth continuing.

Gilbert S.C. Keith-Agaran went to the fair every fall growing up and when he moved home to Maui. He served in the Legislature when elected officials were not allowed to participate in the Fair Parade (except for the county mayor).