Macadamia nuts aren’t the only Hawaiian export resonating in Asia these days.

Hula and Hawaiian music have won followers in the region for years, and now the ukulele is growing in popularity.

Mac nuts got a big boost from all the recent publicity about a Korean Airlines executive who threw an on-board tizzy when they were served to her in a package instead of on a dish. It turns out many South Koreans were simply unfamiliar with the delight that farmers in Hawaii have been growing as a cash crop for nearly a century.

Macadamia nuts

Macadamia nuts are benefitting from publicity about an airline executive’s nut-related meltdown.

Jessica Merz/

They originally came from Australia and were first brought to Hawaii in the 1880s by a Scotsman named William Herbert Purvis, who managed a sugar mill on Hawaii Island.  The nuts themselves were named after another Scotsman, John Macadam, a medical doctor and scientist who moved to Australia in 1855 and never lived to see his 40s.

By the 1920s, macadamia nuts were being commercially grown in the islands.  The next decade, one of the main nut processing factories in the islands was clattering away in the heart of Kakaako — on Pohukaina Street.

These and other nut nuggets can be found in a fascinating history of macadamia nuts in Hawaii put together some thirty years ago by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii.

When mac nuts were first being farmed as a business, the ukulele had already been a part of island life for decades. In 1879, Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira brought a traditional four-stringed instrument on their ship that arrived in Honolulu Harbor. Over time, it was modified to become what we know as the ukulele. The name, Hawaiian for “jumping flea,” is said to come from the way the player’s hand jumps as it moves across the strings.

One of the earliest fans of the instrument on Oahu was King David Kalakaua, who more than a century later became the very first member of the Ukulele Hall of Fame.

The instrument went on to stir different cycles of enthusiasm on the mainland, from the show business stylings of Arthur Godrey in the 1930s and beyond to Herb Ohta’s appearance on the “Ed Sullian Show” in the mid-1950s to the very different sounds of Tiny Tim more than a decade later. In more recent years, Jake Shimabukuro, Herb Ohta Junior, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam all helped introduce the instrument to a new generation.


Ukulele sales are also growing in Asia.

Joe Philipson/

The National Association of Music Merchants reports that domestic ukulele sales jumped from 581,000 in 2010 to more than a million in 2012. And now that popularity has shifted to the Asia Pacific.

In a recent visit to Hawaii Public Radio, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro spoke of how audiences in Asia are now becoming more sophisticated when it comes to appreciation for the ukulele. Certainly those audiences are growing, along with enthusiasm for the instrument.

Slack-key master Jeff Peterson is another veteran of many Asia tours, and has also noticed an increasing fascination with the ukulele. He mentions South Korea as a place where there’s “a lot of interest in hula and ukulele” (though less enthusiasm for slack key guitar).  Jeff also told me there’s “growing interest in Singapore and China. Ukulele is also very popular in Thailand. It is mainly used to play pop music with some interest in traditional Hawaiian music.”

Ukulele specialty shops across Asia have been growing faster than a late December North Shore swell.  They’re spread across Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Stores have opened in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as the Philippines and mainland China. And there are local ukulele bands. The South Korean group “Ukulele Picnic” has produced albums including “Aloha, Feel-good Feeling” and “Summertime Mele.”

Just a couple of months ago, nearly a hundred ukulele players strummed their stuff on stage at the first Marianas Ukulele Festival in Saipan. The local newspaper Marianas Variety reports more than 200 guests showed up for what organizers hope will become an annual event.

The State Department hears the music. Each year, it sponsors the “American Music Abroad” program, which according to its website, “fosters cross-cultural connections between American musicians and global audiences.”

Susan Pittman of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs says Hawaiian music overseas is “very well received, especially with young people and underserved communities. It also allows us to present American cultural and geographic diversity and address pertinent themes about the importance of social inclusion.”

And that includes the ukulele, which may or may not be part of the next round of U.S. musical diplomacy. Ten music groups will be selected; Pittman says the usual pool of candidates ranges from 250 to 300. Applications for the next performing season are open until Jan. 9 at

If we do come up with some local winners, maybe they could bring along some macadamia nuts as traveling gifts. Perhaps in a nice serving bowl.


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About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.