The Princess Who Was Never Queen: Princess Ka’iulani


This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and I always like to talk about the women since minority women don’t get mentioned much, especially in history. An article from Atlas Obscura caught my eye about the history of women surfers. The idea of a princess bringing surfing to Hawaii intrigued me.

But Princess Ka’iulani was much more than a surfer. Her story is a tragic (though not surprising for the Gilded Age) one of a princess who never got to be queen.

To begin with, Princess Ka’iulani was the child of an interracial marriage, which was not as popular or accepted at the time as it is now (a subject I incorporate in Book 7 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries). Her mother was a Hawaiian princess and her father was a Scotland-born businessman who had emigrated to Hawaii as a child. So she was born into royalty with the expectation that she would take her place in the Hawaiian monarchy some day. 

From all accounts, Princess Ka’iulani was an intelligent, and even precocious child. Some described her as “willful” and Princess Ka’iulani referred to herself as a “naughty” girl. Today, we know these to be euphemisms for highly-spirited women who refused to be bound to the separate spheres and asserted themselves as more intelligent and independent than most people thought women ought at the time.

As a teenager, she embarked on a path that would have been typical of wealthier young ladies of the time (royalty or not). She traveled to Europe and received an education in the United Kingdom that would have been expected of an upper-class young lady and especially one from a royal family. In 1891, her uncle (who was King in Hawaii at that time) died, leaving her aunt to inherit the throne. Her aunt, Queen Liliu’okalani, named her as the heir to the throne. 

A very majestic pose for a 17-year-old indeed!

Photo Credit: Princess Ka’iulani, photograph by Elmer Chickering taken in Boston, Massachusetts, 1893, Hawaii State Archives. Picryl/Public Domain

However, in 1893, her entire life changed when she received a telegram that her aunt had been dethroned and a group of American businessmen with financial interests in Hawaii intended to lobby the President to annex Hawaii. With her “willfulness” and “naughtiness”, Princess Ka’iulani returned to the United States, intending to see the president (Grover Cleveland). She released to the press a moving statement regarding her return which proved to be an impressively self-possessing statement coming from a 17-year-old:

I am now told that Mr. Thurston [one of the businessmen who overtook the monarchy] will be in Washington asking you to take away my flag and my throne. No one tells me even this officially. Have I done anything wrong that this wrong should ‘be done to me and my people? I am coming to Washington to plead for my throne, my nation and my flag. Will not the great American people hear me?”

Princess Ka’iulani’s visit was successful, as the American people were indeed moved and President Cleveland listened to her pleas. She managed to stave off this political coup. 

I say “stave off” because, after the Spanish-American War of 1898, Hawaii was annexed and became a U.S. territory. While Hawaii did not become part of the United States until 1959, its status of being a territory did away with the monarchy structure of government which meant Princess Ka’iulani would never become queen. Even sadder, she died just a year later of a weak heart which, some say, was brought on by the shock and disappointment of having her throne and her country taken away from her. She was just twenty-four years old. 

Book 7 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries will be coming out later this year, but for now, if you haven’t delved into this series, I highly recommend you pick up the first book, The Carnation Murder, for free at any online bookstore. The details and links are here

Works Cited:

Fahrni, Jennifer. “Princess Kaiulani: Her Life and Times”. Princess Kai’ulani Project. The Kai’ulani Project. 2006. Web. 10 May 2024.

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The East West Players and Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965)


This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so I’m paying tribute to Asian Pacific Americans who fight for visibility, respect, and honor for their culture. 

As you know, I’m a huge classic film fan, and I was fascinated by a bit of trivia I read on the Internet Movie Database when I stumbled upon the film Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965) on YouTube. According to the trivia, this film was partly responsible for the formation of a theater group in Los Angeles dedicated to Asian Pacific American actors.

If the title of the film itself sounds pretty tawdry, its roots are historical. The movie is loosely based on an autobiography written in 1821 by Thomas DeQuincy called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The book is essentially the granddaddy of the drug memoir, giving accounts of DeQuincy’s addiction to laudanum (a tincture of opium widely available and unregulated in the 19th century) and its consequences. The book was meant as a warning against laudanum addiction, a big problem at the time, though critics claim DeQuincy’s book is rather more about the pleasures of opium addiction than its pains.

But the film is only loosely based on the book. The main character (played by Vincent Price, who steps out of his horror film persona to play a rather dubious hero) is supposedly an American descendent of DeQuincy. Like my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the movie is set in San Francisco and involves crime. Price arrives in Chinatown, looking for the pleasures of opium, and ends up unraveling a mystery that includes prostitution, white slavery, and, of course, opium.

The film, unlike many before it, has a very large cast made up of Asian and Pacific Americans, many of whom would be familiar to fans of classic films, including Richard Loo, Phillip Ahn, John, Fujioka, and Victor Sen Yung (who played in many of the Charlie Chan films in the 1940s as one of Chan’s many sons). These and other actors complained to the producer about how their Asian Pacific American roles perpetuated Hollywood stereotypes of sinister men and loose women, drug addicts and prostitutes. Producer Albert Zugsmith took no notice of their complaints. So this film was one of many that, as they say, became the hump that broke the camel’s back.

Photo Credit: Logo for the East West Players, 2013, East West Players: Yeeno/Wikimedia Commons/PD textlogo 

No surprise, nine Asian Pacific American actors, including Mako (Conan the Barbarian, Pearl Harbor), Soon-Tek Oh (Mulan), and James Hong (Blade Runner, Kung-Fu Panda) formed the East West Players that same year. They were tired of Asian Pacific Americans being typecast in sinister roles and seeing Asian Pacific American main characters played by Caucasians (I always found it absurd that Charlie Chan’s sons were played by Asian Pacific Americans in the 1940s but Chan himself was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland.). Their mission was to create a space where Asian Pacific American actors would have better roles and a chance to show their culture and people were anything but the Hollywood stereotypes. The theater puts on performances with Asian Pacific American actors, directors, choreographers, playwrights, and others behind the scenes.

It’s no wonder this amazing group has many Tony award-winning plays under their belt, including A Little Night Music (1973), M. Butterfly (1988), and The Who’s Tommy (1993). You can find out more about the East West Players here

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