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  • Writer's picturePaul Cho

An Evening Under the Kiawe Tree: A Tale of Healing and Hope at The House Without A Key

Last Monday, upon landing in Honolulu, Hawaii for our vacation, Esther excitedly exclaimed as we left the airport, "Paul, hurry! We need to get to House Without A Key!" Confused, I asked, "What is that?" Jokingly, I added, "How can we enter a house without a key?"Esther replied, "Come on, Paul, it's a renowned restaurant in the Waikiki area that I booked for our dinner tonight four weeks ago! You will love it! We need to hurry!"

We got into a car and drove to the restaurant, arriving just in time. As we entered, I was immediately struck by a uniquely bent tree in the center of the restaurant, set against the backdrop of a stunning ocean view. Beneath this distinctive tree, people were singing, dancing, and conversing over meals, the ocean providing a beautiful background. I thought, "This place might be more than just a restaurant with a great view."

Then, the server led us to our table. Esther exclaimed, "Paul! This is Table 97 that I reserved!" As I sat down, unaware of its significance, and picked up the menu, I learned that this was the same table Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Martha Gellhorn, had requested during their 1940s visit, offering a view of Diamond Head Mountain.

Then, as we sat enjoying the stunning view of the ocean and Diamond Head, the server brought out our cocktail, Kawehewehe. When I saw the cocktail, I noticed that its colors mirrored exactly the hues of the ocean in front of us. Intrigued, I picked up the menu and read the story behind the drink. I discovered that right next to the restaurant, there was a reef entrance, which the locals call the waters of Kawehewehe, meaning to release and let go. Amazingly, in this specific location, freshwater springs underneath the sand. The locals long ago believed the freshwater represented life, and came here for cleansing rituals for both physical and spiritual healing. I further discovered that the name of Waikiki means 'the sprouting fresh water' in its original language, offering healing and rest to the souls.

As we were enjoying our cocktails next to the waters of Kawehewehe, I asked the server, "Why does the tree in the middle look like this? It seems the roots and the body of the tree are separated!" She replied, "Yes, it's because the tree fell in 2016, but it's still growing." Intrigued, I read more and discovered that the tree has stood there for centuries, since the beginning of the history of the Halekulani Hotel, where the House Without A Key is located, dating all the way back to the 1880s. Then, I further learned that it was under this Kiawe tree that people came for a time of healing and rest. Famed 20th-century novelist, Earl Derr Biggers, was one of them. He sat under this tree, engaging in conversations and writing his novel, "House Without A Key," the namesake of the restaurant.

That night, returning to the hotel, I studied the novel, "House Without A Key." The novel unfolds from Earl's conversation under the Kiawe tree with his friends, Clifford Kimball, the former owner of the hotel, and Chang Aspana, a Chinese immigrant and detective of the Honolulu Police Department. Under the Kiawe tree, the three individuals engaged in deep conversations about the events of the day and profound questions about life. Through this dialogue, Earl learned about the social and racial inequality that existed among the local and new immigrant residents of Hawaii at the time. In the novel, Earl introduces a fictional character, Charlie Chan, who is based on Chang Apana, a hardworking Chinese detective known for his effective problem-solving skills. Through the development of this Chinese American character, Charlie Chan, Earl aimed to challenge the stereotypes of the time regarding racial differences and promote reconciliation among the island's residents.

Ernest Hemingway, who also sat under the Kiawe tree at Table 97, wrote stories and novels that profoundly shaped literary culture for generations to come. During the World War, Hemingway wrote to illustrate the brevity of life and the meaninglessness of war, and to help steer culture towards hope and life. Martha Gellhorn, who also sat under the Kiawe tree in 1940, became the only woman to join the Normandy operation in 1944 as a nurse. She helped wounded soldiers by becoming a stretcher-bearer.

The following day, I asked Esther, "Can we visit that restaurant again?" She responded, "You mean the one you made a silly comment about not having a key?" "Yes," I confirmed. We then returned to observe the tree; a fallen tree that has stood for centuries beside the healing waters of Kawhewehe. This tree has provided rest and shade to countless individuals. Among them were figures like Earl Derr Biggers, Ernest Hemingway, and Martha Gellhorn. They found solace under the tree, discussed life, tried to make sense of the world, and used their writing to advocate for peace and the preservation of life. For Martha, her commitment went beyond writing; she risked her own life in the war to save others. Under the tree, they saw the world as it was, yet cared to act to move the world onto the pathway of life.

Seeing the Kiawe tree again, which sacrificed itself to help others and inspired them to save lives, reminded me of the True Tree of Life. Similarly, the sight of the Kawehewehe water made me think of the True Water of Life, both of which are destined to appear in the restored garden to come. That day, I also learned that the name of the Halekulani Hotel, which houses the "House Without A Key," translates to "house befitting heaven" in the local language.

Everything now started to come together in my mind. On that Monday evening, hundreds of people gathered to enjoy live Hawaiian music, an ocean view, a beautiful sunset, and conversation over delicious meals. Under the Kiawe tree and right next to the Kawehewehe water, in the house that befits heaven, countless life stories, including our own, were being written. I hoped and prayed for these narratives to move towards the beautiful ending promised by the ultimate and truest story of the universe. The day when heaven and earth unite, and the Truest Tree of Life and the Truest Water of Healing stand next to each other to restore life to its fullest.

That evening, under the Kiawe tree at the House Without A Key, as we watched the beautiful sunset, Esther and I saw glimpses of heaven and earth coming together on the day of the supper of the lamb, a supper to which our Lord has invited all to come without a key.

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