Lopaka Kapanui
Hawaiʻi’s “Chicken Skin” Storyteller

Cover story by Liberty Peralta, PBS Hawaiʻi


Lopaka Kapanui, Hawaiʻi's "Chicken Skin" Storyteller

Years ago, Lopaka Kapanui’s mother told him something he says he was “too young and arrogant” to understand.


“A lot of work that we do is not about us,” he says his mom told him. “And if we think it’s based on us, we’re fooling ourselves. It’s about helping other people.”


Telling ghost stories may be an unusual way of serving one’s community, but it’s this motivation that drives Kapanui in his work as a storyteller of legends, a mantle he’s taken up since the 2003 passing of his mentor, celebrated Oʻahu “chicken skin” storyteller, Glen Grant.


LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Lopaka Kapanui airs Tuesday, October 29 at 7:30 pm“My job is not just to tell ghost stories and scare people, but also to clear up that misunderstanding of what this is all about, which is really communication,” Kapanui says.


Kapanui’s life began in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi, as a malnourished infant living in a station wagon with his mother and four older siblings.


“They said I was about the size of a rolled-up newspaper,” Kapanui says.

A family from Waiʻanae adopted the young Kapanui, who continued to battle health issues through his early childhood, to the point where he was hospitalized to flush out his kidneys.


My job is not just to tell ghost stories and scare people, but also to clear up that misunderstanding of what this is all about, which is really communication. 

Lopaka Kapanui


“I’m a Buddhist, so we believe in karma,” Kapanui says. “I think that somewhere in my past life, I was someone who caused somebody a great deal of suffering and so maybe it was my karma early in my life to go through this.”


Kapanui says his childhood home in Waiʻanae was haunted. His first visual experience was when he saw a Japanese boy approach a stand-up oil lamp in the family’s living room and begin licking the oil from it. A Japanese odaisan, or spiritual medium, later advised the family to get rid of the lamp.


Kapanui’s lifelong sensitivity to spirits culminated in 1994, when a coworker told him about a Glen Grant ghost tour. “I’m astounded, I’m flabbergasted because the majority of what he was talking about are things I already knew growing up and learned from my mom,” Kapanui says. “But the difference was there was documentation, history and things to back up these claims, so that no one could say, ‘Well, that’s just made-up Hawaiian legends, old wives’ tales.’”


So how does Kapanui manage people on his tours who say they don’t believe in the supernatural? “What I always tell them is: Give me a chance to change your mind,” he says. “You don’t have to like it; I would encourage that you at least respect it.”





Nuʻuanu Pali It’s a familiar local admonition: don’t bring pork over the Nuʻuanu Pali, the cliff that separates Honolulu and Windward Oʻahu. Lopaka Kapanui breaks down the story behind the story:


Legend has it that Pele, the fire goddess, and Kamapuaʻa, the pig demigod, were in a tumultuous relationship. In her rage, Pele unleashed a tidal wave of lava upon Kamapua‘a. After the demigod successfully summoned the rain to hold back the lava, Kamapua‘a and Pele came to an agreement: the lush Windward side of all islands would be Kamapuaʻa’s domain, while the arid Kona sides would belong to Pele. “None shall cross into the other’s territory,” Kapanui explains.


So carrying pork from the Windward to the Leeward side of the Nuʻuanu Pali would be symbolically trying to bring Kamapua‘a into Pele’s territory – and Pele won’t have that. “To be more specific, you can bring pork through the H-3, the Wilson and Pali tunnels, but you can’t bring it up that road at the Pali Lookout, that’s coming from the Windward [side] … there’s a road at the Pali Lookout that crosses that meridian.”





The Pahoa Flow


Pahoa residents Josh Ballauer, Jeremiah Lofgreen and Matt Tavares document the 2014 Kilauea lava flow that threatened their Hawai‘i Island neighborhood of Kaohe Homesteads, and how their community came together during the crisis.

Why do this film?
Jeremiah: We were at a friend’s house; he was really close to the lava coming down. We saw the national news media was here covering the story. We saw one of our friends get interviewed and then we saw their cut later on, and we realized that it didn’t portray what we were going through and what we witnessed. It was kind of an off the cuff thing and we just said, “You know what, we’ve got cameras – why don’t we just do this ourselves?”


When did the lava flow really start to threaten the community?
Jeremiah: It must have been around August 23, 2014. It was kind of shock, mostly to our neighborhood, because we were closest in proximity to the flow at the time. There was Civil Defense coming up into the neighborhood and informing us. At that time, the rest of the community had only heard what was on the news. We were hearing firsthand from the Civil Defense and other members of the [Hawai‘i] County. It was kind of a shocker to a lot of people here. It seemed like there was a couple of weeks that went by until the rest of the community caught on to what was coming down the hill.


Was the story that the media was portraying very different from what you were experiencing yourselves?
Jeremiah: Absolutely. I think the fear that was portrayed was very short-lived. I think a lot of us realized that we all knew we came to this place on the side of a volcano. I think without it in your face all the time, you tend to forget about it, but once we were brought to the awareness that it’s right there, it’s only a mile away, it reminded a lot of people that, yes, we live on the side of a volcano.
My experience was, a lot of people at first, for about a week, it was kind of a shocker, and then the acceptance started to happen pretty quickly. A lot of people in the neighborhood moved out, Josh being one of them. My wife and myself, we were expecting a baby, and she was two days late on her due date when we found out about the lava. We had so much going on in our minds that there wasn’t a lot of energy that we could put into that, even though we needed to. It was a very surreal time already, and that just made it, for myself, even more surreal.
Josh: The media only focused on the fear aspect of it all. Of course, being a part of the community down here, all we saw was camaraderie happening. The aloha was so high. We’ve never seen aloha like that, really, and it’s too bad that it takes a disaster like that for aloha to come out like that, but everybody was so nice and friendly. The media should have been covering that.
Jeremiah: That’s the importance we saw right away. Unless this is shown from a local’s perspective, someone that’s actually witnessing it first-hand, that the story wouldn’t be told in the right kind of way.


Was there ever a point where you were like, “Screw this film – I gotta take care of my family”?
Jeremiah: It was an internal battle for sure. When I would go out to work on the film, I wanted to be back with my family. When I was with my family, there was only so much I could do, but I was thinking about moving forward. I went back and forth with myself a lot. I’m pretty sure I told Josh about 20 times, “I’m not sure I can do this.” And then I would turn around and say, “Let’s go do this.” There was definitely a personal battle there, and it was really hard on my family to do it. Once we had come up with a plan of what to do with our stuff, and make sure we were safe, I felt that I needed to go out and help people out. We offered up our help for moving, and the people that we asked, they just wanted us to document, in case the town was taken, in case their place was taken. They wanted something to remember it by. That’s kind of the premise that we started off with – just to document what we were going through, and if people lost their places, they wanted to see what they had built, what they had.