The 1911 Prohibition on Poi
Poi is made of the corm, the underground stem, of taro. The baked or steamed corm is mashed to the desired consistency, while water is added to it.
The Native Hawaiians ate poi, or “kalo” in Hawaiian, with most meals as their staple starch, just like how Asian people eat rice with theirs. So, in 1911, when the Board of Health put a prohibition on poi in Honolulu, imagine how the Native Hawaiians reacted.
The Board of Health believed poi caused a cholera outbreak with two Native Hawaiians, questioning if the poi factories and shops were sanitarily handling the poi. On March 2, 1911, Food Commissioner Edward B. Blanchard ordered poi factories to stop operating and closed all the poi shops in Honolulu. Poi sales were prohibited, and the Board of Health ordered people to destroy their poi.
In the next few days, the Board of Health distributed over 7,500 pounds of free poi daily to the Native Hawaiians. The Kalihi Poi Factory produced the poi under the board’s supervision. At each of the four distribution stations, a crowd of Native Hawaiians of all ages, from children to the elderly, waited for their poi. The free poi was meant for those who could not afford poi, and everyone was supposed to pay for it. However, most didn’t pay. Some even claimed poi at multiple stations in a single day, when they should have gotten only one package.
In the middle of March 1911, John H. Coney, chairman of the health committee of the House of Representatives, introduced House Bill 160. The “poi bill” would regulate the operations of poi shops and enable the Board of Health to enforce the regulations. Under them, poi must be made in an area with cement floors and walls that are at least six feet height. The poi shops would have to have a supply of pure water. They could not operate near places that the board disapproved, including stables, slaughterhouses, and places where laundry is done. Tools and utensils used for poi must be cleaned before used, and no one with a disease can work in a poi shop.
On March 23, 1911, the House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 21 to 9, but not without controversy. Hawaiian representatives feared the rules would hurt people who produce poi a few times a week for a few families. However, attempts to hinder the bill’s passage and to limit it to the City and County of Honolulu failed.
Meanwhile, the approved poi factories had some difficulty in getting taro, since some taro growers refused to sell them. Eleven growers in Manoa Valley said they could not sell the taro to the factories. Those growers said they were not trying to prevent people from getting poi, but were bound by contract to provide taro only to certain poi shops, which the government shuttered. The growers said they would gladly sell their taro “at the best price” if they could.
In the same month, Donald Currie, surgeon of the United States Marine Hospital Service, traced the two outbreaks of cholera to the taro and poi from Manoa Valley. Some of poi consumers and residents there contracted cholera. Meanwhile, two more people died from cholera, after consuming poi from taro grown in Manoa Valley. Therefore, the Board of Health prohibited the sale of vegetables that used the waters in Manoa Valley.
On April 17, 1911, the Senate gave the Poi Bill the final approval, and the governor signed it into law the next day. The first law to regulate poi factories, or Act 77 in Section 3 of the Sessions Laws, would be revised in 1925.
A hundred years later, in 2011, another “poi bill” appeared: Senate Bill 101. The bill to exempt pa’i ‘ai (hand-pounded poi before adding water) from the Department of Health regulations and allow the public distribution of pa’i ‘ai.
Legalize Pa’i ‘ai ‘Ohana, a group of taro farmers, activists, and cultural practitioners, supported the bill. It argued the current laws framed poi as a potentially dangerous food and did not recognize that the traditional way of making poi has been tested and fed Native Hawaiians over a thousand years.
Hundreds of people from all over Hawaii testified in support of the bill, but the objections from poi mills nearly killed the bill. However, on May 5, 2011, the State Legislature passed the poi bill, and Governor Neil Abercrombie signed it into law.
Today, as cases of cholera are now rare in Hawaii, you can find poi in supermarkets around Hawaii, Hawaiian restaurants, and luau. As an important and sacred food in the traditional Hawaiian culture, many continue to enjoy poi: Native Hawaiians eating the same food that their ancestors ate for sustenance, local people in Hawaii enjoying poi with lomi lomi salmon, laulau (steamed pork covered in ti leaves), and poke (raw fish salad), and visitors who want to experience the Native Hawaiian culture.
– Alice Kim
Notes: A nutritious food, poi has a lot of fiber, vitamins C and B-1, potassium, magnesium, and iron. The hypoallergenic poi has saved lives of babies who could not eat anything else due to their allergies.
You can scoop poi with your spoon or fork or, like the Native Hawaiians, with your index and middle fingers put together. Some people without a taste for poi may add sugar, milk, or honey for flavor. However, traditional Native Hawaiians frown on that practice.
Black, Catharine Mariko. “Coming Full Circle: The Taro Movement Imagines a Sustainable Future by Bringing Hawai’i Back to Its Roots.” Green Magazine Hawaii. , September/October 2011. Web. 2 October 2011. <http://www.greenmagazinehawaii.com/food_v3-5.html>
Olszewski, Debroah I. The Mahele and Later in Waipio Valley, Hawaii. Bishop Museum. May 2000. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <www2.bishopmuseum.org/chpa/waipio/pdf/WaipioReport2000.PDF>
Sources from Chronicling America:
The Hawaiian gazette., March 03, 1911, Page 3
“Patrons of Poi Appear Pleased: Free Distribution Kept Up by Board of Health”
The Hawaiian gazette, March 10, 1911, Page 7
“For Regulation of All Chinese Poi Shops Here”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 17, 1911, Page 2, Image 2
“Poi Shop Bill now up to the Senate: Passes Third Reading after rather hot Fight in the House”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 24, 1911, Image 1
“Not Conspiracy, just a Contract: Taro Growers Explain why They Refuse to Sell Product”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 21, 1911, Page 2, Image 2
“Four Poi Shops Are Condemned in New Crusade”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 07, 1911, Image 1
“Two Poi Shops Closed by the City Physician”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 11, 1911, Page 6, Image 6
“Poi Proven to Be Source of Cholera: Federal Expert Traces Infection to Taro of Manoa” and “New Regulation now in Effect: Vegetables Cannot now Be Pulled in Manoa Valley”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 18, 1911, Page 3, Image 3
“Epidemic Still Threatening City: Two New Foci of Infection Discovered Yesterday”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 21, 1911, Page 2, Image 2
“Senate Now Approves Poi Bill”
Evening bulletin., April 15, 1911, 3:30 EDITION, Image 1
More Articles About Poi in Chronicling America
“Want to Starve Hawaiians in City: Chinese Taro Planters Hope to Influence Board of Health”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 14, 1911, Image 1
“Analysis of Poi How, as Rule, Very Poor Quality”
The Hawaiian gazette, March 14, 1911, Page 7
“Poi as Medium of Cholera Infection: Bacteriological Tests Prove that It Carries Germs for Forty-Eight Hours” and “For Regulation of All Chinese Poi Shops Here”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 17, 1911, Page 2
“Chinese Side of Poi Question”
The Hawaiian gazette, March 24, 1911, Page 7
“Supervisors Talk Concerning Poi”
The Hawaiian gazette., March 28, 1911, Page 2
“Quarantine Now Depends on Poi Bill: Port Will Stay Shut as Long as Senate Dallies”
The Hawaiian gazette, March 31, 1911, Page 2
“Poi and Quarantine” (editorial)
The Hawaiian gazette, March 31, 1911, Page 4
“Four Poi Shops Are Condemned in New Crusade”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 07, 1911, Image 1
Committee Is Splits on the Poi Subject
The Hawaiian gazette, April 11, 1911, Image 1
“Business Men on Poi Control”
Evening bulletin., April 13, 1911, Page 3
“The Limit Is Reached” (editorial)
The Hawaiian gazette, April 14, 1911, Page 4
“Health Situation Is Thrown into Confusion by Events of One Day”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 14, 1911, Page 3, 6
“Trouble Coming between Two Health Departments Operating in Honolulu”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 14, 1911, Page 7, Image 7
“Doctors Get a Grip on the Situation: Washington Cables some Extra Quarantine Instructions”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 18, 1911, Image 1
“Board of Health Cuts Policy Knot: Is Accused of Breaking Faith and Points to Poi Bill”
The Hawaiian gazette., April 18, 1911, Page 2
“Hawaiians Gave Up Poi and Drive Cholera Away in Former Epidemic”
The Hawaiian gazette, April 18, 1911, Page 5
“Won’t Believe Death due to Filthy Poi”
The Hawaiian gazette, April 18, 1911, Page 7
“Summarizes the Late Epidemics”
The Hawaiian gazette, May 2, 1911, Page 8
“First Case Was Not Discovered: Cholera Probably First Originated in the Gold Mine”
The Hawaiian gazette., May 5, 1911, Page 2
“Pure Poi Law Hits the Crescent City: Hawaii Pakes Are Told to Clean Up or Go Out of Business”
The Hawaiian gazette, June 30, 1911, Page 6
“City Is to Be Sued over Poi: Chinamen Coming Back to Open Controversy for all It’s Worth”
The Hawaiian gazette, July 28, 1911, Page 2