Get off the 57 or the NL on Fruitvale and MacArthur. Walk down Fruitvale, past the Farmer Joe’s, past Lucky Three Seven -- the Filipino restaurant where you can get anything with a fried egg on top and that’s not weird-- past the Mexican “ethnic” food store and you’ll get to Mo’s Hut.
“Oh, look” my friend said as we walked in, she rubbed the leaf on a flowering hibiscus plant between two fingers. I could believe it, I had no idea hibiscus could grow in Oakland’s cold climate but here lived a red hibiscus bush, thriving. I inspected it closely, thinking it was fake, and briefly missed the fact that right below the hibiscus Mo’s wife planted taro.
The Hut is described on Yelp as “Hawaiian,” but the people who work there are Samoan, the food is more contemporary Samoan than contemporary Hawaiian, and the menu posted on the wall has dishes written in Samoan, not Hawaiian or Hawaiian pidgen. However, the interior of the restaurant represents the cultural fusion that seems inevitable when similar but distinct cultures from the various pacific islands settle in a foreign land. The tapa which decorates Mo’s Hut is Tongan tapa, and the elegantly framed photographs are taken by none other than Hawai’i based photographer Kim Taylor Reece.
My friends and I all recognized photos upon walking in; the classic photos depict the two hula kahiko, fine-art photos of Hawaiians dancing in traditional ti-leaf costume on the beach in Hawaii. “My auntie has those photos in her home” remarked Lana, who grew up on the island of Hawai’i . Kim Taylor Reece’s photos are all over the Hawaiian islands, from hanging in the waiting room of doctor's offices to halau hulas in municipal buildings where men and women congregate to practice and learn hula. And here these images are down hanging on a wall on Fruitvale, just off MacArthur Boulevard.
Mo and his wife are clearly busy running their business, but both made time, in the island fashion, to talk story with us. While Mo walked in and out of the seating area of the restaurant, to the kitchen then to his truck, Mo’s wife shared her thoughts about Oakland. She considers the location of their new restaurant dangerous and does not much approve of the men who take to gathering at their store front. While I ate my prime rib, white rice and mac salad in the Hut, I watched outside as a man crouched over the sidewalk and rolled his dice. Mo’s wife sometimes has her son and his friends sit outside the restaurant to ward off loiterers. Mo’s wife is not afraid, though, and their restaurant hasn’t yet seen any trouble. “They see how big we are,” Mo’s wife said, laughing.
Mo was originally supposed to get a food truck out of which he would sell his Samoan plate lunches and banana-coconut milk desserts, but when the Fruitvale location opened up about a year ago he and his family moved their food operation here.
For a time, Mo and his wife lived on Oahu, in Kalihi on the south western coast, a part of Honolulu known for its Pacific Islander immigrant population. They later lived in the eastside town of Lai’e.
“Mormon town” Lana remarked upon hearing that Mo and his wife lived in Lai’e.
“Why, is that a problem?” Mo’s wife asked, her hands on her hips.
“I’m mormon,” Lana laughed.
Mo’s wife’s brother graciously walked us to our car and talked story with us all the way. Like his sister, he is originally from American Samoa but has lived in the States for many decades. He wore a US army cap. He had retired from the U.S. military in the early 90’s when he moved to Oregon, his favorite place in the US. “Lots of hippies over there” he said of Ashland, explaining that Medford was his favorite part of Oregon. I had expected some kind of military connection in Mo’s extended family, because American Samoa "has the most successful Army recruiting station in the U.S" Although curious, I did not want to inquire too much into why Mo’s wife’s brother decided to join the military, because I feel it might be a touchy subject.
The island called “American Samoa” is not a sovereign state. Like the U.S Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico, American Samoa is a territory of the United States. American Samoa is the only one of these places which does not include the US’s birthright citizenship laws, meaning those who are born on the soil of American Samoa are not immediately granted citizenship to the United States. This has been the topic of much debate and frustration on the part of American Samoans. In February of this year, Leneuoti Tuaua, who was born in American Samoa, sued the U.S. government over the lack of access to citizenship faced by American Samoans. Tuaua, a retired Court Marshall in American Samoa asked, “If we are Americans, then why not citizens? Perhaps for some, the military is an avenue for access to citizenship, and the plethora of benefits that come from U.S. citizenship. Regardless of their legal status according to the American code, people from American Samoa migrate to the mainland United States and settle in various locations. For many, Oakland is now home.