In 1940 workers using a blowtorch to strip paint from the historic I Hemolele chapel in Laie accidentally burned down the building. It wasn't until after World War II that the residents of Laie, who all belonged to one ward (similar to a parish) at the time, decided to stage a hukilau fishing program, with Polynesian entertainment and a luau, to raise funds to rebuild the chapel.
In those quiet post-war years, Hawaii tourism was nothing like it is today; but Laie-born Viola Kehau Kawahigashi believed the community could successfully attract people to their first hukilau on Saturday, January 31, 1948. Tourist industry officials argued that $3 a ticket was too much, and others worried about rainy weather at that time of year. Kawahigashi persisted, however, and distributed 500 of the 700 tickets she had printed to hotels and other sales points.
Two days before the event, Kawahigashi drove to Waikiki to check on sales, but found that only 250 tickets had been sold. She was discouraged, but also determined. By Friday at noon, the hotels had sold out their tickets. The rains stopped early Saturday morning, and by the time the first hukilau ended that afternoon, a total of almost 2,000 visitors had participated. The program — as characterized in the song, where the hukilau nets are swishing, down in old Laie Bay...and the laulau is the kaukau at the big luau..., continued for more than two decades. By that time the chapel had long been rebuilt and the Polynesian Cultural Center recreated a sense of the old hukilau every day. Many of those community members who volunteered their time and talent at the hukilau went on to work at PCC.