Why Hawaiian shirts have a strong Chinese link and a colourful past

The story of the Hawaiian shirt is, rather aptly, a colourful one.

The garment of choice for stoned surfers and travellers to the tropics, the shirt - also known as the Aloha shirt - has also inspired collections from fast-fashion labels H&M and Zara to luxury brands Prada and Valentino.

Over the decades, it has spent a lot of time basking in the pop-culture sun. Nothing screamed the '80s quite as loud as Tom Selleck's red Hawaiian shirt in the hit TV series Magnum, P.I., while Elvis Presley rocked them in the 1961 flick Blue Hawaii.

Screen legends Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster wore them in the 1953 classic From Here to Eternity, while a new wave of movie stars including Christian Slater (1993's True Romance), Brad Pitt (1999's Fight Club) and Johnny Depp (1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) gave them a cool edge during the '90s.

Depp even took several Hawaiian shirts from the collection of Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote the book that Fear and Loathing was based on, when he was living with the author while preparing for his role.

Singer Justin Bieber mastered the look for the millennials, showcasing enough aloha shirts last year to give an '80s South Beach coke dealer a run for their money.

Even the much-hyped third season of Stranger Things got in on Hawaiian shirts thanks to Jim Hopper's version that caused waves on social media earlier this month.

"There's probably no other garment in the world that can make your heart smile as much as a good Aloha shirt," says Hawaiian native Dale Hope, who chronicled the evolution of the colourful garment in his book The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands.

"It puts an extra skip in your step."

Hope, whose parents owned a garment factory, says the shirt perfectly reflects the Hawaiian Islands.

"It represents the beauty and spirit of a place, our culture," says the 66-year-old, who owns more than 1,000 Hawaiian shirts. "You can never have enough."

But tracing the origins of the shirt is not so easy, with a number of people linked to inventing the Hawaiian shirt.

On top of its Japanese roots - many Japanese who left their homeland for Hawaii in the early 20th century brought with them bright kimono fabrics - the garment also has Filipino and Chinese influences; these newcomers to Hawaii brought with them barong Tagalog (a traditional type of untucked shirt now considered the national dress for men in the Philippines) and multicoloured silks at around the same time.

Trace the thread of the Hawaiian shirt and one name it will lead to is Chinese-American Ellery J. Chun.

Born in Honolulu in 1909, Chun graduated from Yale University with a major in economics in 1931 before taking over his father's Chinese dry goods shop, King-Smith Clothiers, back in Honolulu, where he became fascinated with the garments worn by workers on local sugar cane and pineapple plantations.

Chun stamped his mark on the garment in July 1936 when he registered the term "Aloha shirt", opening the door for him to become the first to mass produce the items.

Soon his colourful shirts featuring palm trees, hulas and floral motifs became a hit with local surfers, entertainers and a growing wave of tourists.

It was the post-Depression pickup the business was desperately seeking.

"I was just trying to figure out a way to increase business in the store when I got the idea to promote a local style of shirt," Chun told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in a 1987 interview.

"Since there was no pre-printed Hawaiian fabric around, I took patterned Japanese yukata cloth and had a few dozen short-sleeve, square-bottomed shirts made up for me.

"I put the shirts in the front window of the store with a sign that said 'Aloha Shirts'. They were a novelty item at first, but I could see that they had great potential."

Hope says others who have claimed to have made the first Hawaiian shirt include Koichiro Miyamoto and his wife Dolores, who owned another Honolulu-based dry goods store.

"I interviewed [Miyamoto's] wife Dolores in 1999," Hope says. "She told me she made the first Aloha shirt for John Barrymore, the movie actor. She said, 'The Chinese guy [Chun] down the street got all the credit, but I made the first Aloha shirt.'"

Also claiming the title is shirt maker Rube Hauseman, who started making them in 1935, sharing the shirts with his Waikiki beachboy friends.

"I met Rube and he had a convincing story," Hope says. "He was friends with Duke Kahanamoku [an Olympic swimmer from Hawaii considered the father of modern surfing] and the elite groups of beach boys."

Whether you love them or loathe them, there's no doubting the enduring appeal of the bright Hawaiian shirt.

"We wear them in Hawaii proudly, as an acknowledgement that we love our islands [and] our lifestyle," Hope says.

"[We] wear print themes that represent our individual passions, whatever they may be: love for the ocean, the fish, turtles, shells, surfing, canoes, sailing, the land, the mountains, waterfalls, the flowers, the local fruits, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, birds, the music, hula, tropical drinks, Hawaiian cowboys … All of these have been the subjects for Aloha shirt prints.

"As one writer wrote years ago, 'If everyone wore Aloha shirts, there would be no wars."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.