Hawaii’s Ice Cream Truck: The Manapua Man!

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Like the rest of the U.S., school in Hawaii is back in. Anyone who has grown up here will know that among the familiar sights and sounds of a day before or after school is the Manapua Truck. It used to be the “Manapua Man,” but it’s not only men running them, and it seems arcane to refer to the business so gender-specifically.

The Manapua Truck is best described as the Mainland’s ice cream truck. But the Manapua Truck has always been more than a guy in a van with chilled treats that turns up every summer. The Manapua Truck is an institution imbued with the dignity only afforded to hard-working types that probably would have made good teachers.

Evolved from vendors who catered to plantation workers who toiled sun up to sun down, the Manapua Truck offers more that sweet treats and adolescent confectionary indulgences. The Manapua Truck provides sustenance. In addition to the steamed or baked manapua (bread stuffed with char siu pork, barbeque chicken, or whatever) that gives the profession its name, the Manapua Truck sells fried noodles, pork hash dumplings, and other ancient Asian fast-food favorites. I was often handed an extra dollar in the morning if my parents were to be late for supper. Parents knew, and know, that the Manapua Truck has dinner.

At most public schools in Hawaii, the Manapua Truck can be found each morning and afternoon on a curb at the head of a storm of hungry kids, all of whom know what they want and have exactly and only enough money to buy it. When you’re a kid, the manapua man knows what you want. He might even float it for you if you haven’t enough money, because you’ll be back tomorrow. And you wouldn’t cross him.

For me, it was noodles and a fruit punch. Every day. I was luckier than the other kids, too, because our manapua man, Mister Lu, gave me a kickback of two Jolly Ranchers each day as a kind of payoff for parking his livelihood in front of my house.

For kids, the Manapua Truck is a place to gather, to spend your parents’ money, and to otherwise be a kid. For the manapua man, it is a job that requires a tremendous amount of work, labor that begins before sunrise and doesn’t end until after the last customer has long been to bed.

For Hawaii visitors, it’d be unlikely to happen upon a Manapua Truck. They’re working when you’re working on your vacation at the beach or in the mountains. But if you happen to hear the familiar refrain of the ice cream truck you remember from your youth (our neighborhood’s Mr. Lu played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”), you’d do well to queue up for a steamy bun of growing up in Hawaii. Or a Jolly Rancher.