If you’re coming to the Island of Oahu, you will likely be heading to the island’s Windward side. This part of the island includes, among other sites, Kaneohe, Kualoa Ranch, and a small island off the coast called Mokoli’i Island or also named Chinaman’s Hat.
This small island is also known as ‘Chinaman’s Hat,’ and while we aim to be respectful, it’s important to note that the name may understandably be offensive to some. However, the origin of its name is quite innocent, and it is generally accepted to refer to it as Chinaman’s Hat. When looking at the island, it does resemble an Asian conical hat, which farmers and workers use for protection from the sun. These hats are cone-shaped, usually bamboo-made, and serve as excellent protection. Hence, the name. No disrespect intended.
The Hawaiian name is Mokoli’i, which translates to ‘small’ in Hawaiian, a fitting name because it is a very small island. It’s also associated with several Hawaiian legends, but the most popular one tells the story of Pele (the goddess of fire) and her sister, who battled a giant lizard that ultimately thrashed its tail into the ocean. What remains today is said to be the lizard’s back.
The island is visible from many points along Kaneohe Bay on Oahu. This photo is from the shore of Kualoa Regional Park; the island is about 500 yards offshore. During low tide on calm days, it is possible to wade across. People often boat or kayak to the island. It is now owned by the City and County of Honolulu, purchased from Kualoa Ranch Company in the 1970s.
Mokolii Island is 12.5 acres and 206 feet high and is surrounded by shallow reef flats. It was originally connected to the shore but was worn away by marine erosion, according to the Hawaii Offshore Islet Restoration Committee website. From the 1940s, black rats lived on the island, but in 2002, a group of volunteers eradicated the rats. Since then, it appears that more birds and sea creatures are thriving on the island. The biggest threat now is foot traffic from visitors.
Mokolii Island appears in many photos and movies. Whether it looks like a lizard tail or a straw hat to you, I’ll bet you will also easily recognize its shape.