Hawai'i Ways, Hawai'i Days
A life wreathed in lovely lei
By Brian Choy
Special to The Advertiser
As young children, we grew up in Palama but visited my maternal grandparents every weekend. Popo raised chickens for our Sunday dinners and also grew fragrant pink plumeria, pakalana and stephanotis. We strung the sweet-smelling flowers into lei, which we brought home to our young aunties in Palama. Like our fellow students at Likelike Elementary School, we would go to the neighborhood graveyard to pick yellow plumeria and string lei to decorate the veterans' graves at the Punchbowl cemetery on Memorial Day.
Attending your high school prom meant that you had to find a special lei for your date. In the early 1960s, a fat, fragrant pink peppermint-colored carnation lei was popular. My brother searched for baby pink roses to make a lei for his senior prom a dozen from Ernest Watanabe rose farm in Hawai'i Kai cost 10 cents in 1964. You use 15 dozen baby roses to make a rose lei poepoe (sewn in the round). What cost only $1.50 in 1964 costs more than $20 today.
High school graduation was celebrated with lei given by family and friends. Classmates had lei up to their eyes. We were introduced to the wili (entwined) method of Hawaiian lei making as part of Beatrice Krauss' Ethnobotany of Hawai'i class at Lyon Arboretum in 1975. We also had a half-hour class taught by Joyce Davis. I remember my legs cramping because we were sitting on the concrete floor, and our fingers aching from making the lei. Nevertheless, my romance with the lei was rekindled.
I would watch lei makers such as Irmalee and Wela Pomroy and Marie McDonald haku (braid or plait) lei. They were generous in sharing their knowledge and skills. We would seek out special lei makers like Ainsley Helemano, who taught us how to haku lei with ti, and Roy Benham, who does the most beautiful hala lei. I saw my first May Day Lei contest at Waikiki Shell in 1975 and decided that I wanted to make lei as beautiful as those exhibited. My brother and I entered in 1976. Later, our wives and friends joined us. Our children also make and cherish lei.
Lei-making has defined our lives. We went hiking to learn about native Hawaiian plants. We started at sunrise on the Wa'ianae Kai trail. We finally saw maile growing in the wild and were in heaven. I can still smell the extra-thick coil of maile we made for Leonard Ching's 60th birthday.
Lei-making introduced us to hula. We made lei for Na Wai 'Eha O Puna and traveled with the halau to the Merrie Monarch Festival for three consecutive years. We made lei for Kamehameha Day parade pa'u riders. In1994, the O'ahu princess' horse started eating his lei and the lei was torn apart before he arrived at Kapi'olani Park.
We learned how to grow our lei material. Now we can go into the garden to pick palapalai fern, vibrant ohia lehua and liko, silvery hinahina, 'ilima, and moa. We also grow many other favorite lei flowers, which have been introduced to Hawai'i because of their color and scent.
To encourage lei-making, I teach at Lyon Arboretum and Temari Center for Asian and Pacific Arts. We do talks and demonstrations with other lei makers at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden, the Honolulu Academy of Arts Center at Linekona, and other community parks. I was a judge for the May Day lei contest in 1998 and 1999. However, I returned to entering the lei contest because I enjoy making lei best of all!
The lei contest provides a unique opportunity to design and make the uncommon and extravagant lei. Best of all, we have made many friends because of our romance with the lei. We are so fortunate to have been given this lei of love. Thank you all for making our lives full of color, beauty, fragrant scents, and friendships.
Brian Choy is an avid lei maker who won this year's May Day Lei Celebration contest, an annual event run by city parks staff and volunteers.