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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Little things can count a lot

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

It took Walter Liew nothing short of a cultural revolution in China, business success as a wartime entrepreneur in Taiwan, and personal and financial disaster in Hawai'i to finally find peace and modest profits at age 68 by growing bonsai trees in Waimanalo.

Walter Liew, owner of the Hawaii Bonsai Cultural Center, tends to one of his bonsai plants in Waimanalo. He made more money with other commercial opportunities, but his bonsai business is where is heart is.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Liew has turned 16.5 acres of leased land up against the Ko'olau range into a three-acre nursery, classroom and separate two-acre showplace dedicated to bonsai trees. He wakes each morning at 5 and spends the next 15 hours trimming, shaping, watering, repotting, teaching, selling and leading tours of his Hawaii Bonsai Cultural Center.

Liew made bigger money before by exporting Taiwanese-made goods to U.S. military bases during the Vietnam War — and later by opening three furniture stores in Hawai'i.

But those were purely business opportunities, Liew said. For nearly four years, his latest — and possibly final — business venture has generated $6,000 in monthly sales and reunites Liew with a love of bonsai that began in Taiwan.

Some of the bonsai in Liew's collection are nearly half a century old and have been stunted and twisted into shape with wire, trimming and daily care.

Just to grow a $25 bonsai worthy to give as a gift can take Liew 10 years of work.

Bonsai might not bring much profit, but Liew said his business gives him peace and lets him spread his craft.

"How many billionaires you heard of making money in bonsai?" Liew asked. "This is therapeutical. It is magical. It's a kind of meditation. It makes you become a better person because you're engaged in a great art, a living art, that is never finished."

There are probably a dozen or so legitimate bonsai growers throughout the Islands, generating $2 million to $3 million per year in gross sales, said David Fukumoto, president of Fuku-Bonsai in Kurtistown on the Big Island and one of the founders of the Hawai'i Bonsai Association.

Liew is one of the best at what he does, Fukumoto said, but even in that small group he remains an outsider.

He practices the Chinese form of bonsai, which Fukumoto says ignores many of the tradition-bound rules of Hawai'i growers who tend to be schooled in the Japanese style.

"Walter is almost persona non grata in Honolulu," Fukumoto said. "He is totally underappreciated. I'm probably the one person who appreciates him the most. ... Walter's on the outside edge. He trains Walter's style, whereas Japanese bonsai delight in having a lot of rules."

Liew is quick to trace bonsai's evolution through China thousands of years before it became popular in Japan.

He's a disciple of the Chinese art of penjing and its three distinct disciplines — rock gardens, flower arrangements and bonsai.

"I tell my students that in Japanese bonsai, there are at least 365 rules," Liew said. "But in my garden, only have one rule: You make everything accurate to the beauty of nature."

Liew's business brings him to the other end of the arc of a life that began in the Shang Dong province of northern China in 1934.

His parents were high school and college teachers and Liew, the youngest of three children, was destined to become an educator himself. In 1947 he was 13 when he fled with his aunt and uncle to Taiwan to escape the Chinese communists. He finished high school, graduated from the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei in 1956 and went on to teach math to the U.S. and Taiwanese military.

Military bases throughout Asia were building up during the Vietnam War and Liew began exporting cheap, Taiwan-made curtains, carpet, furniture and anything else that would sell in military exchanges in places such as Guam, Okinawa, Vietnam and Kwajalein. In good years, he brought in more than $15 million in annual sales.

In 1972, Liew, his wife and three children came to Honolulu where he continued to import Taiwanese goods and sell them through military exchanges. Six years later he started three furniture stores with different styles and price ranges — in Kahala, in Chinatown and along Nimitz Highway near the airport.

Business went well and the Liews moved into a two-story, million-dollar home in Wai'alae Iki and filled it with ornate and heavy Asian art and furniture. Then in 1984, two hotels defaulted on a $1.5 million furniture deal and left Liew to file for bankruptcy.

He rented his house to two separate groups of tenants and moved his family into the garage. He also subdivided his furniture warehouse and showroom in Kaimuki and rented it out to a half-dozen small businesses.

Liew's daughter and wife got jobs at McDonald's. Liew began selling the bonsai trees he grew in his back yard, with small starter plants going for $25 and $30 and full bonsai plants ranging from $50 to $2,000.

Liew also developed a niche market for the Chinese pots he imported and sold for as little as $3 and for as much as $4,000.

When his back yard filled with more than 150 bonsai plants, Liew knew he needed to find more room and start a business.

He got a $290,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1998 to start the Dragon Garden nursery and Hawaii Bonsai Cultural Center in Waimanalo. He used part of the money to buy the rights to lease the land from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources — a deal that costs him $2,500 a month for property that includes a warehouse, nursery shed and two houses.

So far business remains modest but steady.

As Fukumoto of Fuku-Bonsai put it, "If you want to make a small fortune in bonsai, you've got to start with a big fortune. If you measure profitability in dollars and cents, then bonsai isn't a profitable field. But if you say that profit comes from enjoying what you do then, in that sense, Walter's operation is very profitable. He works hard and enjoys what he does."

Pottery sales alone bring in $8,000 a month. Liew does another $6,000 worth of retail and wholesale bonsai sales to local nurseries, Star Markets, florists and Mainland retailers. He generates another $2,000 to $2,500 per month charging admission to his cultural center. And he teaches nine-week classes for $95, which includes two plants that the students keep.

"He's just this quiet little jewel hidden away in Waimanalo," said Cathy Stevens, who lives on Marine Corps Base Hawai'i at Kane'ohe and was in Liew's last class. "He's a book waiting to happen. He's just this amazing man who has all of this knowledge. I had bought several bonsai books prior to taking Walter's class and then the class began and I'd go back to look at the books and say, 'That's not true. It doesn't follow form and function like Walter said.'"

Claudia Kuoha-Virtudes of Pauoa was in the same class and even brought along her grandson and granddaughter. Each Sunday afternoon, Kuoha-Virtudes could feel her problems melting away as she drove closer to Liew's nursery.

"It's like nothing else matters," Kuoha-Virtudes said. "You don't care about anything else. The ambiance is really soothing and calm."

Kuoha-Virtudes left the class with new friends and the one cypress tree that survived all of her twisting and pruning. Liew also gave a rooster to Kuoha-Virtudes' 8-year-old grandson and a starter bonsai plant to her 6-year-old granddaughter.

Kuoha-Virtudes hopes to nurse her own bonsai tree into a living work of art that her grandchildren can take care of 50 years from now and remember their time in Liew's nursery.

It's there that Liew spends much of each day tending to his plants and miniature trees. He has three part-time employees who do the heavy lifting, leaving Liew with most of the intricate work.

His oldest son, William, 33, recently started at the nursery, too. Liew's other children aren't interested in the business, Liew said, but William likes the work.

He was busy repotting a 10-year-old Fukien tea tree that was only 8 inches high and inspecting it for fungus, insects and root rot.

"They're living things, basically," William said, "and we co-exist on this planet with them. A lot of people take that for granted and I don't."

William also enjoys the peacefulness of working in the country each day and the acres and acres of open space.

It's a long way, he said, from the years his family spent living in their own garage in Wai'alae Iki.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.