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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 30, 2003

Bulb carver on mission to revive Chinese tradition

• Crab claw narcissus culture 101

By Zenaida Serrano Espanol
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gilman Hu, an expert at cultivating the narcissus plant, shows how he has trimmed a narcissus bulb to manipulate the way the leaves grow. The curled leaves of the plant are the result of his carving of the bulb.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Gilman Hu carves part of the narcissus bulb to expose the flower stem. An uncarved bulb is also pictured.

Narcissus Exhibition

10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Feb. 8

1-5 p.m. Feb. 9

Honolulu Academy of Arts courtyards

$7 general; $4 for seniors, students and military; and free for academy members and children 12 and younger


Gilman Hu uses a knife with the precision of a surgeon to carefully cut away leaves of a narcissus bulb.

The 72-year-old green thumb is in his Manoa home working on a bulb cradled gently in his left hand. He is cautious not to puncture its flower pouches with his blade, which would kill the fragile flower.

Hu sits at a table buried with newspapers, paper towels, several used tofu containers each filled with water and bulbs, and a tool box holding blades of all shapes and sizes. He grabs a magnifying glass to finish the delicate cut.

"Now, you see the flower stalk is exposed?" he asks while looking through the magnifier.

To the untrained eye, the stalk is hard to see.

But the process has almost become second nature to Hu, and with his expert eyes and steady hands, he continues confidently with the procedure.

"The tip of the flower pouch is right here," he says as he points with his blade. "The base of the pouch is right here and I'm going to go just a little bit below that base."

Hu carefully scrapes below the base of the pouch.

"That's it," he says, his look of deep concentration disappearing into one of satisfaction.

With that, Hu became one step closer to transforming the gnarly, dissected bulb into an exotic floral display for Chinese New Year Saturday. Carving narcissus bulbs and growing them into beautiful arrangements was once a dwindling art form in Hawai'i, but Hu has made it a mission to revive the Chinese holiday tradition.

Hu began studying the craft more than two decades ago. During visits to his Chinese homeland, he studied with master carvers and brought the techniques he learned back to Hawai'i to share with others.

"When I got interested in 1980, there were no bulbs in Chinatown at all," Hu said. "Now I think the amount of bulbs that's available in Chinatown is somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000."

It's an increase in popularity that Hu partly credits to the Honolulu Academy of Arts and outgoing academy president George Ellis, who, in 1985, offered Hu a place to hold narcissus carving classes. Since then, Hu has taught nearly a thousand students through his annual academy workshops.

"I wish there were more Gilman Hus in the community," Ellis said. "He's an extraordinary person who set out to bring to Hawai'i a craft and art that not many people knew about, and he has turned it into a lifetime pursuit."

Simple yet complex

There are two types of narcissus cultivation, one of which is the upright cultivation, which naturally grows straight leaves.

Hu's classes focus on crab claw narcissus culture, so named because special tools and techniques are used to force the bulb to sprout curved leaves that curl into dramatic shapes.

The basic procedure is fairly simple, Hu said: Open the bulb to determine the numbers and locations of shoots, expose the leaves within the main bulb, cut the leaves to expose each stem supporting the flower pouch, and scrape or "scar" below the base of the pouch, which is what forces the leaves to curl.

"But the technique is something you have to master," Hu said.

It takes practice to recognize the different parts within a bulb and to avoid puncturing the sensitive flower pouch, which would kill the shoot and possibly ruin the entire process. The growing bulbs also require constant attention, which includes changing their water daily, as well as "diapering" and "grooming" the bulbs properly, Hu said.

With crab claw narcissus cultivation, it takes between 17 and 21 days from the time the bulb is placed in water until its flowers first blossom. Each bulb can average between six and 11 stalks, each of which averages about eight blossoms. The blossoms, Hu said, emit a "very sweet" fragrance and they usually last for about a week.

Narcissus displays, the final part of the process and an art in itself, are customarily given as gifts, Hu said. While he cannot pinpoint the exact symbolism of the Chinese New Year practice, he said that to many people, the narcissus represents new life, growth and purity.

Passing on the tradition

"A lot of people know how to do the regular (upright) way, but those who do this (crab claw), they were a dying breed," Hu said.

So Hu is committed to passing on his knowledge to as many people as possible.

"The most satisfying thing, I would say, is to see students teaching somebody else," Hu said.

In addition to his academy classes, Hu (known as "Mr. Narcissus" to many of his students) has held workshops in Hilo, as well as in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Hu, a practicing architect, prides himself on being a problem solver and teaches his students more than just the step-by-step process of narcissus carving.

"The main thing is that I want the students to think for themselves," Hu said. "To understand what you're doing and why you're doing it."

This is so that students can address special situations as they arise, as each bulb is unique and has its own characteristics, he said.

A recent Saturday morning workshop at the Academy Art Center attracted nearly 20 students — men and women in their 20s through 70s — most of whom were first-timers.

For 28-year-old Chris Walsh, the workshop was an opportunity "just to do something different on a Saturday morning," he said.

The Kaimuki resident looks forward to his final product.

"It takes some patience," Walsh said while cutting away leaves within his bulb."But you get to watch something grow. I'm enjoying it."

Charlene Takeuchi, a 50-year-old airlines reservations agent from Kaimuki, said working on the bulbs is a great way to unwind after a long day at work.

"It gives you a lot of time to think," she said while concentrating on her cutting. "It's almost kind of meditative."

George Zane, Hu's teaching assistant since 1986, agrees.

"It's my hobby and it's relaxing," said the 91-year-old Palolo resident.

Zane has been carving for more than 30 years and will continue to do so "for the rest of my days," he said. "It puts me in seventh heaven."

Reach Zenaida Serrano Espanol at zespanol@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-8174.

• • •

Crab claw narcissus culture 101

Carvers Gilman Hu and George Zane offer these tips to first-timers who may want to try their hand at the craft for next year's holiday:

  • Start with cheaper-grade bulbs. Bulbs are mainly available between late October and mid-January in Chinatown shops, and can range between 90 cents and $4. "It's just like ... when you're learning how to sew a dress, you start off with cheap cotton," Hu said. "Then after you master it, you go into lace and silks."
  • Use the proper tools, the basics of which include sharp knives of various sizes. Hu recommends tools made especially for narcissus carving, available through him at $5 a set. A set includes two types of blades and a scooper. Hu's students also use X-Acto blades and tweezers.
  • Be patient because mistakes will be made.
  • Sign up for workshops and classes, which normally begin about a month before Chinese New Year. Experienced instructors will be able to guide beginners through the sometimes complicated process.
  • To purchase a tool set from Hu or for information on classes, call 591-8049.