By Bob Krauss
Picture a basement room in the heart of Honolulu. Something strange is going on. Knives and other dangerous objects lie about. People are gathered around a guru and learning how to use the implements: a doctor from Hawai'i Kai, a visitor from Portland, a schoolteacher from Kaimuki.
Is this a secret terrorist cell planning an attack?
No, it is architect Gilman Hu's class in how to carve crab-claw narcissus for Chinese New Year's. It's an esoteric skill as secret as making a bomb. Hoan Nguyen of Portland, Ore., heard about the class on the Internet. She came for three weeks but it's a five-week course so she'd attend both morning and afternoon sessions.
This takes place in the basement of the Academy Art Center on Victoria Street. Word of mouth is how people find out about it. The art of carving of narcissus bulbs is spreading like wildfire. Nguyen said she will teach five couples when she gets back to Portland.
One reason people become addicted is that the ancient Chinese art of carving narcissus bulbs requires a steady hand and exquisite skill.
Dr. Ronald H. Gackle, orthopedic surgeon at Kaiser Medical Center, said, "This is humbling."
You may ask why carve narcissus bulbs? Here is the answer given by Jamie Oshiro, who envies her uncle for growing hybrid gingers that come out more beautiful than before:
"I went to Chinatown and saw narcissus blossoms. They were beautiful and have a lovely scent. I thought this (class) is really neat you manipulate a plant to make it more beautiful. More work than making a lei. It's an art."
Guru Hu said the best narcissus bulbs come from China. Many people in Our Hono-
lulu used to carve them until the Communists shut China's borders. So the practice died out locally except among a few experts like 92-year-old George Zane, who helps Hu.
"I went to China after President Nixon lifted the embargo and learned a little here, a little there," said Hu. "I made contact with the growers so
I could bring the best narcissus to Hawai'i. I've been teaching for 18 years."
George Ellis, then director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, came to Hu's house for dinner and heard about carving crab-claw narcissus. He wanted an exhibit, which started 17 years ago and will be held this year at the Academy on Feb. 7 and 8.
Hu explained that a narcissus bulb is like an onion. To make a crab claw, you cut away the outer layers to expose the inner shoots. When they start to come out, you delicately cut away a thin inner slice of each shoot. The shoot bleeds and heals with a scar.
The outer halves continue to grow but the inner halves don't, so the shoots curl like a crab claw to provide an artistic bed for the dainty blossoms that will appear above.
Pat Whitting was gingerly slicing a shoot. "I read about this technique before I moved here from San Francisco two years ago. You have to be a surgeon to do it."
Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.