Beachboy Ah Choy returning to waters he loved
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
WAIKIKI — When Waikiki beachboy Robert "Bobby" Ah Choy was diagnosed with liver cancer in October 2006, he was told he had a month to live.
But he wasn't about to let someone dictate the length of his life.
It didn't take long for Ah Choy to get back on the beach, teaching surf lessons and steering outrigger canoes in the waters off Waikiki.
He lived for another seven months before succumbing to the cancer that had spread to his lungs.
Ah Choy died in his bed on the afternoon of May 21. He was 66.
A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow at Kuhio Beach. His ashes will be scattered in the ocean he loved so much.
"He was just a beautiful, loving, kind, generous person," said girlfriend Karen Schmidt, 56, who had been with Ah Choy for 20 years. "People will remember his love for the beach, his aloha and how he tried to help everybody."
Ah Choy was born in 'O'okala, Hawai'i, in 1941. He moved to O'ahu as a youngster, spending most of his time on Waikiki Beach.
He was a natural in the water, quickly learning the beachboy traditions of hospitality and stand-up paddle surfing.
"He's like the beachboy's beachboy," said longtime paddler and surfer Todd Bradley, 48, who wrote a story about Ah Choy published in Surfer's Journal in December 2006. "He was the epitome of aloha. Whether you were a haole from the Mainland or a visitor from China, he would embrace you and teach you what it meant to be part of the water."
Waikiki regulars will remember Ah Choy raking the sand on Kuhio Beach every morning or standing on a longboard in the water, a canoe paddle in one hand and a camera around his neck.
"One time I saw him sitting on a stool on his board, paddling around and barking at people," laughed Bradley.
Ah Choy was one of the most respected canoe steersmen in Waikiki.
Just two weeks before he died, Ah Choy had steered an escort canoe of beachboy legends out to the site where entertainer Don Ho's ashes were scattered off Waikiki.
"He was one of the top steersmen," said legendary surfer George Downing, 77. "He really cared about the people he took out in the canoe. And he was really good at it."
Though most people will remember him as a veteran surfer, skilled steersman and beloved beachboy, Ah Choy had recently developed a following of stand-up paddle surfers.
He and his brother, Leroy, have been credited with carrying on the tradition of paddle surfing, which helped lead to its surge in popularity around the world.
Fittingly, Ah Choy competed in the first stand-up paddle surf contests in Waikiki last July. He made it to the finals but lost to veteran waterman Brian Keaulana, who presented the title and trophy to Ah Choy as a tribute during the awards ceremony.
Everything Ah Choy knew he taught to others, Schmidt said.
"I was just so honored to be able to learn from him," said Schmidt, who met Ah Choy in Waikiki in 1986. "He was always broke, but he still would give as much as he could (to others)."
In October 2006, Ah Choy collapsed on the beach and went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with liver cancer.
Though he lived, worked and surfed for seven more months, he weakened in the last two before the disease forced him to remain in bed.
"I was at home with him, watching his last breaths," Schmidt said. "When he died, I swear I felt this warmth all over, this life come up through me. He was just looking up at the sky, like he was saying, 'I'm ready' ... I felt privileged to be there."
FILLING HIS SHOES
Some worry that his passing will continue to change the landscape in Waikiki, where luxury hotels and high-end retailers have started to replace the once simple and laid-back beach lifestyle.
But others believe beachboys like Ah Choy will always be a part of Waikiki, even if just in spirit alone.
"When you lose one artist like Bobby, it doesn't mean he's gone forever," Downing said. "He set a standard, and someone else will fill those shoes ... (Waikiki) is not going to change. The spirits are still there, all the people we've laid to rest. That's not going to change."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at firstname.lastname@example.org.