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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 21, 2010

Graduation season means hectic time for lei shops


By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Loretta Le of Lin's Lei Shop in Chinatown prepares Joanne Yamauchi's purchase. Lin's manager Tony Nguyen says the supply of flowers is down, but the store still tries to keep a wide variety of lei.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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With more than three dozen Hawai'i high schools holding commencement ceremonies this weekend, lei shops are gearing up for the rush and if you want that special garland, shop early.

That's the advice of Tony Nguyen, manager of Lin's Lei Shop on Maunakea Street in Chinatown. He said lei last for two to three days.

His and other shops on Maunakea Street were well stocked yesterday with colorful strands of orchids, carnations, tuberose and ginger lei. Even the rare pīkake, pakalana and maile were available, but the supply of flowers is down, placing more pressure on shops to fill graduation season needs.

"It's hard all around because demand is high and it's hard to get flowers," Nguyen said. "We're not taking orders, especially for this weekend. It's too busy to manage orders. It's first-come, first-served."

Expect to pay $4 to $30 for lei, with the more intricate styles running about $25. However, a rare liko lehua haku had a $50 price tag and the double red carnation was listed for $35.

Nguyen said he tries to supply a variety of lei to meet varying tastes, such as the honey lei with purple dendrobium, red 'ohaiali'i and tuberose.

"It's hard to make a lei that meets everybody's expectations but we do with what we have," he said.

Nguyen and other shop owners buy their orchids from Thailand. He said the recent political unrest there hasn't had much of an effect on supply. Other popular lei flowers, such as plumeria, ginger, puakenikeni, cigar, crown flower and kukunaokalā, are grown locally.

By midmorning yesterday, people were at Maunakea Street shops seeking not only that perfect graduation lei but picking up flowers for birthdays and other events.

Joanne Yamauchi of Waipahu was at Lin's choosing 10 lei for herself and others to give away for graduation at Hanalani Schools in Mililani and other occasions.

"I heard this shop has really nice lei and they do have really unusual lei," Yamauchi said.

Receiving graduation lei is an Island rite of passage, with many graduates disappearing under mounds of colorful and fragrant lei. Parents, uncles, aunties, cousins and friends line up to present the floral wreath as a token of congratulations and honor.

"It's such a big thing in Hawai'i ... a tradition ... a special occasion," Yamauchi said. "Everybody feels like they want to do something special for the graduate."

Mickey Cuavas of Pearl City is taking the tradition to the Mainland as Hawai'i parents have done before her. Her daughter graduates Sunday from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and she wanted a maile lei for the ceremony, but the local variety was out at M.P. Lei Shop on Maunakea Street.

The maile is highly valued in Hawai'i, used in many Hawaiian blessings and ceremonies, and she wanted to take a bit of Hawai'i to her daughter in Indiana, Cuavas said.

"It's really nice with the cinnamon smell and it lasts a long time," she said.

Luckily, a new shipment of the Tongan maile variety arrived just as she was about to leave. The thick strands glistened with water and shop owner Sam Say said the new arrivals would be quickly snapped up by buyers. He is expecting more tomorrow.

"Everything is short," Say said. "We don't take any order (this time of year) too difficult to fill because we don't know what we will have. And the wholesaler tries to spread the flowers out to everybody."

Say also makes specialty lei, like the three-color-twist made entirely of orchid petals and money lei made with dollar bills and ribbon.

When it comes to purchasing lei, Say said people will pick a style of lei for someone depending on their relationship.

"Mostly if (it's) close to their family they get the fancy one," he said. "If it's only a friend they get a basic one."