Category Archives: Hana Hou

Inflight magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.

Steel Birds

story by Dennis Hollier

photos by Sergio Goes

 

 

 

 

The skies of Hawai‘i teem with helicopters. Behind my home in Windward O‘ahu, I can hear the tour birds thrum in the mountains, looking for waterfalls in the hanging valleys. Over Kane‘ohe Bay and along the North Shore, the big military choppers thump-thump-thump up the coast on their mysterious errands. And anyone who spends time in the surf zones of O‘ahu has heard the whine of the Coast Guard helicopters on patrol.

 

In fact, helicopters are so common here they seem to blend into the background. Until recently, I hardly noticed them. Then, last September, while working on a story about Hawai‘i’s endangered plants, I teamed up with a couple of state Department of Land and Natural Resources biologists and hopped a ride to the top of the Ko‘olau Mountains in a little red Pacific Helicopters chopper. It was a dazzling flight, and one that opened up a whole new perspective for me. Since then, I see helicopters everywhere.

 

That day, Joe Allen was waiting for us in a small clearing on the ridge at the top of Waimano Home Road in ‘Aiea. His helicopter gleamed in the sun. It was a windy day, and the biologists were worried about conditions in the mountains. At the time, I had no idea that Allen’s MD-500 was something of a hot-rod, or that he was an unusually talented pilot. Later, the biologists would tell me that Allen was the only pilot who would fly for them in those conditions—and the only one they trusted. But his helicopter didn’t evoke much confidence: It was just a small four-seater with no doors. And Allen was a soft-voiced man who joked easily with the biologists, but didn’t show outward signs of his years of experience.

 

After taking a moment to explain the safety procedures to me (stay low and in front of the helicopter so the pilot can see you; avoid the tail-rotor) we all strapped in and Allen fired up the engines. Then he slowly wound up the RPMs and we rose out of the clearing, hovered for a moment, then turned toward the mountains and floated away.

 

Our destination was a ridge-top at the back of Halawa Valley, and we sped there over the densely forested Ko‘olau Watershed. Below us, I watched the succession of green ridges and valleys. I saw the long, snaking trail that climbs Waimano Ridge. I saw the streams twinkle in their dells. And, level with the inaccessible hanging valleys, I saw the profusion of plants known nowhere else in the world.

 

A helicopter flies in an in-between world. Higher than the treetops or the buildings or the mountains, yet lower and more intimate than an airplane. Even hovering a few feet off the ground is a novel view. Flying in the mountains, I felt simultaneously above and below and among them. I felt giddy, like I was flying for the first time.

 

We flew on a diagonal course, climbing steadily over the leeward ridges toward the Ko‘olau crest. On foot, the long climb up these ridges ends with a spectacular view of the windward side. The sheer cliffs of the Pali bring you up short and take away your breath. In a helicopter, the effect is magnified. Instead of creeping up to the edge and pausing, Joe launched the helicopter right over it into the vast, empty space beyond. Then he veered west and hurtled along the vertiginous crest toward our destination.

 

Up on the Pali, the wind blew fiercely. When we arrived at the biologists’ worksite—several small clearings surrounding a high promontory—it became clear we wouldn’t be able to land there; we bounced too much in the wind to set the helicopter down safely. After several passes, Allen decided to drop us where the wind was calmer, a couple hundred yards down a ridge. We plummeted there in a down draft, but Allen wheeled around into the wind at the last moment, ]settling the helicopter onto a clearing on a ridge not much wider than the skids. Climbing out, I was glad for the little metal footsteps. We scurried forward and waited there in front of the helicopter as Allen carefully lifted off, peeled away and flew out of sight down the mountain.

 

Even a basic helicopter is a mind-bogglingly complicated machine. Shortly after my flight with Joe Allen, I arranged a meeting with Mike Klink, a young instructor at Mauna Loa Helicopters, to learn how they work. Klink is as amazed as I am. “I can’t believe a human being had the time to figure all this out,” he says, as he describes the helicopter’s control systems.

Flying involves both hands and both feet. Pedals at the pilot’s feet control the tail rotor, which he uses to pivot the helicopter left or right. The main rotor, which pilots refer to as the “disk,” is controlled by the pilot’s hands. With his left hand, he moves a lever called the collective up or down to make the helicopter climb or descend. A twist throttle at the end of the collective lets the pilot adjust the engine speed. In his right hand, the pilot holds the cyclic, a joystick that sits between his knees. He controls the direction and speed of flight by pushing the cyclic in the direction he wants to go.

According to Klink, learning to fly from point A to point B is relatively simple. Hovering is the bugaboo for new pilots. A steady hover, the maneuver that distinguishes helicopters, requires rapid and minute adjustments of all the controls at once. Experienced pilots describe it as learning to juggle while riding a unicycle. It can take days of failure and humiliation before the student reaches his first hover. Then, it arrives suddenly, like satori. Only after learning to hover does the real fun start.

Although the skies above Hawai‘i are thick with helicopters—with the lumbering military birds and scores of tour craft on their bus runs around the islands—it’s the private helicopter pilots who seem to have the most fun flying in Hawai‘i. As a group, they’re affluent and have the time and inclination to get the most out of their toys. They fly where and how and when they want. They’re also an eccentric group.

John Pitre, the artist and inventor, keeps his helicopter in the T-Hangars at the end of the runway at Honolulu International Airport. I recently visited him there to talk about flying in Hawai‘i and to take a ride in his helicopter, an R-44 Clipper. Like most private pilots, Pitre has an informal attitude. He greeted me in the parking lot in a black T-shirt and shorts and sneakers. He wears his hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Helicopter pilots, no matter how unconventional, are scrupulous about safety. Pitre was no different. We checked the oil and the transmission fluid. We sampled the fuel at three points in the fuel system. We checked to make sure all the panels on the fuselage and the fuel cap were on tight. He took special pains to show me the electrical system, testing the warning lights one at a time to make sure they worked. Only then were we set to fly.

It’s easy to spot Pitre’s helicopter; it’s the one with floats. Because so much flying here is over water, many helicopters in Hawai‘i have long, thin tubes mounted on the skids that the pilot can inflate in case of an emergency. But Pitre has his big white floats permanently mounted in place of skids. It gives him a sense of confidence and lets him go places that other pilots would find uncomfortable.

The day we flew, the weather was strange, with Kona winds sometimes giving way to trades. To the east and west, showers blurred the skies. Offshore, a dense column of rain blocked the sun. “Let’s go through the Pali pass and see how it looks over there,” Pitre said. When the tower gave him clearance to fly past the highway (what’s called the Freeway Approach), he gently pulled the collective and we rose and sailed off over Ke‘ehi Lagoon. In the harbor below, I watched the yachts swing at anchor. Here and there a submerged boat hung on its mooring. We paused over a clear spot in the harbor.

“Here,” Pitre said, “I’ll show you how we do an autorotation.” This is the procedure pilots use in an engine failure. Surprisingly, even though helicopters can’t glide to earth like airplanes can, they’re still relatively safe in this kind of emergency. The wind generated by falling still drives the rotor blades, giving the pilot full control as he comes down. Pitre demonstrated it for me. He killed the throttle so we lost engine power; and, as we began to fall, he flared the nose of the ship up so that the air passing over the blades kept them spinning and generating lift. We descended gently, never losing control. Near the water, he gave the throttle a twist, and we rose off again under power. “There,” he said, “now you’ve crashed.”

Helicopter pilots like to call their ships “magic carpets,” and that’s the sensation of flying. The motion seems so antithetical to what we call flight. It’s more of a simple swoosh through space. “I like to fly at low speed,” Pitre said as we passed into the confines of Nu‘uanu valley. “We’re just nibbling along at seventy-five or seventy-eight knots. The engine’s in pure idle. There’s no rush or worry. If we have a problem, we stop; we back up. That’s why helicopters are the best of the small, light aircraft.”

We dawdled in Nu‘uanu, pausing to gaze down into the valley. “Somewhere down there is my daughter’s house,” he said. “I look for it every time, but I’ve never seen it.” I peered down into the forest from 500 feet up, looking for the glint of the falls at Jackass Ginger. We scoped out the mansions in their old estates. As Pitre gradually pulled up on the collective, we rose toward the gap at the Pali Lookout. Then, just as suddenly as that time with Joe Allen, we burst forth onto the Windward side and hung improbably before those sheer, pleated cliffs.

We looked north, and Pitre scowled at the rain ahead of us. It was raining over Waimanalo, too. “Let me show you something else then,” Pitre said, swinging the cyclic right. Suddenly, we swerved away from the mountains, toward Kane‘ohe Bay. Out over the middle of the bay, Pitre brought us to a hover, his right hand twitching on the cyclic. Then he gradually eased down the collective and we wafted gently to the surface of the sea. The floats settled on the water so easily that I didn’t feel us land.

“That’s what floats can do for you,” Pitre said. “I like to fly low so I can see things. Other pilots would be nervous to fly so low. But, with these, I have that extra layer of security.” Once again, he pulled the collective and as we rose, he gave us a quick pedal turn, and we shot off toward the Pali again.

Pitre is enthusiastic about his helicopter, and he gave me the cook’s tour. We ferried over the heights of Tantalus. We swept past the hotels and beaches of Waikiki. We zoomed triumphantly over the breakers of Kahala and Diamond Head, eliciting waves from surfers in the line-up.

From Koko Head, we traced the tumultuous Ka Iwi coast. By this time, it was dusk and Hanauma Bay had emptied; Pitre hovered over the ridge so we could gaze down on the reef. Atop Koko Head Crater—where hikers stood on the platform and waved in awe—we approached an old radio station with a dilapidated heliport attached. It was too fragile for us to land, but Pitre hovered over it to show how it was used. “That’s called a ‘pinnacle landing,’” he said as we veered off toward the cliffs of Makapu‘u. Once there, we slowed to an idle to avoid the flocks of tropic-birds and noddies that nest there. Sidling past the lighthouse, we watched the sea beat against the rocks, 300 feet below. Then, still careful of the birds, we slowly rounded Rabbit Island. Although I have swum and surfed and hiked this coast, this was my first glimpse of the broad ledge that protects its seaward side. Big swells crested there and washed over the ledge ferociously. “You may never see this again,” Pitre said.

As we approached the hang-glider cliffs behind Makapu‘u Beach, Pitre pointed out another hazard. Cables hung, almost invisible, high between two peaks. “You’ve got to be alert up here,” he said. “The rule of thumb is: Always head toward the towers. Because they never string the wires straight up to heaven.” I watched the thoughtless coordination of feet and hands as Pitre swung the cyclic left, pulled the collective and brought us over the tower. From there, we could see the lights of Honolulu winking on in the twilight. We flew back in silence.

One bright afternoon in February, I hopped a ride with a Coast Guard chopper on a routine cruise around O‘ahu. The experience was eye-opening. Flying with civilians didn’t call for any special equipment beyond a helmet and radio. To take a Coast Guard flight, I donned a fire-resistant flight suit, fire-resistant leather gloves, a “Mae West” life jacket, and a wide harness around my waist so that I could clip myself securely to the bright orange helicopter.

Before the flight, Danny Rees, the flight mechanic, gave me a safety briefing. (The Coast Guard is unique among the services in requiring the mechanics to fly regular shifts in the helicopters they service, surmising perhaps that this will inspire greater attention to detail.) Despite all the protective gear, Rees was emphatic about the safety of helicopters. “I feel safer flying in one of these than I do driving my truck,” he said.

After my briefing, we were joined by the pilot, Cmdr. Donald Dyer, and his co-pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Detton. Rees made sure I was properly strapped into the far back, where the rescue swimmer usually sits. With Rees strapped into the gunner’s seat, Dyer fired up the engines and we taxied out to the runway. Once he had clearance from the tower, Dyer brought us to a low hover, then peeled out over the ocean.

We flew low along the Wai‘anae coast, looking for swimmers or boaters in trouble. At Ko Olina, we paused to circle the Pro Bowl practice fields and ogle the yachts in the marina. Then we patrolled the beaches of Wai‘anae, surveying the camps of homeless and the surfers lining up on the break. The great leeward valleys of Wai‘anae and Makua reached off to our left. Then we rounded the headland of Ka‘ena Point, braided with four-wheel drive tracks, and began the run up the North Shore.

The surf was up. No kiteboarders braved the waters of Mokule‘ia. Great, frothy breakers washed over the hard shelf there. Rees spotted a monk seal sunning on the beach and we circled back to make sure it wasn’t injured. Then we ran low down the beach, over Hale‘iwa, Waimea, Pipeline and Sunset. From 200 feet even big surf looks small. But a contest was on at Pipeline, and Dyer slowly circled the event, tipping way over to improve the view. There were crowds of spectators on the beach. Jet skis towed the surfers into the waves on the outer break and foam churned the inshore waters.

From the North Shore, we flew over the West Loch of Pearl Harbor. Here, we slowed to a crawl and Rees opened the door of the helicopter to take a picture of the mothballed fleet below us. Over Honolulu Harbor, I slid forward and clipped into the gunner’s spot. I was sitting there when we reached Diamond Head Lighthouse, where we waggled our figurative wings at the station crew. Then, as we returned along Waikiki Beach, the door open, I sat cross-legged on the floor of the helicopter, with my notebook flapping furiously in the breeze. Even the Coasties have fun.

John Corboy is one of a small group of pilots who live on Moloka‘i but commute regularly to O‘ahu. For Corboy, living on Moloka‘i allows him to have more space and privacy than he could in Honolulu. It’s a lifestyle made possible by the helicopter.

“On Monday, I fly over to Honolulu and get my work done,” he says of his usual routine. “Then, on Thursday, I fly back. Usually, I carry groceries and supplies back with me. We can’t always get good fresh vegetables on Moloka‘i. My wife hates the city. She says, ‘You go ahead and get that out of your system and I’ll wait here for you.’ She can do whatever it is she does while I’m gone—garden in the nude or whatever. Then, when I come back with groceries and flowers, she’s always glad to see me.”

There are few official controls on the movement of helicopters. One regulation requires them to stay 500 feet above densely populated areas. But all pilots know that real regulation is done “by complaint.” Corboy normally only flies in and out of his Moloka‘i home just twice a week. “Once,” he said, “I checked with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to see at what point they investigate. They asked me how many events I had—meaning take-offs and landings. I told them ‘about eight.’ They said, ‘We wouldn’t bother to look into eight events a day.’ And I told them, ‘No, eight a month.’”

Corboy was eager to show me the advantages of commuting by helicopter; so, one Thursday afternoon before his usual trip back to Moloka‘i, I met him down at the airport. Like most private pilots here, Corboy flies an R-44 Clipper, which he leases rather than owning outright. When I arrived, he was loading it with groceries and a garden hose. He wore blue athletic shorts and an old aloha shirt with tattered boat shoes and support hose. Like Pitre, Corboy also wore his hair in a ponytail. He was the picture of informality.

While he figured out how to fit all his supplies into the back seats, I looked around. This was helicopter central for Honolulu. All the tour birds are parked in rows here. TV’s Channel 8’s traffic helicopter shuttles through between flights. Pacific Helicopter’s Honolulu offices are here, too, and Joe Allen’s little red MD-500 is often parked by their hangar. The Honolulu Police and the Fire departments keep their birds in hangars around the corner. And, far in the back, four little R-22s are lined up in front of Mauna Loa’s pilot training school. There’s a steady stream of student pilots ferrying between the hangars.

Finally, Corboy finished loading and going through his checklists. Once we were strapped in, he revved the engine and we flew away over Honolulu Harbor. It was a peculiar view of the harbor, flying slowly through at crane height. Once, we had to veer aside to avoid a Matson container ship backing into its berth. Up ahead, we passed the Kaiwo Maru—a Japanese tall ship—tied alongside at the wharf. Then, dead ahead of us, loomed the Queen Mary II—the world’s largest ocean liner—twenty stories tall. We coasted past, eye-level with the bridge.

We crossed the Moloka‘i Channel at 130 knots, and only 500 feet off the water. In the distance, I thought I saw whales, but Corboy made straight for the coast. Once we reached Moloka‘i, he called his wife on the radio to let her know we were coming. We followed the south shore over the fishponds and the mud flats. We flew over old plantations and craggy gorges. Then, up ahead, we saw the blue-tiled roof of Corboy’s home, sidled up to the edge of a deep ravine. His heliport was right next door.

Although the estate wasn’t ostentatious, it still felt a little like Oz approaching this way. Corboy eased the collective and gently tweaked the cyclic as we glided in over the trees. “That’s the beauty of a helicopter,” Corboy said as we touched down. “This is the magic carpet that makes it possible.” The trip took thirty minutes from door to door.

I didn’t stay. Friends and family quickly unloaded the chopper so Corboy could take me on the quick hop back to the Moloka‘i Airport. But Corboy had one more surprise before dropping me off. Instead of heading straight back to the airport, he veered again out to sea. And there, just south of Moloka‘i, we chanced upon a pod of whales making their way languorously east. We admired them from a respectful distance. “Sometimes,” Corboy said, “they’ll kind of roll over on their side—so they can look at you—and slowly wave their flipper at you.”

Corboy dropped me in a grassy field beside the drowsy terminal at the Moloka‘i Airport. He didn’t shut down, so we shook hands as best we could, then I waited by the fence for him to leave. I watched as he waved once, pulled up on the collective, and rose into the air, like Sinbad on his magic carpet. Then he did a pedal turn, and sailed toward home.

 

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Bee Beautiful

story by Dennis Hollier

photo by Gerlinde Gorla

 

When Anthony and Gwen Maxfieldmoved into their Pupukea home eighteen years ago, there were already bees on the property and it seemed perfectly natural for Anthony to step into the role of beekeeper. Thus began an apiary relationship that culminated last year when the Maxfields and their friend, Christina Sirlin, formed a new company: Honey Girl Organics.

It was eight years ago that Gwen first noticed an unexpected advantage to working with bees. “I had cut the cappings off the combs to harvest the honey,” says Anthony, “and I was wringing them out to get as much honey as possible.” Afterward, Gwen remarked on how soft his hands felt, and asked him to make her a cream for the same effect.

Today Honey Girl offers a full line of moisturizers and lotions, with most of the ingredients coming from the twenty hives behind Gwen’s and Anthony’s house. Beeswax is a natural moisturizer and emollient. Honey soothes and softens the skin. Bee pollen is rich in nutrients. Propolis, a waxy product that bees make from the sap of evergreens like ironwood and ‘ohia, is a natural antiseptic. And royal jelly, the enzyme-rich food of the queen bee, is thought to have age-reversing qualities.

For the Maxfields, the “naturalness” of their ingredients is the whole point. “Pick up a jar of skin cream at the drugstore,” Anthony says. “It’s packed with glycerin, mineral oils and other processed chemicals.” Everything in Honey Girl products is edible, he stresses, and, “it’s as close to nature as you can get.”

“Anything you put onto your skin gets absorbed into your bloodstream,” says Christina. “This is how birth control and Nicorette patches work.” And it’s why Honey Girl only uses nutritious, organic ingredients.

But Honey Girl is more than a business—it’s also a love story. “This was an opportunity to spend more time with my wife, to do something together,” says Anthony. “She liked my soft hands.” At which Gwen smiles sweetly and adds, “I think the best part of the story is that he made it for me.”

Honey Girl Organics
www.hgh-skincare.com

 

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Art of the Warrior

story by Dennis Hollier

photos by Chris McDonough

 

Manny Matos presses his forehead against the gray trunk of an old kauila tree. He closes his eyes and mutters a little prayer under his breath. His right hand is wrapped around the slender trunk, as if around the neck of an old friend. In the bright sunlight, they seem to touch noses—to honi—in the old Hawaiian greeting.

But the meeting is bittersweet. The old kauild in a recent wildfire. Its bark has burned away. Only a few crisp leaves still cling to its craggy limbs. Manny will be its undertaker. He already has a permit from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to harvest windfalls and deadwood here in the Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a District Management Area. Today, he’s come up the mountain to get permission from the trees themselves—and to see if he can help save what’s left of the last kauila forest.a die

Manny makes traditional Hawaiian weapons, the wooden spears, daggers and clubs of ancient warriors. Four years ago, when he retired from the Honolulu Police Department and moved to the Big Island, he started making weapons from koa and selling them to tourists and collectors. But the traditional material for these weapons wasn’t the relatively soft wood of koa; it was the endemic hardwoods of Hawai‘i’s scrublands: kauila, which rings like steel when it’s dropped; uhiuhi, so dense it sinks in water; and gnarly maua. Now all these trees are endangered. It’s illegal to sell their wood. The grove in Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a supports the last wild populations of maua and Big Island kauila. There are less than fifty uhiuhi left in the wild. Other hardwoods, like alahe‘e and olopua, may be rarer still. Manny wants to save them all.

Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is a rough landscape. The name means “deeply rutted hill.” The forest is mostly a chaparral of weeds—of lantana, fountain grass, apple-of-sodom and tobacco plant. The trees are spread thinly over gullies and chunky lava flows. Much of the mountainside is leased out as ranchland. The combination of undergrowth and cattle has been deadly to the rare trees there. Cattle compact the soil and their sharp hooves gouge the trees’ roots. They graze on the keiki—the seedlings—so you never see young kauila. But the fountain grass is even deadlier than the cattle: It serves as tinder for wildfires that scorch the trees. A few months ago, one of the last uhiuhi was killed by fire. The DLNR believes that, without intervention, the rest of the kauila forest of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is doomed.

It was the weapons that drew Manny to the forest. Like many of the men who make traditional Hawaiian weapons, Manny has become obsessed with authenticity. He carefully studies old books and museum catalogs for information about Hawaiian weapons. Although he still sells his koa renditions, he prefers to make replicas of museum pieces—but it’s hard to find the kauila and uhiuhi wood that authenticity demands. Sometimes, someone will give him an old kauila fence post. Once, a friend brought him the snag of an uhiuhi that he had dug from an old mud pit under a lava flow. Manny is having it carbon-dated. “It could be from thousands of years before the Hawaiians arrived,” he says.

It’s mostly from this kind of old salvaged wood that Manny carves his replicas. He has dozens of them: several types of lei o mano, a short, flat club with jagged shark’s teeth lashed to the edge; of ihe, a short throwing spear; of pololu, a pike that sometimes reached lengths of more than twenty feet; of pahi kaua, a dagger carved from the bill of a marlin or swordfish; and of newa, the stout club preferred by the ali‘i. The ancient Hawaiians had the most diverse selection of weapons in Polynesia. “I want to make a copy of every one in a museum,” Manny says. “I’m about half-way.” Because of the restrictions on the wood, these traditional pieces can’t be sold. Instead he uses this private collection for educational purposes, taking it to schools and cultural organizations to demonstrate the old Hawaiian craft. To help preserve the old traditions.

Manny’s wife comes from a distinguished Hawaiian family. Manny, though, is Portuguese and a natural-born talker. Recently, a Hawaiian friend jokingly told him, “Hey Manny, your name too Portagee. You need to get one Hawaiian name.”

Manny joked back, “Eh, no worry. Let me go talk to my wife, see what I can do. Maybe I go borrow her name: From now on, I goin’ be Manny Keolanui Kanaka‘ole Matos.” Manny laughs, but he understands the point. Some Hawaiians wonder about a Portuguese man learning an ancient Hawaiian craft. But he says, “I grew up as a child among Hawaiians, so Hawaiian culture is all I know.” He was particularly close to his wife’s grandmother, Cecilia Keolanui Kanaka‘ole Bradley. “I would sit and listen to her talk in the old Hawaiian language and it would mesmerize me. It flowed so smoothly, just like velvet. It was good to the ear. I couldn’t understand it, but I guess it laid the foundation.”

Once, when he was a policeman in Wai‘anae, he was working special duty, directing traffic by a roadside where a construction crew was digging a feeder line. “I was standing there looking into the ditch,” he says, “And I saw this dark thing in the side. ‘Try wait. Try wait,’ I tell them. I was wearing my uniform, but I jump right into the hole and pull this Hawaiian adze out of the wall.” He still has the adze. It’s a long, chiseled piece of basalt, about half- finished. “It was the most important tool to the ancient Polynesians,” he says. “Here, I was given the tool before I knew what to do with it.”

For Manny, the lei o mano and the newa, the ihe and the pololu, they’ve all come to symbolize the vanishing native forests of Hawai‘i. He wants to create a cultural reserve in the forests of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a to integrate this resource back into Hawaiian culture. “I want to re-educate the Hawaiian community about the importance of these woods,” Manny says. “I want to take back the forest. The ancient Hawaiians went into the forest for everything they needed. It wasn’t just weapons for war; it was a social order.”

To emphasize the cultural significance of the hardwoods, Manny tells a story from the time of Kamehameha the Great, about an uhiuhi log that washed up on a Maui beach. “The law said that all valuables thrown upon the beach belonged to the ali‘i. When the people saw this log, they saved it to give to Kamehameha. That’s how valuable it was to them. When Kamehameha got that uhiuhi, he had it cut into pieces to give to special people. When he said, ‘I like give you this piece of uhiuhi,’ it meant, ‘You’re important to me.’”

Back in his workshop, Manny hefts a kauila pahoa, a dagger copied from one in Bishop Museum. The simplicity of Hawaiian weaponry gives it a kind of elegance. The pahoa has red feathers tied to the lashings of four shark’s teeth. The teeth gleam, white and ceremonial, against the dark kauila. The wood is deeply burnished, finely grained. The effect is that of a work of art. It’s easy to forget that these gorgeously crafted pieces are more than simple cultural artifacts; they’re weapons—na mea kaua. And war was certainly a part of Hawaiian culture.

For La‘akea Suganuma, a latter-day Hawaiian warrior, the path to na mea kaua has been a direct one. Like Manny, La‘akea makes traditional Hawaiian weapons. But he is also an ‘olohe, a master in the ancient Hawaiian martial art of lua. For those who practice lua, the pahoa and the lei o mano, the ihe and the pololu are practical tools of the trade. “The average warrior,” says La‘akea, “went about with a dagger and a spear.” This is the Hawaiian culture that La‘akea hopes to preserve: fierce, strong, self-possessed, and confident. He believes that self-confidence also lies behind the essential charity of Hawaiian culture. As La‘akea puts it, “Anything without a foundation of aloha is not going to work.”

La’akea Suganuma certainly has the bona fides to be a cultural steward. He is the president of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Cultural Arts. His godmother, Aunty Pat Bacon, is still, in many ways, the arbiter of Hawaiian culture at Bishop Museum. The staff there often turns to her to make sure they’re following correct cultural practices. And her predecessor, Mary Kawena Pukui, was La‘akea’s grandmother. Through her writing and research, Kawena Pukui arguably did more than any other individual to preserve Hawaiian language, music and dance. La‘akea spent much of his childhood with Aunty Pat and Kawena Pukui. In a sense, he was a child of Bishop Museum. “I was raised in that place,” he says. “Hawaiian Hall was my playground.”

The living room of La‘akea’s ‘aina Haina home is nearly a museum itself, a trove of family mementos and treasures. His bookshelves are lined with the standards of Hawaiiana and the works of his grandmother—the Hawaiian Dictionary and The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘u, Hawai‘i, among others. Another shelf is crowded with historic family poi pounders and ipu—traditional Hawaiian gourds. One of his proudest possessions is the gold-headed walking stick of King Kalakaua.

For La‘akea, the weapons he makes are inextricably linked to lua. When he picks up a weapon, his hands perform a silent pantomime of its use. He grasps a lei o mano and, as he wields it back and forth, it’s clear this isn’t a bludgeon; its sharks’ teeth edge is used to slash and cut. The newa, in his hand, isn’t simply a cudgel; it’s nimble as a nightstick. In his back yard, the trunk of an old banana tree has been riddled by ihe—spears thrown in practice. And when he wraps the strap of a pahoa around his hand, he does it thumb first, so he can drop it easily when it’s time to go hand-to-hand.

Some Hawaiian weapons are unique. Almost every traditional culture produced a sling, which the Hawaiians called ma‘a. (“Imagine,” says La‘akea, “landing a canoe while hundreds of men rained stones down on you at 160 miles per hour.”) But no other warriors brandished the ka‘ane, a strangle-cord favored by the ‘olohe and worn around the waist of the mu, the official court executioner. No others wielded what we now call the maka lua, an eye gouge whose true Hawaiian name has been lost. La‘akea points out several small, delicate items in his weapons collection—a long-ended awl of kauila and a small comb of tiny sharks’ teeth. “These are women’s weapons,” he says. “They would carry them in their skirts.” He adds, “You know how puppy’s teeth are so sharp. Same with baby sharks.”

La‘akea hefts a distinctive dagger from his collection, its point curving upwards jauntily from a stylish haft. “Some designs were only found on Kaua‘i,” he says. “Weapons are only limited by man’s imagination. And what exists today is only a tiny, minute fraction of what existed at one time.” He looks across his collection. “That cane back there,” he says, “what they called the ko‘oko‘o—after the wars were all done, you couldn’t walk around carrying a spear, so they carried this little cane. There’s some old sayings about ‘See that little old man sitting in the corner with his cane. Leave him alone, because he’ll tie you up in knots and twist you and kill you with it.’”

The history of Hawai‘i makes these simple old weapons manifestly political. “I’d like to put a weapon in everybody’s home,” La‘akea says. “Some people ask me why I work with weapons, since they connote war and bloodshed. The way I look at it, they symbolize peace. They symbolize our legacy. They symbolize strength versus weakness. The ability to protect oneself and one’s family. They’re the symbol of a free people,” he says. “That’s a different kind of strength.”

Gordon ‘Umialiloalahanauokalahaua Kai—Umi Kai to his friends—has probably been making traditional Hawaiian weapons longer than any craftsman alive today. Although Umi was a part of the same group of early lua practitioners as La‘akea, in the Pa Ku‘i a Lua, his first full step into na mea kaua and Hawaiian culture began much earlier … and much further a-field.

“My interest was piqued when I went to Alaska,” says Umi. “I was speaking with Native Americans there and was bothered because I couldn’t answer their questions about Island culture.” Now Umi’s knowledge and interest range over the breadth of the ancient Hawaiian arts.

Like many weapons makers, Umi began with the archetypical lei o mano. “The first one,” Umi says, “was made from the wood of a mango tree I cut down in the back yard.” There were negotiations with his mother regarding the tree. “I also made a coffee table and a TV table from that mango tree. Then I made the lei o mano.” Umi already dabbled in woodwork, but when it came to Hawaiian weapons, he says, “I had to teach myself. I saw an old lei o mano that my uncle, John Cummings, had.” Interestingly, Umi points out, “These lei o mano were relatively rare: In a battle, out of 5,000 warriors, maybe ten or eleven had them.” Most went into battle with spears and daggers. The ali‘i preferred the newa because it was the simplest weapon to wield in combat.

For Umi, the educational aspect of culture is paramount. He likes to start at the beginning. Most weapons makers work with modern power tools. With band saws, drill presses and grinders. It’s a practical matter; the hard wood of kauila can seize up a chainsaw. But Umi thinks it’s important to understand the culture as it was. Now and then, he makes a weapon in the old way: Chipping it out with an adze; grinding it down with rasps and coral stones; boring holes with a huli, the ancient Hawaiian version of a bow-drill. The traditional tools may seem tedious, but Umi says, “They just take a little longer, a little more patience. But you develop that patience.” And that patience was also a part of the culture.

Umi is also an ‘olohe—a teacher of lua. He tries to impart that same patience to his students. Although he makes some weapons to sell, he doesn’t sell them to his students. “For educational reasons,” he says, “I make them learn how to make their own.”

As an executive in the rental-car industry, Umi Kai lives a full life in the modern world. But he takes any opportunity to educate people about traditional Hawaiian culture. He occasionally teaches classes at the University of Hawai‘i. He gives presentations on traditional weapons at community colleges. At the Outrigger Hotel, he gives lectures on ancient crafts to employees and tourists. When enough people express an interest, he teaches a course in traditional hau cordage. “I teach them how to select, prepare, strip, clean and braid with it,” he says. As he speaks, his right hand automatically begins to hilo down his thigh—to spin a baste of imaginary hau into twine. Most of his weapons are tethered with cordage made either by Umi or his wife.

Sometimes, lua gives him unusual opportunities to teach. Recently, a martial arts friend asked him to give a presentation at his dojo. In the gymnasium of Nu‘uanu Elementary School, while the karate students go through their training, Umi spreads his collection of mea kaua upon a broad lau hala mat. As people meander by, he answers questions about the weapons. Someone asks about a smooth, two-edged piece of basalt. “This is a hand-axe,” he says, palming the broad, flat stone and wielding it back and forth. “No one knows the old Hawaiian name for it.” A young Hawaiian man asks about a newa, studded with human molars. Umi explains that traditionally, a warrior would have taken these teeth from a victim—to get some of his mana. “But these were volunteers,” he says with a smile.

Umi demonstrates the huli for some children, smartly drilling a hole in a scrap of lumber. The bit of the drill is a flattened nail. When someone asks what the traditional bit would have been, Umi roots about in his gear and pulls out a long, square-headed bit carved from the middle of a cone shell. “It’s the hardest part of the shell,” he says. “Sometimes they made the bit out of rat’s teeth. Or a piece of obsidian.”

Umi’s collection ranges beyond weapons because, for him, mea kaua are woven into a larger fabric. “I don’t separate the culture,” he says. Beside his lau hala mat lies the jaw of a tiger shark, rife with teeth. Although the teeth were fundamental to Hawaiian weapons, “We would have used the skin, too,” he says. “For drums and sandpaper.” Now, of course, sharks’ teeth and sharkskins are hard to find. Umi ticks off the list of vanishing cultural resources: whale bone, whale teeth, turtle shells, human bones. And the essential native hardwoods. “There should be a whole valley set aside to propagate native woods,” says Umi. “They do that in the Marquesas. There, traditional craftsmen hold a kind of lottery to determine who gets the wood.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “And they should quit castrating our coconut trees.” Like Manny Matos, Umi sees the whole culture embodied in the forest.

Up on the slopes of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a, Manny has arranged a small ceremony. After a friend delivers a short pule—a prayer to both the Christian and Hawaiian gods—Manny talks briefly about the forest and about his hopes for a cultural preserve there. Then his attention turns to the old dead kauila. In its burnt and tortured outlines, he envisions lei o mano, pololu and ihe. “To me,” he says, “this is as close as I can get to a living tree to harvest. Three or four months ago, this tree was still struggling to survive. I think the life-force is still there.” Manny’s voice cracks a little as he talks about the tree. Solemnly, he leans in to pay his last respects. Then he steps back and the craftsman in him takes over. “All right. We can take ’em down now,” he says.

 

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Hawaii Seed Savers

 

story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Chris McDonough


The great wiliwili tree in my front yard is blighted. Its crown bristles with dried twigs. Leaves still grow on the lower branches, but in twisted, stunted bunches. They’re gnarled and pocked with galls. The old tree is dying — another victim in a statewide epidemic of parasitic Erythrina gall wasps.

These invasive wasps were first noted in Hawai‘i less than two years ago. Now, throughout the Islands, almost every type of tree in the Erythrina genus is infested, including both native wiliwili and ornamental imports such as the Indian Coral Tree. On the street behind my house, a windbreak of tall wiliwili stands leafless in the sun. These were once venerable trees. Now, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, they’re more than venerable; they’re dead.

Despite the best efforts of the state’s botanists, there’s still no treatment for the gall wasps. No known pests for bio-control. No poisons to apply. No mutations to muddle the genome of these destructive pests. Fearing the worst—that the blight may only end with the extinction of the wiliwili in Hawai‘i—scientists throughout the state are methodically stocking up on seeds. In the back of Manoa Valley, the botanists at Lyon Arboretum’s Rare Hawaiian Plants Program have ninety pounds of wiliwili seeds on ice. For after the apocalypse.

Of course, the crisis of the wiliwili, although sudden and dramatic, is only the latest episode in the long story of loss and extinction here in Hawai‘i. There are about 1,000 native plant species in Hawai‘i, ninety percent of which exist nowhere else in the world. Hundreds of these species are endangered. Hawai‘i accounts for about a quarter of the federally listed endangered plant species in the country, while countless other unlisted species also teeter on the brink of extinction.

Over the last few years, a network of organizations and conservation professionals has emerged, seeking to preserve these fragile plants. The very public efforts to save the wiliwili simply highlight the largely anonymous work being done to protect Hawai‘i’s other rare and endangered plants. Scientists in white coats toil at their microscopes. Administrators scramble for funding. And high on the windy, perilous ridges of the Ko‘olau Mountains, intrepid field biologists nurture the last dwindling communities of these rare Hawaiian plants. But the nexus of all this quiet work can be found in two unobtrusive laboratories at Lyon Arboretum.

Alvin Yoshinaga runs the seed bank at the Arboretum. He’s a slight, soft-spoken man with a graying mustache and glasses. When you ask him a question about biology, he often defers to other experts, sometimes quickly pulling up their Web sites on the Internet. But his quiet manner belies a real passion for plant conservation: Yoshinaga’s experience at the seed bank has made him the expert on Hawaiian seed.

The protocols for seed storage and propagation of most agricultural plants are well-known. For rare native plants, though, these processes are more mysterious. Science knows little about the pollination biology of many of the plants coming into the seed bank. Yoshinaga and his associates spend much of their time researching the intimate details of plant sex. They look for the conditions under which a plant germinates best. They store seeds at different combinations of temperature and humidity to find the ideal climate. Using sandpaper, razors, acids and dental tools, they examine the effects of scarification on seed.

Yoshinaga is especially interested in identifying storage techniques that extend the useful lifespan of seeds. “Because most tropical seed cannot be frozen,” he notes, “people assumed that was true for Hawaiian plants, too.” But surprisingly, Yoshinaga has discovered that many Hawaiian seeds can be successfully frozen. Others survive better if only refrigerated. A few do best if stored at room temperature. This information is critical: Yoshinaga points out that a seed that remains viable for one year at room temperature might last 100 years if it can be frozen. Many of the seeds stored in Lyon’s seed bank will need that kind of shelf life.

“There are two kinds of seed banks,” says Yoshinaga. “One—what I call a working seed bank—is something like a passbook savings account. You deposit the seeds of native plants so that you can withdraw them later—for habitat restoration, perhaps.” The seed bank serves this role for many of its customers: the Army Natural Resources Program, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy, among others. The other type of seed bank preserves germplasm in perpetuity. Yoshinaga calls it “a kind of Noah’s Ark.” For this aspect of the work, the bank conserves not just the species, but also its genetic diversity. Sometimes, the survival of certain plants in the wild is so tenuous that special measures are taken to preserve their genome in the seed bank, in case a natural catastrophe or wildfire takes out the last surviving plants. Also, as individual specimens of a plant become rare, it’s critical to conserve the genetic diversity of every one of them.

The seed bank at Lyon Arboretum is a true bank: It doesn’t own the seed in its collection; it merely serves as a vault for the material deposited there by other organizations. Only the organization that makes the deposit can remove or use that plant material. The refrigerators and freezers are full of carefully labeled foil packets and vials of seeds. Each package contains the seeds of a single plant collected at a single time. When future researchers propagate these seeds, this kind of recordkeeping will allow them to manage the population genetics of the plants.

The accession of seeds to the collection is a detailed process. The seeds often come in fruit or pods that must be removed. Then the seeds themselves require specialized treatment to prepare them for storage. Often, they must be dried in a controlled climate so that they don’t rot later. Different kinds of seeds also require different temperatures and humidity levels during storage, and all require periodic testing and maintenance.

The seeds themselves come in a wide range of sizes. Wiliwili seeds, which are sometimes strung into lei, are about the size of a black-eyed pea. Other seeds, though, are like motes of dust. A film vial might hold thousands of them. And each species can have its own storage and germination protocols. To make sure seeds in the collection are still viable, Yoshinaga periodically checks each sample for germination rates. He uses several incubators as grow chambers in the lab at Lyon, and also has a couple at the Army’s Natural Resource Management Base near Wheeler. At any given time, he may have 300 to 400 tiny plants in various stages of germination.

But not all plants are suitable for propagation from seed. Sometimes, botanists are unsure of the protocols for getting seeds to germinate. More often, it’s impossible to collect mature, viable seeds from extremely rare plants. Upstairs from the seed bank, Nellie Sugii runs Lyon Arboretum’s astonishing tissue culture—or micro-propagation—lab. Here, Nellie and her staff laboriously tend a garden of Hawai‘i’s rarest plants. But it’s a most unusual garden.In a small, brightly lit room lined with wire rack shelves, thousands of tiny plants grow in test tubes and beakers. A glance at any one of them reveals a perfectly formed plant in miniature. All these plants have been grown from the tissue samples—leaf cuttings, immature seeds, roots and etc.—of specific plants. As at the seed bank, each plant is carefully labeled with its collection site and date, the collector’s name and the plant number. For the rarest plants, Sugii makes sure to have a tiny specimen grown from the tissue of every known wild individual. In many cases, that might mean just a handful of plants. Surprisingly, Sugii also grows plants that are extinct in the wild—plants that only continue to exist inside her carefully tended test tubes.

The work of the tissue culture lab is even more exacting than the seed bank. Out front, Sugii’s assistants manage the routine maintenance of about 10,000 plants. Under specially ventilated glass hoods designed to prevent contamination, technicians carefully remove the tiny plants, one by one, from their test tubes and meticulously trim them using scalpels. After working with each plant specimen, they sterilize their blades in the flames of a small lamp. They constantly monitor the collection for disease or dead tissue. The test tubes are periodically refilled with fresh growth medium, a clear potion concocted by Sugii. Raising plants this way is labor intensive, but seeing the garden of the tissue culture lab has a real psychological effect on the visitor.

In the seed lab, the collection is packed tightly in refrigerators and freezers, so it’s hard to grasp its full nature. The tissue culture lab, on the other hand, is more like a library: You can browse the aisles to get a sense of the desperate straits of Hawai‘i’s flora. Sugii points out a small collection of plants of the genus Cyanea, known as haha in Hawaiian. One
variety, Cyanea grimesiana grimesiana, represents a single plant, now extinct. Another, Cyanea hyperbia, is down to two specimens in the wild, known simply as plants A-3 and A-4. The label notes they were collected by the Plant Extinction Prevention program, or PEP.

Ane Bakutis and her assistant, Hina Kneubuhl, spearhead the quixotic efforts of PEP on O‘ahu. Other organizations certainly work on rare and endangered plants, but they tend to focus on habitats or remediation; PEP focuses only on the conservation of species of plants with fewer than fifty specimens surviving in the wild. Their objective is to collect and preserve the seeds or tissue from as many of these plants as possible. PEP used to be known as the Genetic Safety Net. It was an unpopular name, but it aptly describes the team’s mission.Bakutis and Kneubuhl prowl the high ridges of the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae mountains, keeping tabs on small populations of rare and endangered plants littered along the spine of O‘ahu. These plants are almost always in remote and difficult locations, so the work is both dangerous and physical. Bakutis describes the wild setting overlooking Windward O‘ahu as “the most beautiful office in the world.” It’s serious work, though. Even with the help of a helicopter, they often have to hike for hours to reach their sites. Once there, they collect seed and tissue; they monitor plant development and health; they keep data on every individual plant under their supervision. Every plant has a tag and a number. The numbers are depressingly low.

On one typical afternoon, I took a helicopter ride with them to the crest of the Ko‘olau to check on the status of a population of about twenty Cyanea st. johnii, another member of the haha group. On a previous visit, Bakutis had noticed that these tiny plants were fruiting; now she wanted to see if it was time to collect their seeds.

Because the winds were too high to land safely near the crest, the helicopter dropped us on a small knoll below the site. From there, we hiked a quarter mile up a narrow ridge, thick with stunted ‘ohia, sphagnum moss and ‘uki sedges. At one point, I lost my footing and ended up straddling the ridge, neck deep in the moist ‘ohia. When I reached down to find a handhold, the ridge was only the width of my palm. The drop-off on either side was a couple hundred feet. Nevertheless, Bakutis and Kneubuhl, wearing spiked tabi, made their way confidently along the narrow ridges. At one point, Bakutis walked out on a nearly vertical slope to check the status of one of her haha. In the high wind, she signaled its condition to Kneubuhl by slashing her finger across her throat.

Bakutis had taken the precaution on her last visit to wrap the fruit of these plants in small, green mesh bags. This kept the rats from eating them, or the seeds from dispersing in the wind if the fruit had matured before she had a chance to return. Laying prone in the tall grass surrounding plant number twenty-two, she gently pulled the bag back to check the fruit. No luck. They were still green—there would be nothing to deliver to the seed bank from this trip.

One by one, Bakutis and Kneubuhl surveyed their precious plants, but none were ready to harvest. On one plant, the main stalk had died, leaving only a sucker at its base. And plant number seven, on the windward side of the crest of the Ko‘olaus, had disappeared altogether. Two or three peaks over, the last Cyanea truncata disappeared in the 1990s.

After coming down from the mountains, I asked Bakutis if the work depressed her. Instead, she and Kneubuhl seem to find it heartwarming. Bakutis, a local girl who grew up in Wai‘anae and earned degrees in both botany and Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i, says she wishes every Hawaiian kid had the opportunity to see that you can make a living like this. Her enthusiasm reminds me of something Nellie Sugii told me back at Lyon Arboretum. “Sometimes people don’t realize what they have in their own back yard,” she said, gesturing to the tiny plants in her improbable garden. “This is like a dream job. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

 

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Crack Seed Stories

The Sweet (& Sour) Life 

story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Kyle Rothenborg

 

The kid comes into the Crack Seed Store with an order that he can’t fill in a standard grocery store. “Mixed arare and li hing mui sauce,” he tells the owner, K.P. Young.

“In separate bags, though—I don’t like the cracker getting all soggy.”

Mr. Young has heard this order before. It’s a house specialty at his Kaimuki store, invented years ago by one of his high-school-age customers. He goes to a large jar at the front of the store and measures a quarter- pound of arare into a small plastic bag. Then, out of the wet li hing mui jar at the counter, he gingerly ladles some of the sweet juice into another bag. “No need seal ’em,” the kid says. “I’m going to eat them soon.” As Mr. Young puts twist ties on the bags, the kid turns to me and says, “That’s how you know you’re a regular: When you know you can mix ’em up.”

Those of us raised in Hawai‘i can be forgiven for thinking that a visit to the old crack seed store, with its great glass jars of preserved fruits, candies, crackers and dried cuttlefish, is the quintessential Island experience. It’s certainly part of our heritage. I remember as a child digging greedily in little brown paper bags filled with wet li hing mui—shriveled plums preserved in a sauce of sugar, licorice and salt—then sucking on the bags when I was done to get all the juice. How could these memories be more Hawaiian?

But even the names of my favorites—li hing mui; umebashi (pickled Japanese plums); or tako (dried, smoked octopus)—belie any native roots. Crack seed came to the islands in the pockets of immigrants. And even today, most of what one buys here is imported from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand. Only one local company, Jade Foods in Waipahu, actually makes crack seed in Hawai‘i.

Anywhere you find crack seed, you’ll get a whiff of nostalgia. Jade Foods is no different: Although its current location is in a modern warehouse, everything about how the company works seems quaint, old-fashioned … and complicated. The ingredients for more than fifty types of crack seed line the shelves at the back of the warehouse: barrels of dried salted plums and apricots from Jade’s orchard in California; from Taiwan, a huge crate filled with licorice twigs, which taste faintly sweet when raw; boxes of star anise; barrels of sugar and aspartame; and jugs of vanilla, orange crème and lemon crème.

SzeMong Siu, the head cook from China, has been making crack seed at Jade Foods for more than fifteen years. When I arrive, he’s in the back with his helpers, Willy and Alfred, preparing juicy racks of wet salted plum for the drying oven. They work in half-ton batches, but the process is all done by hand: Home cooking, as done by giants.

In the corner, two gigantic pots—each more than four feet across and four feet deep—simmer on great burners. In one pot, an enormous tangle of licorice twigs and star anise steeps in sugar water: this will become the dashi, the base out of which most crack seed sauces are made. In two stainless steel troughs, Alfred rinses 1,000 pounds of salted plum, stirring them with a bat-sized ladle to remove as much salt as possible—each batch has to be rinsed three times. Then he soaks the plums twice in a syrup of fresh water laced with 300 pounds of sugar, each time discarding the sugar bath. Later, in the other great pot, the plums will be gently cooked in a special version of the home-brewed dashi. After the plums have soaked for two days and stewed in the dashi, Mr. Siu and Alfred shovel them onto perforated racks and put them in a huge oven to slowly dry. They’ll sit there for a couple days until Mr. Siu is satisfied with their weight and consistency.

Jade Foods is a family-owned business, founded forty-five years ago by Hollis Ho, a local entrepreneur who once owned an abalone cannery in South America … and who also brought Hawai‘i its first Chicago-style pizza. Ho still putters around the factory every day, but his daughter, Deanne, has run the company since 1998. She remembers growing up with crack seed: As a child, she haunted the aisles of the old factory when it was down on Dillingham Boulevard. “I remember I used to grab a bag of seedless wet plum,” she says, “and then run across the street to the Lays plant and steal potato chips.” It runs in the family: Deanne’s daughter likes to use red li hing mui as lipstick.

Stacey Higashi, who’s in charge of the company’s sales and marketing, takes it as a point of pride that Jade Foods has managed to grow a little each year. Today, Jade is a far-flung operation. In addition to the orchard in California, supplies come in from across Asia. Deanne travels regularly to rural areas of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand to make sure she gets the best ingredients. Higashi points out that quality is critical for Jade Foods. Because production costs are so high in Hawai‘i, Jade seed is always more expensive than imported seed.

“We don’t want to just survive,” says Higashi, “we want to thrive. Deanne has children who should inherit all this.” But this is a tough business. In order to compete with the importers who supply most of the crack seed in Hawai‘i, Higashi says Jade simply has to offer a better product. But even packaging seed is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, especially for the wet
varieties. Jade uses one-of-a-kind machinery to bag seed, but the ladies in the back still have to carefully weigh the fruit into individual plastic tubs, and then dump these tubs one at a time into the bagging machine.

Those of a certain age remember when crack seed only came out of an enormous glass jar. Now, most seed is sold in plastic bags at the grocery store—only a few shops do enough volume to rely on glass jars. That old-time feel is what keeps customers coming back to places like Seed City in Pearl Ridge, the Crack Seed Store in Kaimuki and the Crack Seed Center in Ala Moana.

The Crack Seed Center, which opened in 1959 as one of the original stores in the Ala Moana Center, is probably the largest retailer of crack seed in Hawai‘i. It’s also delightfully old-fashioned. Ted Li, who bought the store fifteen years ago, still carries more than 100 kinds of seed, all in glass jars. Every day, 500 to 600 customers come through the store looking for their ration of salted plums or shredded mango. Li says this volume allows him to sell a fresher product. “We cater to the discriminating type of customer,” says Li. “They have to know it’s fresh.”

Many of those customers have been coming to the Crack Seed Center since it first opened. Li says some who’ve moved to the Mainland will visit with their children and say, “Mom and Dad used to come to this store every week.” It’s not uncommon for elderly customers to bring their grandchildren in.

The nostalgia people feel for crack seed is a real boon for business. At the Crack Seed Store, customers call from around the world to place orders. One afternoon while I was in the store, Mr. Young packed up five care packages to send to customers on the Mainland. On the same day, four different customers came into the store to place embarrassingly large orders. One lady bought a mix costing nearly $100. Worried that we might think she was going to eat it all herself, she told us, “I have a daughter going to school at USC in Los Angeles. She’s homesick.”

Crack seed is thought to have originated in China, as a way to preserve fruit and seafood. Chinese soldiers supposedly carried it with them like hard tack. It lasted indefinitely and was thought to be good for the health. At the Crack Seed Center, Mr. Li refers elliptically to its medicinal value. “Although we cannot claim it,” he says, “Chinese have been using it for years and years.” Indeed, older Chinese customers still choose lemon varieties to treat a cold or candied ginger for motion sickness.

Regardless of the origins of crack seed, Hawai‘i has come to be its capital. Mr. Li and Mr. Young immigrated from Vietnam and Hong Kong respectively. In both places, crack seed is common, but neither remembers as much variety as one can find in Island shops today. Similarly, Deanne Ho has visited crack seed factories across East Asia. “Most of them only make a few types,” she says, noting that Jade produces more than fifty varieties.

On the shelves of Jade’s Waipahu warehouse, crack seed waits in barrels to be packed. Willy, my guide, lets me taste some of them: wet ume; sweet ginger; crisp plum; five varieties of li hing mui; wet lemon; mango slice; and li hing cherry, pineapple and sweet cherry. In the back, Mr. Siu meticulously stirs glistening, scarlet racks of wet mango slices to ensure they’ll dry evenly. Wandering through the warehouse, I think of something Mr. Li told me back at the Crack Seed Center: “Local customers are very conservative; they stick to what they know.” When no one is looking, I pull a paper bag out of my pocket and fill it with wet li hing mui. Later, after I’ve eaten it all, I plan to suck the bag. 

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Ohana Style

 

‘Ohana Style 

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Brad Goda

 

“No more fried chicken,” 78-year-old Nadine Tokuzato tells the fourth customer in a row at Waikane Store. “Got sushi, though.”

She gestures through mosquito netting into what appears to be the family kitchen. There, her sister, Makiko Gishi, sits at the kitchen table laconically rolling out makizushi. She smiles back into the store, where several customers obligingly await the next batch.

The sign out front says, “Since 1898.” But there’s hardly anything for sale at Waikane Store: soft drinks, crack seed and a few sundries like toilet paper and soap. Unlike some of the other country stores on O‘ahu, Waikane Store doesn’t sell booze or cater to the tourist trade. It’s not hard, though, to see how this family operation stays in business. Hulking in the corner is an enormous stainless steel freezer full of chicken parts and shrimp.

All day long, customers shuffle into Waikane Store for the home cooking. They come for the little tubs of fried chicken or shrimp fritters, for the sushi (including the popular hot-dog maki with Coleman mustard) and for the homemade cookies and boiled peanuts. Makiko and Nadine cook it all in small batches—sometimes while customers wait—so it’s always fresh.

It’s an old-fashioned store that’s been in the same family since the 1940s. “Mama-san,” Haruko Tsutsui, took over the operation in 1959. Her daughter, Nadine, has run it for the last thirty-four years. Three generations of the family still live in the rooms behind the store.

Most of their customers are regulars: A young man with “Kahalu‘u Boy” tattooed on his chest wanders in and asks Nadine, “How da shrimp?”

“Here, I give you a taste,” she says, handing him a small tub to sample.

He takes a bite. “Oh wow,” he says, “da bugga’s ‘ono. I’ll take two.”

Like most customers, he ends up buying a little of everything, walking out with some sushi and a bag of boiled peanuts to go with his shrimp. Nadine bags up his purchase with a little twinkle in her eye. At Waikane Store you sample at your own risk.

Waikane Store
(808) 239-8522

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