Thursday, January 30, 2003


The Culture Club art

Gilman Hu helps others bring
narcissus bulbs to life to
herald spring's arrival

By Ruby Mata-Viti

"The ultimate" is a blooming plant, according to instructor Gilman Hu in answer to a student's query about class goals on a recent Saturday.

Not bloomin' in the derogatory sense, though a few of Hu's students in the narcissus carving class he taught this month might view the plant as cursed in their frustration to learn his techniques.

It takes patience to carve the plant bulbs using an intricate method known as crab-claw cultivation, fashioning them into sculptures the students can be proud of. The sessions result in work that will be displayed Feb. 8 and 9 at the Honolulu Academy of Arts as part of the Lunar New Year festivities and in honor of museum director George Ellis, who retires this month.

Mainland gardening enthusiasts have long resorted to forcing bulbs such as daffodils and amaryllis to flower in their homes during the dead winter months. In the tropics, however, surrounded by a vibrant palette of flowers year-round, forcing bulbs to bloom is uncommon.

It is, however, practiced by Chinese in Hawaii, according to Hu, who insists he isn't superstitious but said, "It is good luck for the Chinese to have a blooming narcissus plant in the house for the new year."

That is, the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday.

Hu, an architect, has taught the crab-claw method of narcissus cultivation at the Honolulu Academy of Arts since 1984 and has a loyal following that includes fans in Asia and on the mainland.

Architect Gilman Hu is serious about narcissus and shares his passion for crab-claw cultivation with students interested in learning the Chinese artform.

In the academy circle, he's known as "Mr. Narcissus," a name he says sometimes causes him to wince. "In Western culture, it's associated with narcissism," a definite misnomer because Hu humbly shares his knowledge, asking for no accolades and accepting no money for his work. Tuition for the workshop benefits the academy.

IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Narcissus was a beautiful youth who spurned all suitors, then fell in love with his own image in a spring and refused to leave it, wasting away there to become the flower that always bows to its reflection in the water, like its vain namesake.

What the plant represents in China, however, is the onset of spring. There, as in Hawaii, its blooms herald the new year. The plant, known as "sui sin fah" in Chinese, means "water fairy."

Its delicate beauty and fragrance -- "it lilts and lingers; heavenly," said student Jo-Ann Yokota -- represents purity of heart and soul.

While Yokota is a newbie, back for her second year, others have studied with Hu for more than a decade. This is the third year for Glenna Young, who says she plans to return next year. "The biggest pleasure is to give them away as gifts," she said.

Hu said the timing is perfect for Chinese New Year presents; late bloomers can be timed for Valentine's Day giving.

"Mr. Narcissus" Gilman Hu selects a normal bulb from a box of narcissus bulbs awaiting transformation into living sculptures like the plant shown below.

Hu opens the bulb to identify and expose its shoots. He is pointing to what he calls "the old man," the original bulb from three generations ago, now surrounded by newer growth.

Hu compares bulbs in different stages of shoot exposure. In two more weeks, the bulb on the right will blossom with delicate white and yellow flowers. The way shoots are cut and bruised will determine the plant's appearance.

THE BULBS, when simply placed in water and dirt, will grow with leaves straight up, blooming after 30 to 45 days. While the straight and narrow plants have their own beauty and presence, Hu said, there's something to be said for the winding, twisting results of the crab-claw method of narcissus cultivation. The leaves grow curved with flowers in simultaneous bloom. Some plants can be shaped to resemble snails or roosters, which he proved during a slide show of past creations.

At the Saturday workshop, students had their tools placed before them like surgeons, some with rubber gloves and hands ready for delicate operations.

Some tried patiently waiting for the end of Hu's slide presentation before tackling their projects, but found the bulbs irresistible. These few tried to discreetly peel their bulbs in the dark but were betrayed by a sound similar to that of a cook removing the thin brown outer layer of a yellow onion before slicing.

Gilman Hu shows a sprouting narcissus bulb to his students while explaining how to achieve different types of growth in the shoots.

In the crab-claw method, bulbs are dissected to reveal its pouches, like many cloves of garlic. The advanced student can decipher from this mass the amount of leaves and flowers that will sprout from each pouch. Putting a scab on the bulb forces the leaves to curl as they grow, giving the plant its character. Hu likens the procedure to a surgery, comparing natural childbirth to C-section, the crab claw being the latter.

Students must avoid puncturing the pouch, which Hu says is comparable to the water bag surrounding an unborn baby.

Some of the students have been coming to Hu's class for 12 years.

"It's a Chinese New Year addiction," said Rosa Asuelo.

The untouched narcissus bulb will grow straight and narrow as at left, while carved bulbs will form curlicue leaves.

Although she was referring to the art, perhaps it's Hu's exuberance that keeps them returning.

"He makes it intriguing," said Elizabeth Clark, who's planning a trip to China next year.

Myrtle Ching-Rappa, also a 12-year veteran, said she keeps coming back because she learns something different every year. "He should write a book."

Yokota decided to take the class for the spiritual reward of learning a craft and tending nature.

"It nurtures my soul, caring for something and watching what evolves," she said. "This is something you only get to do once a year."

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