ARTS & CRAFTS
Brian Choy looks to a new generation to preserve the art of making leis
The theme of the 81st May Day lei competition could not be more fitting: Na Lei Hulu Kupuna, or the Esteemed Elder.
With little fanfare, Brian Choy, deemed a master lei maker by peers and fans, is retiring this year. A youthful man, he will be recognized not for his age but for his body of work: A legacy of 30 consecutive years creating leis for the annual island event.
For those planning to enter May Day competitions. Taught by Brian Choy. All are held from 9:30 a.m. to noon:
» Dates: Feb. 9, Makiki District Park, 1527 Keeaumoku St.; Feb. 23, Kaneohe Community & Senior Center Edgar Jones Auditorium, 45-613 Puohala St.; March 1, Koko Head District Park, 425 Kaumakani St.
» Cost: Free
» Call: 768-3041 or e-mail email@example.com
» Also: Free hands-on workshops of increasing complexity and geared toward various ages are also offered. Visit www.honoluluparks.com
It was simply time to step down, said Choy, nimbly plaiting together plant material during a recent workshop. Though he has retired as a competitor, he is teaching classes for those new to the art of lei making or to the competition.
"Thirty years is enough," said Choy, 62. "It's time for new blood."
Priscilla Saqui, of Mililani, for one, disagrees. She attended the workshop at the suggestion of a fellow employee at Wahiawa General Hospital. "I have co-workers who are very into lei-making. My boss told me that (Choy) is a good lei-maker, one of the best."
As much as fans look up to Choy for his artistry and knowledge of Hawaiian lei-making methods, Choy was once in the position of novice, too -- his mentors include friends and "family" such as Irmalee and Walter Pomroy, Marie and Roen MacDonald, and the late Beatrice Krauss, who introduced Brian and his brother, Reynold, to lei-making during an ethnobotany class at Lyon Arboretum in 1976. The brothers entered their first competition that year; before growing their own plants, friends and family gave them flowers and leaves.
"You got to meet some of your idols, and it just becomes such a passion," said Choy. "You get to learn a lot about native plants ... eventually our wives and friends joined us, and eventually we became a group of nine. We would hike together and learn about native plants."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
An overhead mirror provides ample view of instructor Brian Choy preparing foliage for stringing into lei during a recent workshop.
“Thirty years is
enough. It’s time
for new blood.”
Master lei maker
Still, if Choy had his way, he would have retired a few years ago. All the lei-makers he started with -- including Reynold -- have also retired, leaving Choy as the last of his peers. He stayed on with some encouragement, and an inner obligation to see the lei-making competition continue.
"I don't want to see (the competition) die," said Kaiulani Vincent, a culture and arts coordinator with the Department of Parks and Recreation. "This is art, and Brian's been so faithful to the lei contest."
The number of participants has decreased over the years, despite renewed interest in Hawaiian arts. In its heyday, up to 100 leis were entered; the number is now half that many. Choy expressed hope that new lei-makers might continue the May Day tradition.
Rules this year encourage more participation: Contestants may use two colors instead of just one, allowing for more depth and variety; required lengths of leis are also shorter; and there are more youth-oriented categories. "We've opened it up to youths, and open to wider participation," said Vincent. "We've raised award money (in the past), but that didn't attract more people."
For his part, Choy said: "I really want to see young blood; can't keep it going forever. Most of the people who are in this do it for 10 to 15 years."