Jewelry jibes with culture


POSTED: Thursday, October 23, 2008

If you recall the dentist's chair from “;Little Shop of Horrors”; or the barber's chair in “;Sweeney Todd,”; you might understand Sonny Ching's position when approached to, of all things, start a jewelry line.





Sonny Ching jewelry

        » Presentation: 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday
» Place: Nohea Gallery, Ward Warehouse
» Admission: Free
» Call: 596-0074

As Linda Ueda explains, her brother is the kumu hula's dentist and popped the question “;when he was in his chair, his mouth open. In that position, he could only say 'yes,'”; she said, with a laugh.

“;It was kind of strange,”; Ching said.

That was about two years ago, and the result of their collaboration can be seen at Nohea Gallery at Ward Warehouse, where Ching will appear during a meet-the-artist session Saturday.

Ueda and her daughter Akemi were already enjoying success with their Paradisus line of Asian and flora-inspired collection of jewelry, which launched in 2005. To follow up, Ueda, a longtime Hawaii interior designer who now resides in the Bay Area, said, “;I was looking for a way to express Hawaiian culture and Hawaii visual art.”;

In Ching, she said she found someone “;with great credentials as a kumu hula, who knows the Hawaiian language, and who has studied Hawaiian lore.”;

Ching, who was conducting a hula workshop in New York over the weekend, said by phone, “;When she approached me, I thought about it and had my own ideas of what I wanted the collection to be and what I didn't want it to be. I didn't want to do florals, I didn't want to do quilt designs. I didn't want to do anything that's been done.

“;Through the jewelry, I want to connect people to the Hawaiian culture, and try to bring in a modern-day sensibility, leaving it open enough for people to create their own connections.”;

He brought up the idea of incorporating the imagery of the kakau, or Hawaiian tattoo, and Ueda agreed.

“;It was an area she was thinking of going into, but she didn't know the symbolism behind the kakau. That's where I came in,”; he said.

Ching found Ueda's initial designs to be beautiful, “;but empty,”; he said. “;They were just designs with no meaning. It bothered me and I think it bothered her also, and I was happy she felt that way. I like people like that, who have integrity. We didn't want to take from the culture, or use the designs in a wrong way.”;

It was important for him to focus on the designs beyond their surface beauty, so each piece comes with a story behind the symbolism to help wearers to understand more about the culture.

Since then, it's been a long-distance collaboration, the same way Ueda works with Akemi, who also lives in Hawaii. Through e-mails, they share sketches and ideas. Right now, having already produced sterling-silver jewelry lines inspired by kakau and 'ohe kapala, the stamp designs applied to kapa, Ching is working on a series of demigod pieces, revamping a vision of kamapuaa because Ueda rejected an earlier one.

“;We go back and forth with designs. I tell her things like why a triangle should face a certain way, why it should point up instead of down.

“;I have a leg tattoo from hip to ankle, and anyone who knows the Hawaiian kakau can look at my leg and can tell exactly where my family comes from. It's a genealogy,”; he said.

Collaboration on the jewelry fulfills one of Ching's early ambitions.

“;At one point, I wanted to be a fashion designer. There was I time when I was anti-hula, anti-Hawaiian. That was normal rebellion. It's funny how life takes its course. If you're destined to be a kumu hula, you become one. No matter what I did, I still became a kumu hula,”; said Ching, a fifth-generation hula master.

The collection debuted this year at the Merrie Monarch Festival, facing the toughest critics: masters of the hula and Hawaiian cultural experts.

Ching said he was pleased that kumu hula Nalani Kanakaole, the daughter of revered kumu Edith Kanakaole, for whom the festival stadium is named, appreciated the jewelry. She was also encouraging when he mentioned his dreams of designing clothing.

“;It kind of put the idea in my head that it's not too late,”; he said. “;I want to do something different from what is in Hawaii today, so maybe that's the next project.”;