Star-Bulletin Features

Plantation workers stand up to a maniacal luna played by Vaikeola Richards in "A Ricepaper Airplane." The workers, from left, are Eric Mita, Alvin Chan and M.J. Gonzalvo.

Author sees ideas take
flight in stage adaptation
of ‘Ricepaper’

By Scott Vogel

A charismatic guy, that Uncle Sung Wa. As compelling a storyteller as any Scheherazade, he captivated any audience he found -- first his nephew Yong Gil, who hung on his every word as Uncle lay dying in a hospital room. Second, of course, was any reader who picked up Gary Pak's novel, "A Ricepaper Airplane," a marvelous, 266-page excuse to sit at the feet of the old man as he talked story about his Korean roots and their uneasy transplantation to the cane fields of Hawaii's plantation days.

But Uncle's irresistibility didn't stop there, for local directors Keith Kashiwada and John Wat, no doubt impressed by the novel's epic sweep, felt compelled to bring "Ricepaper Airplane" to the Kumu Kahua stage, where it landed last night. Pak was impressed by their interest in his book and the commitment to what must have been a daunting task.

"I was happy," said Pak, 49, "but in the back of my mind I was thinking, 'Gee, how are they going to do this?'"

You see, for all of Uncle Sung Wa's narrative gifts, the guy never really thought in a straight line. Partly because he was dying, partly because he was trapped in a hospital room, and sometimes just because of the nature of storytelling itself -- Pak felt duty-bound to write "Ricepaper" in a kind of stream of consciousness mode, a technique notoriously difficult to re-create onstage.

"When a guy's on a bed like that," said the Kaneohe native, "he's not capable of walking around, but yet he can travel in his mind, go to different time zones and so on. He can go to different dimensional spaces."

'A Ricepaper Airplane'

Presented by Kumu Kahua Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 14
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Tickets: $16; $13 for seniors and groups; $10 for students
Call: 536-4441

Theater has only one stage, and therein lay the crux of the adapters' problems. How do you travel from -- let's take Page 197 as an example -- the long-ago world of Filipino transvestites at the Kekaulike Hotel to the present-day booths at a Chinatown chop suey house, and then back to the old days at the now-razed Aloha Maunakea Hotel, and then to the harbor where Sung Wa used to dive for pennies thrown by tourists on the Lurline? ("Look, Mabel! Those brown boys swimming like seals!")

First, you take out the scissors.

"They cut a lot of the book out of necessity," said Pak, who didn't seem concerned. "They did a good job in distilling the thing and making it dramatic." If some of the wordplay and memorable images are lost -- remember the clock with the hand broken off? The belt that coils like a snake on the bed? -- well, that's one of the reasons movies and theater will never make the novel obsolete.

"It's not an easy job" -- writing a stage adaptation -- "and I didn't want to make it more difficult for them by saying, 'Look, it's my words and you can't touch them.'"

But Pak did attend auditions and rehearsals. ("Keith actually asked me, 'Do you wanna play a part?' I says, 'noooo.' I think he was joking, but I didn't treat it as a joke.") And as he watched his novel come to life for the second time, Pak again experienced the strange mix of familiarity and lack of recognition that always heralds a work's conclusion, the sense that "once I write a work and it's offered to the public, it's really not mine anymore. It's public domain."

One of the themes of "Ricepaper Airplane" is the impossibility of ever summing up an individual's life, a mantra echoed in Pak's relaxed attitude toward adaptations. After all, he created Uncle Sung Wa, a man whose life is, in one way, defined by his failures, most notably his inability to build a rice-paper airplane and fly back to the Korea of his dreams. But looked at another way, his is a life wonderfully rich and full, jam-packed with riveting stories and propelled by an eternal idealism.

It is therefore no accident that Pak's own life resists categorization, the path to his 1998 novel as twisted as any page in "Ricepaper Airplane." A writing teacher at Kapiolani Community College (as well as UH-Manoa, starting this fall), a novelist and short-story writer, Pak's own story seems rather straightforward, not the sort you might hear told in one of his books. But the more you talk with him, the more complicated things become.

"My major was psychology and my minor was chemistry" at Boston University, he said, where his father sent him in hopes of producing a suit-and-tie type. But Pak preferred drifting, returning to Hawaii with a BA degree that found no application in the construction work, roofing jobs and stints as a paramedical assistant he would soon undertake.

"My dad got all pissed at me and said, 'I send you to college, and you come home and work with bluejeans on!'"

Pak's career as a serious writer seems to have happened by accident. ("In 1980, when my son was born, I just looked at him and thought, 'Hmm, I'd better write down these stories for him and his generation.'") Equally accidental was his brush with Kashiwada and Wat, who subsequently produced his short-story collection "Watcher of Waipuna" for Kumu Kahua in 1996 and forged an artistic partnership with the author. But all such coincidences pale by comparison with the stark simplicity of the event that led to "Ricepaper."

"I was eavesdropping on my mom and older sister talking about this eccentric Korean man who was trying to build a rice-paper airplane to Korea." They didn't know anything else about the man, said nothing further about him, and the whole moment might have been lost had it not landed on a clandestine ear.

It's a cliché that big oak trees come from such small acorns, and inaccurate in any case. The lives this particular acorn continues to produce aren't large by any stretch of the imagination. But they are thickly, sturdily built, variegated and, with any luck at all, eternal.

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