The Hula Supply Center celebrates its 50th birthday at its Moiliili location this year, but the store originally opened even earlier, in 1946 on Fort Street Mall.

Hula Piko

For 50 years a store in Moiliili
has helped nurture "all things hula"
to people worldwide

It would be no exaggeration to say that throughout the years of growing popularity of hula both here and across the Pacific east and west, the Hula Supply Center has been its "piko."

Originating from the unassuming but recognizable pink storefront at the corner of South King and Isenberg streets, owners Mike and Syl Kop have wholeheartedly adopted the business started decades ago by Mike's father.

Uli'uli are sold there.

But the entrepreneurial and artistic spirit of B.K. Kop still reigns over the business -- even during Merrie Monarch season.

The Kops are returning from the annual Hilo event that just concluded yesterday where, every year for the past nine years, they have set up shop in the Palm Lounge of the Hawaii Naniloa Hotel. It's there that Syl debuts their new products and designs before they're sold back home in the landmark Moiliili store.

"The first year we did this," she remembers, "we introduced 20 new items, and 17 sold out."

This year, items unveiled at the Merrie Monarch included special collections of women's' fashions and a line of T-shirts designed by a Molokai taro farmer who dubs himself "Kaloman." Also included was a collection of Syl's handmade jewelry designs, made of jade, freshwater pearls and precious and semiprecious stones.

All this is in addition to the handcrafted hula implements designed and made by Mike, and Everlasting Floral leis.

Hula Supply Center's roots predate the Hawaiian Renaissance of the '70s. The store celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Moiliili location on April 1, but the original store opened even earlier, on that same date in 1946, on Fort Street Mall.

The store is recognizing the golden anniversary of its site by starting a 12-month celebration called "The Year of the Kupuna," and offering kupuna and keiki hula scholarships via essay and art competitions, as well as giveaways for local shoppers.

"It's the best thing we can do," Syl said, "to go back to the beginning and dedicate ourselves to those who have preserved our culture."

It's all very much in the aloha spirit the Kops share with hula communities both here and abroad. And it all started when B.K. Kop -- a golf addict who practically lived at the Ala Wai course when he wasn't at the store -- began making Hawaiian dolls.

"The real beginnings of the business started in the 1940s, after the war," Syl said. "Mike's dad used to make dolls when he was a buyer for PXs."

"Even after he stopped doing that," Mike added, "he continued to supply PXs with Hawaiiana curios, working with local crafters to make and sell things like uli'ulis, coconut bowls and bamboo incense holders.

"I remember being 4, 5 years old, riding with my dad in our station wagon, and going to different ladies' houses to pick up the handmade wares. I remember this French lady named Odette who lived near the airport -- both her perfume and personality were overbearing!

"And there was this one Chinese lady who made grass skirts; another, muumuus. There were women prisoners who made leis and this one woman, Constance Leong, who made rag dolls."

Mike, whose artistic bent is similar to his father's, followed him into the business. After the elder Kop's retirement in 1975, the Hula Supply Center was a shared venture with his brother, until Mike bought him out in 1998.

"What this place was like, I liked to call a chrome and glass warehouse with retail frontage," Mike said with a chuckle. "There used to piles of things all over the store -- real Chinese style! You know, a business run by men with no sense of aesthetics.

"When we took over, Mike had a totally different focus for the store," Syl said. "Even though 30 to 35 percent of the sales then were coming from Japanese customers, he felt that we must do right for the local people. We were in a unique position to promote hula unlike anywhere else. So Hawaii must become the first priority.

"We buy from some 50 local crafters. ... We don't do anything on consignment. Mike's father helped us early on in choosing what would sell in the store. Like his father, Mike is truly an artist, and he has his business savvy."

And the Kops complement each other as a husband-and-wife team.

"I'm in fashion design, and he designs hula implements, so we gear our store with these different approaches," Syl said.

Mike and Syl Kop feel they must "do right" for the local people, and sell wares made by 50 local crafters at the Hula Supply Center.

THE STORE'S clientele has grown with the international popularity of hula, and the word has spread through a mail-order business that was started in the '60s and, these days, through the store's Web site,

The Midwest has grown as a market over the years. Two hula competitions have sprung up, with people from the East Coast, Southwest and upper Midwest congregating for hula and Polynesian workshops in Indianapolis.

But it still doesn't match the intensity of the Japanese market. Syl said that 35 years ago there were only a handful of Japanese hula teachers, whose ranks have since multiplied. Syl has her own theory as to why that is: "Because of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese felt they had an obligation to do whatever they could to pay back for the damage done to Hawaii. And with this big relationship with the islands, it was easy for them to find the appeal in hula."

They "love music, arts and beautiful things and are such a precise people. ... Now it seems almost every Japanese girl, starting from 3 years of age, not only learns ballet and Japanese dancing, but hula as well. And with successive generations, there are layers of hula teachers in Japan, who learn their craft by hooking up with real Hawaiian teachers."

One advantage the Kops see coming from the Hawaiian Renaissance is the compilation of the history of the hula itself.

"Local people began to have an appreciation of both its history and background," Syl said.

And the Kops have proved themselves worthy to the task when kumu hula make specific requests in their attempts to make their halau more distinctive and authentic.

"Two years ago, Aunty Puouelo Naipo Park, who hadn't done Merrie Monarch for many years, came into the store with her grandson and asked Mike to make a historical-design uli'uli. And since there were no drawings made of it, she had to describe it to him verbally. After Mike made a couple of samples for her to look at and correct, it's now part of our regular line."

Among the merchandise offered at Hula Supply Center are: Ahupa'a (all-Hawaiian tapa design) fabric, T-shirts, handmade haku lei, tissue dispensers, umeke (gourd bowl), and uli'uli.

THE INTERIOR of the store is better organized, filled with the merchandise that Hula Supply Store has made its name on. Shoppers can buy items like raffia or "Hollywood" cellophane hula skirts, shell leis, coconut bras, ti-leaf headbands, wrist and ankle kupe'e, lau hala rolls, Mike's handcrafted ipu and ipu heke, and different styles of uli'uli and uli'uli rattles, coconut puniu, ili ili stones, bamboo pu'ili, ka la'au -- plus books and music that perpetuate the culture.

The Kops also took over an adjoining space that once housed a Hawaiian quilt store. Now dubbed Hawaiian Traders, Syl said, the sales space doubles as a community meeting area and classroom for private hula and ukulele lessons. (Mike has been taking hula lessons from Uncle George Holokai.)

"In spite of some of the struggles through the years, the store's real purpose is that it continue to be a legacy of Mike's dad's faith in doing whatever it took to service the hula community," Syl said. "Now hula is a beacon of Hawaiian culture, something that the kids can perpetuate and share everywhere in the world.

"I'm only sorry that we cannot respond to the hundreds of requests from mainland schools and colleges who ask for donations for their own luau events."

And when it comes to seeing their wares used by halau here and abroad in exhibitions and contests throughout the year, the Kops can't help but feel a sense of pride.

"In something like Merrie Monarch, I want everyone to win," Syl admitted. "That's because we're able to see all the effort and heart everyone puts in the dances. With each dancer comes much gratification, some sense of accomplishment, because we're all playing a part in keeping alive our roots."

"I consider myself lucky that I inherited this business," Mike added, "because we've been able to create a niche for ourselves and share our work with other people."

So the next time you see the Merrie Monarch competition or a hula exhibition, May Day program or ho'ike, you'll probably see the handiwork of the Kops as well.

"We think our hula store is also a 'directory assistance' to all things hula," Syl said.

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