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Ka Po‘e Kau Lei: An Oral History of Hawai‘i’s Lei Sellers

As boy looks on, lei seller sews lei at table on sidewalk.

Interviewee Sophia Ventura with nephew at her Kekaulike Street lei stand in downtown Honolulu, ca. 1940. (Photo courtesy Charlotte Fuller.)

By the turn of the century, the lei (garland) industry was well established in Honolulu. Hawaiian lei sellers — generally women — were visible on the sidewalks of downtown Honolulu in the area of Hotel, Maunakea, and Kekaulike streets.

“See, I was maybe about ten, eleven years old, when I was at Maunakea Street with (my grandmother). . . . Used to be a bar. Roseland Cafe, they used to call that. So, we were situated right there. . . . We had tables. We had like a long board with nails on it. Then we just put our leis on (it), hanging down.” —Sandra Santimer

Lei sellers picked what they could from their own yards and neighborhoods. They rarely purchased flowers but when they did, it was from backyard growers, not commercial nurseries.

“We have to get up five o’clock in the morning. . . . We used to pick up (flowers) every morning before we go to school. We soak it down, keep it cool, then we come home and we string it up.” —Moana Umi

On steamer days these downtown lei sellers and others, who came from all parts of the island, went down to the waterfront. Customers bought lei to bedeck arriving or departing passengers.

“They were good sellers then, . . . the seeds (seed lei ) and crepe paper leis. Because they always wanted to keep them and take ’em back as souvenirs. That, we did quite a bit, although the work that was involved in it was quite a bit of work. . . . You see, but your labor didn’t count.” —Gail Burgess

November 1927 marked the beginning of Matson Navigation Company’s luxury liner service between California and Honolulu, which increased tourism. As large numbers of lei vendors gathered on steamer days, competition intensified. At times arguments arose, but when the day’s selling ended, the lei sellers gathered and socialized as friends.

“That’s where we opened, we opened (on) the waterfront. And was good. We all sit down, string our leis. My mother was there, too. And she’d make food and call everybody. Everybody eating raw fish. . . . Oh, and they used to enjoy that.” —Sophia Ventura

By 1933, the number of lei sellers and the intensity of their competition necessitated regulation. A set of rules and regulations was adopted with the formation of the first lei sellers’ association.

During World War II, a majority of lei sellers acquired defense jobs. Many made nets and other camouflage equipment. Some occasionally sold lei at nightclubs. Others concentrated on the military clientele.

The introduction of commercial aviation in 1945 drew some lei sellers to the airport. The first location of the airport lei sellers was on Lagoon Drive near Nimitz Highway. Lei were hung in the back of old trucks converted into lei stands.

“(We) had all these jalopies. We just build a stand on. No more electricity over there. Just a dark road and don't even have street lights. What we have is gas lanterns. We hang it onto the stand. This is how it started.” —Harriet Kauwe

The site was a very prosperous one and news traveled quickly to other sellers. The group grew until there were about a dozen trucks along Lagoon Drive. This closed group of lei vendors established themselves as the airport lei sellers.

In 1952 the Hawai‘i Aeronautics Commission invited fifteen lei sellers to move into territory-built thatched huts located on Lagoon Drive at the entrance to the airport.

“They (family and friends) started to play in the back of the (thatched huts). . . . So, that'll get all the tourists. You know, they hear the music. From in the front, when the buses used to stop, (they) take pictures, they all go in the back. . . . Pretty soon, everybody's dancing.” —Lillian Cameron

When a new airport was built in 1962, the lei sellers made another move. The thatched huts were replaced by a single wooden building constructed near the main terminal. In 1978, the lei sellers moved to another airport location, a concrete structure housing twelve lei stands. While family members still provide help, many non-Hawaiians — primarily Filipinas — now work at the airport stands.

Lei selling has become a modern business, but it remains one of the few Hawaiian-operated commercial enterprises built upon a Hawaiian tradition.

 

Link to audioBessie Watson talks about lei selling (.au sound file, 165K).

 

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