Lei’d in Paradise

Text by Lisa Yamada
Image by Jonas Maon

The giving and wearing of lei is a unique island tradition and a symbol of aloha spirit and welcoming. But while getting lei’d may be easy, the process of stringing and make the flower garlands is much more involved for the many lei makers in the islands.

Tony Nguyen, a second-generation owner of Lin’s Lei Shop, one of the most popular lei shops among locals, recounts the work involved.

Family Affair

“Growing up in a family of lei makers, mostly I remember always working,” he recalls. “Every day after school, my brothers and I would catch the bus to our shop, where it has been for the past 25 years. There would be bags and bags of flowers that would arrive and spill out on the tables.”

With the fragrance of tuberose and puakenikeni filling the air, the Nguyen family would prepare the flowers to be strung, each bloom cleaned and stem picked off.

Sometimes, like with orchid lei, the flowers need to be deconstructed, the petals picked apart in different ways to create the many different patterns.

Different Forms

There’s the Dahlia, a circular, twisting band of alternating purples, whites, and greens; the Butterfly, which resembles its winged inspiration; the Ali‘i, broad, flat, and reminiscent of the feather lei that adorned kings of ancient Hawai‘i.

Lei Day was created in 1927 to celebrate this symbol and is enjoyed annually on May 1.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported of the momentous first occasion: “Lei blossomed on straw and felt hats, lei decorated automobiles, men and women and children wore them draped about their shoulders. To the city Kamehameha’s statue extended a garland of maile and plumeria, which fluttered in the wind from its extended hand. Lei recaptured the old spirit of the islands (a love of color and flowers, fragrance, laughter and aloha).”

So whether you are saying hello or goodbye, celebrating a momentous occasion, or just looking for a sweet way to steep yourself in island tradition, say it with a lei.