Talk Story: Uli‘i Castor

Anything works, said Uli‘i Castor, a part-time employee with the Kauai Museum, as her fingers deftly sorted through the assortment of varigated leaves and small, bright red carnation hibiscus.

The only thing you cannot use is wire, she said, laying out manageable sections of Boston fern.

When the May Day Lei Contest unveils its entries May 1 at the Kauai Museum, lei submitted to judging will be free from wire. That is one of the few restrictions in the contest that started 35 years ago by Irmalee and Walter Pomroy who were known for their skill and expertise with working with flowers and foliage.

Happy Tamanaha, whose daughter Lani Tamanaha Broadbent lives in Wailua, added the keiki lei competition four years ago. Budding lei artisans create their floral creations under the watchful eye of hundreds of spectators who flock to the museum, attracted by the hundreds of creations by floral artists. Selected lei submitted for competition will also be available to buy in a silent auction.

Lei for judging can be dropped off between 6:30 to 9 a.m. on May 1 (the event is always held on May 1); judging takes place from 9:30 a.m., and doors open to the public from 11 a.m. Lei from vendors are available for people to celebrate May Day as Lei Day.

Castor has been a winner in the contest which was opened to museum employees just two years ago.

“I earned awards, a second place in the green category, and a second place in hat haku last year,” Castor said. “The year before, it was a second place and a third place.”

The hairpiece developing during the lunchtime conversation evolved into a study of pinks, whites peppered with bright red from the hibiscus blooms. It was presented to Cleo Kanai, the museum gift shop head, in passing conversation, and drew admiring stares from gift shop patrons.

What kind of materials do you work with?

Last year, the lei that earned second place in green was made with koa seedpods. When I brought in the lei for judging, they all looked at it, and wanted to know what that was.

For the hat haku, I used the center part of the wild sunflowers which were growing all around because of the rains.

Anything works. You need to be aware of what is around you. When I walk, I look at what is growing on the side of the road. Or, I might notice what is growing in someone’s yard (you need to ask if you want to use their things). And, of course, what is growing in my own yard. You can use whatever you find.

What is a lei?

Lei has a lot of meaning.

This is my mana‘o on lei. You share lei with great friends and family, especially when they are leaving. You share (through the lei) what you have with feeling to whoever gets the lei — it’s the aloha spirit.

Circular lei is like joining together — there is no end, it keeps going — lei keeps people close together. Lei connects with people, and they share their friendships.

How did you learn to make lei?

I was born on Oahu and raised on Molokai.

My dad was in the U.S. Army, and my mom received land on Molokai from her hanai family. When I was young, my father who was originally from Maui, retired and we moved to Molokai to live on the land my mother received. That’s where I really learned how to do lei. We had flowers in our hair every day. I learned from my mom, cousins, and everyone.

There are so many different kinds of flowers and foliage in Hawaii, we could always have something in our hair — nothing artificial — just whatever we could find. When I moved to California, when I couldn’t find something, I would buy bunches of flowers just so we could have flowers.

Is there a difference between hairpieces (haku) and lei?

Even hairpieces join people together. You start with the base which can be anything — fern, dried banana stalk, thread, or raffia — a lei is just adding on to the hairpiece.

I still have flowers in my hair. Today, I just gathered dendrobiums growing around the house and added some greens. Jane Gray, the Kauai Museum director, noticed and wanted to know what kind of things those were.

What do you do when not making lei or hairpieces?

I lived in California for 18 years, moving back to Kauai in 1977 where I could finish my federal service as civil service for the U.S. Navy.

I do a lot of volunteering with the St. Rafael Church where I serve on the bereavement committee, do lead singing at the 7 a.m. Mass, and help prepare food with marriages (at the church).

I also volunteer at the Hawaii Foodbank, Kauai Branch because it counts towards the hours for the church food outreach program which serves a lot of people.

I also belong to Aha Hui Ka‘ahumanu, Chapter 6 Lihue who will celebrate 100 years in 2017. It is one of only three Hawaiian societies and is second only to the Royal Order of Kamehameha who hosted the Prince Kuhio observance at the Prince Kuhio Park where they serve as the park caretakers.

Aha Hui Ka‘ahumanu pays tribute to Queen Ka‘ahumanu and is open only to women of Hawaiian ancestry. Its colors are black and gold with a gold lei. When I’m in full regalia, it is such a great feeling.

I help wherever I can — especially if it’s for kupuna, or the children. I help at sporting events with scorekeeping and other things. I try to stay busy so there is no time for aches and pain.

I help make all the lei and hairpieces for Kumu Hula Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin of halau Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala.

What happened with this year’s Merrie Monarch and the Ohia Rapid Death virus?

(Kumu Leina‘ala was troubled with the suggestion that ohia not be used for this year’s performances.) When her Miss Aloha Hula contestant — congratulations to Brylynn Aiwohi for earning first runner-up honor, and earning the prestigious Hawaiian language award following a tie-breaker — needed yellow ohia blossoms, Kumu reached out to the community for help from people who had ohia mamo growing in their yards. We got enough to make lei, but she did not use ohia lei, this year after receiving suggestions from her hula brothers on not using lehua. I have a neighbor who offered lehua from a big tree she has growing in her yard, but kumu said she wants the dancers to be maka‘ala, or becoming aware of what is around them.

The dancers need to be maka‘ala because the halau has a hoike coming up Oct. 8. You always need to look around you.

How do you connect with lei?

Marina Pascua, who volunteers at the museum on Tuesdays, won the Governor’s Award during last year’s contest. Marina used the yellow ohai ali‘i with leaves from the Silver Oak. She learned how to make lei with non-floral items from Cleo who works in the gift shop taking a class on ribbon and eyelash lei only added to what she already knew about making lei using traditional materials.

I worked with Lola Bukoski who learned how to make ilima lei from her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Bukoski. That is a lot of work because it takes a thousand ilima blooms to make a lei 36 inches long. You need to pick the buds in the morning, let it sit on styrofoam until it opens and then use a needle to create the lei. Lola learned all this, and by helping her, I learn.

My sister, Tica Kekahuna, is the cafeteria manager for Molokai High School and does the lei and hairpieces for Moana’s Hula Halau when they go to the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. She could never go to the festival because she cared for her husband. This year, she got to go. I learn a lot from her.

Are there any kapu with lei?

There is a myth about not giving hapa‘i (pregnant) ladies circular lei because, according to what tutu told me, if the lady wears the lei the umbilical cord will wrap around the unborn child. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I honor it out of respect — respect of where it came from.

A few years ago, Ka Lei Mokihana O Leina‘ala had a dancer who was hapa‘i and participating in the Merrie Monarch. The wahine had a lei created so she could participate without having to wear a circular lei.

Do you have any favorite materials you like to work with for lei?

I really don’t have any favorites — I like them all. I always experiment with different leaves and when there are no flowers, I use leaves. Even weeds — that’s just a term, they’re still plants — make nice lei.

Last year, while I was walking one morning, I saw the koa pods and told them (yes, I talk to plants, too), I’m going to make something out of you fellas.

Are you planning to enter a lei for this year’s contest?

People at the museum are always asking me what am I going to have for this year. It’s going to be a surprise. I know what I’m going to do, they just need to wait until May 1.

This year, there is a new category — first-time lei maker. This category is for people who have never entered a lei in the contest.

Applications for the May Day Lei Contest are available at the Kauai Museum Gift Shop.

Info: 245-6931.

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