The Lei, An Infinite Circle of Aloha

November 28, 2016

A magic chest of island leis at Lita’s Leis & Flower Shoppe (59 N Beretania St, (808) 521-9065)

It is still one of my best childhood memories that I cherish in my heart even after many years have passed by. A big strand of yellow plumeria lei placed on my neck upon my arrival at the airport. A slightly dewy and velvety feeling against my nape, the sweet island smell instantly shrouding in my world…my sister and I shrieked and danced around as if we received a gold medal. A weary feeling of jet lag was long gone, and a lingering discord from trivial arguments such as who’s going to take the window seat were amended, from the shared joy of a welcoming lei. And it was the same for hundreds of others who arrived from all over the world. Everyone was welcomed. Everyone was smiling, both the givers and the receivers.

Perfect big blooms of yellow plumeria in strands at Island Gifts & Flowers

Maybe it was this collective feeling of pure bliss which has never been shared before, something of this magnitude struck me, even in the heart of a 6-year-old. This simple act of welcome or aloha, was so genuine that people talked about and did the same to their families and loved ones back home; they brought back leis made of shells and kukui nuts so that they could share the same experience of being welcomed and received. No complicated words were necessary. Just a hug and a lei.

Kukui nuts with Ti leaves and shells from Island Gifts & Flowers. A perfect gift to bring back home which lasts forever with your memories of Hawai’i.

Some say that giving a lei is special because it also renders layers of “mana” (spirit or energy). In the tradition of hula, Kahiko (traditional form of hula) dancers adorn themselves with lei made with native plants from the Hawaiian forests to honor Laka, the goddess of hula. Taking the traditional method, maile vines, `a`ali`i bushes (Dodonaea viscosa) and other native plants are wrapped and braided into connecting rows and strands, channeling the spirit of Laka into the lei, the dancer, the halau and everyone who witnesses the sacred dance.

Elements of the island, mana of nature and the maker are all imbued into a strand of lei, piece by piece. Fresh orchids at Jenny’s Lei Shop (65 N Beretania St., (808) 521-1595)

At a graduation ceremony, new graduates literally feel a weight of love on their shoulders as they receive a lei from everyone who comprises their lives; a colorful tower of lei appears around their necks, festivity evolves and growing warmth surrounds them by circles of family and friends who add a lei one by one, with touching well wishes that will be remembered for years to come. By the end of the day, the mana of a whole ‘village’ blesses and protects them for their future endeavors. Any life time event—birthday, wedding, retirement, funeral, or just an uneventful normal day, can be celebrated with a lei. Simply feeling the elements of nature, is worth a celebration.

Lei made of flagrant flowers are very popular for any occasion. Pikake (Arabian jasmine) flowers are in season now. Traditionally in Hawai’i, Pikake leis are worn by the bride. (Image: fresh Oahu grown pikake lei, $8 per strand, by Island Gifts & Flowers)

As if relaying down the mana of an ancient Polynesian tradition, the act of lei making, giving and receiving has thrived throughout history. From the era of a sea voyage by outrigger canoes to luxury liners, to the era of aviation travel today, the tradition follows the stream of travelers at any celebration, and this unique art of giving took root in the islands. And such roots are still seen through the small lei shops throughout Chinatown in Honolulu, the historic harbor-front business district. Along with a Chinese herbal medicine apothecary, a window display of roasted Char-Siu pork, and various eateries and market stands, the lei shops appear at almost every corner with buckets full of red gingers and other tropical flowers in the store front. The refrigerated display cases are always filled with rows of boxed lei in every color and design you can think of.

Most of the time, you’ll find a better price in these local shops. Many pick fresh cut flowers on their way home after visiting markets. (Image: M. P. Lei Shop, 1145 Maunakea St., (808) 531-3206)

All shops carry a number of lei in various styles and colors daily. (Image: Lin’s Lei Shop)

On Kekaulike Street, Maunakea Street, and North Beretania, it is a part of an everyday scenery. There are always people gathered in front of the lei shops, trying to find “the one” that suits the occasion and best celebrates the life of that special someone. Since the universal norm to make fresh products is to use locally available materials, the shops mainly use fresh flowers picked in Oahu (some even from the vendor’s backyards in Manoa valley). This makes the lei found in Chinatown more special, full of mana bred in the island.

A quick stop-by often stretches into a serious discussion over the right choice for the occasion.

Since the day that I received my first lei, the lei reminds me of Hawai’i which welcomes everyone with open arms. Nothing else seems to matter. Everyone was accepted as mother nature embraces anyone who appreciates its beauty. After so many years since, this tradition is still seen everywhere on the islands. Every time I see the reciprocal joy that the lei creates, I feel like Hawai’i is paradise. This infinite circle of mana that people share between each other with such generosity, cannot compare to anything else.

Here are some more circles of island beauties I found for you on my recent stroll through Chinatown. These fresh flowers are so bold in color and rich in texture thanks to the rain, soil and sun. You can see how the colors ooze out in every pigment captured in these images. Enjoy!

Orchid lei is a popular choice and available year around (Island Gifts & Flowers)

O'hai ali'i lei is favored to honor the accomplishment and achievements as its feathery texture resembles the feathered ornaments worn by the Ali‘i and other high ranking members of old Hawai’i ($18, Island Gifts & Flowers)

A rare combination is that of the kukui nuts and cigar flowers; the cigar lei is usually worn by men. It provides a great compliment to colorful aloha shirts. ($20, Island Gifts & Flowers)

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