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Braine, Naomi (on lei making and native business in Waikīkī)

Camille Naluai
April 2004

Naomi Braine has been making lei all her life. She is the third "Aunty Bella"; her grandmother, the original Aunty Bella, would sew lei for tourists as they jumped off their ships and headed for the beaches of Waikīkī. Her grandmother taught her daughter, who taught her kids and today Naomi is searching for someone in her family to take over the business. But in today’s world, that task is proving to be difficult.

Camille: How did you get started in lei making?

Naomi: I got started in lei making from my grandmother and mom and my aunties and also my uncles when I was about four or five years old.

Camille: Tell me about Aunty Bella’s.

Naomi: Right now I’m taking care of Aunty Bella’s lei stand. I’m third generation and I’m looking for the fourth or even the fifth generation to take over. That’s my mission. It’s not easy to survive in Waikīkī at this time and age. It’s very difficult. I’m still pursuing that challenge to keep it going because I’m the third generation. It’s difficult to upkeep the lei stand business in Waikīkī because of cost, rent, property tax and all that. It makes it difficult for Hawaiian people to keep the culture going of lei making. Lei making has changed a lot in the last twenty years. Things are a little more modern, not like the typical Hawaiian-made leis like the twining, the haku, the wili, the poepoe and others that we normally do. We have the kui of course, it was invented. Before, maybe about 30 years ago and past we only used to do tourist leis.

Camille: Which are?

Naomi: Tourists leis would be like orchid leis, plumerias and typical, simple. Now it’s a little advanced.

Camille: Even the tourists are expecting the more advanced kind?

Naomi: Well the tourist wants the advanced kind but they want it for the price it was 50 years ago. Local people, they never ask how much. They want something, they’ll buy it. In that sense it is difficult to depend on tourists, so I’ve changed the format of our leis by making it a little better quality. They are well made so that tourist will understand that their leis will keep better. They come here, to Hawai‘i and get cheap leis and they say ‘oh my lei didn’t last’ and I say ‘because you didn’t buy good quality lei’. That’s the reason why I started making better quality; tighter leis, and I explain to them the difference. Now, I have regular customers that come every year and buy leis because they say ‘your leis do last’. I have experimented with testing leis when I travel. How to keep them different ways and what is the best way. So, every time I travel I take leis with me. When I’m through testing them I give them all away. That has helped us to sell leis more to tourist, this is what I have done.

Camille: You mentioned that you are looking for the fourth generation. That means someone in the past had to be here before you and survive the push to get these lei stands off of Waikīkī sidewalks. Did Aunty Bella do that? How did she survive?

Naomi: Aunty Bella was my grandmother, Bella Moses. What we do, we try to bring the kids here to sew. Not only my kids, anybody. I have niece working here. I tell her ‘bring the kids teach them how to string.’ All of us grow up to teach our kids how to string leis and make different types of leis. That’s part of our family culture to be lei makers. Everybody has to learn whether you’re a female or a male. All my children know how to string leis, every one of them, so does my sister’s. There are eight of us in our family. We all teach our kids how to string. Some cannot get the knack of it, some can. You gotta find the one who has the knack.

Camille: Because it’s not just a matter of threading flowers together, it’s a skill and art.

Naomi: It’s an art to be a lei maker. Anybody can string lei but to make beautiful lei you have to be an artist and create something that people will say ‘yeah, that’s a beautiful lei.’ That’s the difficult part. You have to find those that can do that and you work on them and train them to keep making leis so that they can have ideas in their brain.

Camille: You’re like a little beacon of Hawaiian culture in Waikīkī. How important is it for you to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture and keep it alive?

Naomi: It’s very difficult. Why? The hotels, many years ago, use to promote leis. The airlines use to give leis to people coming in. Now they don’t. I can understand that because the budget is pretty bad. Before in the hotels, I remember when I was younger, everyone wore flowers in their hair. Now, people don’t wear fresh flower leis like they use to. How can you promote this part of our culture when we don’t do it? I tell the girls in the hotels, ‘Where’s your flower?’ We also give them flowers if they come up. I tell them they should do that. If you want to promote Hawai‘i, part of Hawai‘i is flowers, whether it is in your hair or around your neck, on your head, on your wrist, on your ankle, wherever.

Camille: How would you get more Hawaiians on Waikīkī?

Naomi: What I’ve been doing is to do anything to promote our lei-making culture I jump on it and I do it. Whether it’s lei making for the shopping center (Royal Hawaiian) or we do special classes. I have done articles and picture taking for Japanese magazines. I do that just to promote lei making and also Aunty Bella’s. I have a sister who does lei making at Duke’s also. It’s part of our thing.

Camille: Oh yeah! I know which one you’re talking about.

Naomi: Yeah! That was part of Aunty Bella’s. We are also at the Reef hotel, which my niece takes care of. So it’s kind of a family thing. Generally I take care of the original Aunty Bella’s

Camille: What is your favorite style of lei to make?

Naomi: I like to make poepoe or wili.

Camille: For those of us who don’t know, what are those lei and how do you make them?

Naomi: Sometimes I go into the mountains and pick them. I used to do that all the time but now I don’t have time running this business. I have to find unusually things and put it together. That’s what I like to do. I used to do that as a hobby but now it’s my job. It’s difficult to do that, I don’t have time. I use to find unusual leaves or unusual flowers even if they are fresh or dry and put it by color so that when they dry they look beautiful.

Camille: Your work day is not just 8 hours yeah?

Naomi: No, 12 hours or whatever.

Camille: Besides lei making, do you wish there were any other types of cultural activities here in Waikīkī?

Naomi: It’s difficult because; I hate to say this but, a lot of people come here and say ‘Do you speak English?’ Well that’s what the Americans told us. We have to speak English. So I tell them, ‘Yes we do.’ They say ‘well we can’t understand anybody in the hotels they have a mean accent.’ I say ‘well they are probably immigrants from all over.’ They hire people like that because they show up for work everyday, they don’t take time off but the quality of customer service is very poor. This is what I tell everybody. I let them know too those are not Hawaiians. They also say ‘Where’s the aloha?’ I say ‘it’s at Aunty Bella’s, we’re the friendliest people here.’ That’s what I think and that’s why, I think, a lot of people are kind of turned off.