Story by Aaron Kandell
Photos by Kyle Rothenborg
The fallow deer seems curious—ears perked, nostrils flared. A chestnut-streaked tassel of hair along its neck stands on end. When Gordon Lau takes a step closer, the deer looks like it might bolt. Maybe it would, if it had feet.
Standing in the small workshop attached to the back of his Halawa Heights house, Lau applies a light sheen of eye shadow above the deer’s glass eye with an airbrush gun. He steps back to survey his work, lowering his thick magnifying glasses, the kind watchmakers wear. “It’s looking better,” Lau assesses. “Almost alive.”
For Lau, one of a handful of professional taxidermists in Hawai‘i and the only one on O‘ahu, the technique of bringing the dead to life is not just a career but a lifelong passion, one that runs in the family. “My grandfather taught me the old-school way,” says Lau of his grandfather Kong Sing Lau, a self-made man who hunted out of necessity to feed his family of ten. Taxidermy followed as an extension of his enterprising nature, a way to extend the profits from a kill. “As a kid I used to love going into his shack, where all the hunters would gather with their animals to be mounted,” Lau recalls. “I loved the stories they would tell about how they caught them. It sparked my imagination. And the whole time I’d help my grandfather skin his game.”
Lau proudly displays his grandfather’s 1925 diploma from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy alongside a snarling collection of Lau’s best work: a black bear in mid-strike, a wild boar with glistening razor tusks. While the years and termites have taken their toll, the yellowing diploma is still Lau’s “most prized possession. My grandfather would be happy to know that I took over,” says Lau. “This is what he wanted me to do.”