story by Joana Varawa
The first time I met Leilehua Yuen, she was teaching a class in lauhala weaving and lei-making at a hula workshop on the Big Island, gracefully dressed in a flowing muumuu and fine feather lei that she had made herself. But when the workshop was over and it came time to leave, she excused herself for a few minutes and reappeared in full motorcycle leathers. "Cow hide takes more abrasion than human skin," she remarked, pulling on her gloves, tucking her waist-long hair under her helmet and checking the battery on her cell phone. Then she mounted her sleek Honda Nighthawk and roared off down the road home toward Hilo.
photos by MACARIO
It might not have been your typical image of an accomplished hula teacher and Hawaiian craftswoman, but the moment was typical
of Leilehua’s varied roles in life. Having created a livelihood that incorporates such diverse elements as motorcycle riding, art, space exploration, dancing, chanting, Hawaiian crafts and Internet entrepreneurship,Leilehua—or "Auntie Lele," as her hula students call her—melds the traditions of Hawaii with the digital age. "My work is to promote understanding between visitors, new residents and the Hawaiian community," she says. "I revere the culture, and I think my mixed Chinese-Hawaiian-European heritage helps me to communicate its value. Why not use all the modern skills I can gather?"
As the "Wrench Wench" on one of her Internet sites, Auntie Lele markets "motorwear for women who don’t ride behind," along with offering practical tips—like how to weld a baffle for Yamaha pipes—and cultural philosophy, such as why riding a motorcycle is like dancing hula. In fact, she is working on a web link called "Hula Rider" to explore more deeply the relationship of hula and the art of motorcycle riding. "Dancing hula, you have to be completely present in each moment, not thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner," she says. "And to ride well, you have to be on the bike, not thinking about your destination. Your life depends on it."
Last year, a German TV network, having heard stories of the "biker kumu," sent a film crew to feature Leilehua in a documentary on Hawaii. "It was hilarious" she remembers. "My garage is made of stone set into the side of a hill. The sequence opens with me pulling out of this cave-like garage, completely swathed in black leather—boots, gauntlets, the works—on my little Nighthawk, and buzzing up the Saddle Road to a soundtrack of Born to Be Wild . Then I head into the forest primeval, where I give thanks for the abundance of the forest, gather native plants and weave a lei."
On her website, kaahelehawaii.com, Leilehua offers an abundance of news, merchandise and services: She sells artwork; will take you on a tour of remote Big Island cultural sites; offers courier services on the bike; shares recipes and more in the "Kau Kau Kitchen"; answers questions about Hawaii; teaches hula; and, through her "Pacific Island Shipping and Trading" company, sells hula implements and supplies that she and her daughter make themselves. If you wanted to put on a full-scale luau in Minnesota in the dead of winter, Auntie Lele could probably get it all together for you. She also provides a wide array of media services, including copywriting, editing, graphics, product and logo design, and more.
Wearing yet another hat, she also promotes space education and science on the Big Island as a consultant for the Hawaii Island Space Exploration Society. At the 2002 World Space Congress in Houston, she chanted for an audience of space-science leaders and was selected to consult on cultural appropriateness for the 2003 International Lunar Conference to be held on the Big Island this November.
Explaining her support for space exploration, which has been a controversial subject on the Big Island, Leilehua says she sees her cultural and scientific interests as "balancing each other. The Hawaiian culture was based on the stars. They were our calendar and our map. The first humans to land on these shores studied the same stars we study today, and their patterns in the sky still tell the stories of our people."
Leilehua grew up with her grandmother and grandfather in a beautiful 1930s house with a huge parlor and a view of Hilo Bay, the house she still lives in. Her grandfather, Henry Yuen, was one of the first native-born MD’s to practice on the Big Island. In addition to his medical training, he spoke Hawaiian fluently and knew the herbal lore of old Hawaii. One of Leilehua’s favorite projects is restoring his garden.
The Hilo house is a repository of five generations’ worth of treasures and looks lost in a 1940s time warp. Leilehua still cooks in her grandmother’s heavy old aluminum pots and cherishes her collection of Fiestaware. Her grandfather’s examining screen hides workout equipment in the bathroom, and his stethoscope hangs from a wall above a row of old apothecary jars. In the parlor are vintage ukuleles and guitars (which Leilehua sells and trades), gourds, a grand piano, a bamboo bar and a photograph of her very handsome father in cowboy clothes.
As a kumu hula, Auntie Lele named her troupe Halau Hula Na Mohala Halai—the "halau blooming in the calm"—after her great-grandmother Namohala Ah Poy. She requires that her dancers and musicians pay strict attention to the meaning and essence of the hula they perform. To prepare for a surfing hula, for example, they gather iliili (surf-polished pebbles), go for a canoe ride with a master canoe builder, clean and polish their own coconut shells to make ulýulý rattles, braid cordage to duplicate the rigging of a canoe, create a piece of tapa to understand the traditional costume, and translate each line to know the meaning of the dance.
A few years ago, Leilehua started a crafts group called Ka Hui Paahana ("the group of workers") and taught young mothers how to make marketable crafts from materials that would otherwise go to waste, like the hala leaves that are strewn along the shoreline and end up in county rubbish trucks. Her idea was to develop a cottage industry that would supplement income, teach cultural practices and provide a social setting for young mothers who were often isolated. "We toss the kids in a backpack, go to the beach, collect and clean the leaves, make crafts, and the kids get to play on the beach," Leilehua says. "It beats staying home watching television, and the mothers can make extra money."
How does Leilehua/Auntie Lele keep the many strands of her life together? "The same way you eat an elephant," she quips. "One bite at a time. How do you keep the strands of a mat straight? You organize, clean, have the pattern fixed in your mind, then keep at it, hour after hour, day after day, until you have accomplished your task. But if it weren’t for my insomnia and Kona coffee, I would never get my work done."
Often rising in the middle of the night, Leilehua brews a pot of strong black coffee and sits down at her computer. "Today," she says, "many people seem to believe they owe nothing to anyone but themselves. My grandparents taught me that duty to one’s community comes first. My tutu kane (grandfather) Henry taught me that the world is a garden. You can’t keep harvesting without tending it and putting something back."