Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Dana Edmunds
In the late 1920s Kapela Moses—renowned lei maker, hula dancer and all-around entrepreneur—opened a lei stand in Waikiki. Everyone called Kapela “Aunty Bella” so the place became Aunty Bella’s Lei Stand. Her floral creations became must-haves; the famous and the curious flocked from far and wide to see and wear them.
More than eight decades on, Aunty Bella’s has just reopened after a four-year renovation. Today it’s one of the oldest Native Hawaiian-owned businesses in Waikiki: a tiny hut of color and scent set in the Royal Hawaiian Center not far from Fendi and Chanel. Bella’s granddaughter, Naomi Wahinekapua Braine, sits inside examining fluttering petals of fresh tuberose, preparing to string them into a lei. “A real lei-maker does not string a lei that will not keep,” she says. “You have to place every flower correctly.” Lei-making at Aunty Bella’s is no ordinary job, chimes in Kapua Medeiros, Naomi’s daughter and Bella’s great-granddaughter. She talks of her sense of kuleana, the responsibility she feels to the family tradition.
Both Naomi and Kapua speak of Aunty Bella with affection and reverence. Aunty didn’t go to the store much, they say, but rather fed and even healed the ‘ohana with what she grew on family land, where Naomi and her cousins were raised. The keiki peeled ginger and picked plumeria each morning before school, and they were given a quarter for each bucket of blossoms they collected. Hard work, Naomi laughs now, but fun, and twenty-five cents was enough for a movie and maybe even a bowl of saimin.
In the twenty-first century, Bella’s descendants talk of how they are holding to her values as they run the shop. They prefer to buy flowers locally and to cultivate relationships with Hawai‘i farmers. Sometimes that means higher costs and makes things a little riskier, they say, but they accept this. “I am just the keeper of a legacy,” says Naomi. “I think of the symbolism of lei,” says Kapua as her hands nimbly weave orchid petals into a thick, deep magenta strand. “It’s like the hug a child gives to a parent. It’s a circle of life.”