Story by Roland Gilmore
Photo by Monte Costa
In the constellation of traditional arts, koko—carrying nets—are lesser stars, often outshined by what they were made to carry: ipu (gourds). Pre-contact Hawaiians invented more uses for ipu than any other Polynesians. They used them as water bottles, bowls and dishes, food containers, medical tools, musical instruments … nearly fifty applications in all. And the gourds were often works of art: Some were manipulated while growing to create specific shapes; others, particularly from Ni‘ihau, were intricately decorated. Most of these gourds would be carried in a net, which themselves ranged from plain, everyday designs to elaborately detailed constructions.
Even the simplest of koko can require hundreds of feet of cord, usually made from either coconut fibers or the olona shrub. With the introduction of Western technology and materials in the nineteenth century, the ipu fell into disuse, and with it the koko. By the early 1970s, virtually no one knew how to make the nets. That’s when Val Ching met Paul “Pua” Aona out at Ulu Mau Village, a now-defunct cultural arts center.
“Uncle Pua was nearly blind, but he was sewing fishing nets and weaving coconut crafts—hats, baskets, his hands just going all the time,” says Val, who is himself a woodworker and craftsman of the type who finds beauty in a well-tied knot. One evening, Pua showed him something new: Working by feel with an antique koko, he’d figured out how to re-create a net for an ipu wai (water gourd). “So he lays it all out on the ground and we went at it. I helped him make that one, then he says, ‘OK, now you go home and figure it out.’”
It took another ten years and the help of his brother—a master of boat rigging—but Val eventually did figure it out. With Pua Aona’s passing, Val is one of few who can make these nets in the old style. And while he regularly takes on students, most find the learning curve too steep. “I’ve tried over the last six or eight years to pass this on, but it’s so difficult: There are only lashes and hitches, but it’s very hard teaching knots to people.”