Story and photo by Tor Johnson
If art is sometimes about finding beauty in the commonplace, then Mike Kim’s brooms are truly art.
Mike’s Korean grandfather came to work in Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations, and his grandmother joined him from Korea as a picture bride. Growing up on his father’s carnation farm in Hawai‘i Kai in the 1950s, Mike watched Hawaiians fashion their own brooms using ni au, the hard center spline of the coconut palm frond, wrapped around a bamboo shaft. “These brooms were commonplace,” he says. “It was only in the city that you might find a broom made of broomcorn, like they used on the Mainland.”
Mike, a.k.a. “The Broomman,” began recreating the brooms while working for the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani in Hawaiian cultural activities and guest services, handcrafting them in much the same way Pacific Islanders have been doing for centuries.
Although he started making brooms “just to keep the old Hawaiian tradition alive,” he says, Mike also found the work therapeutic. “In my Waikiki job it was tempting to go out and drink to relieve the stress after a long day of working,” Mike says, “but I really enjoyed going home to make brooms with my family.”
Mike’s brooms are perhaps the ultimate sustainable product. His raw materials, bamboo and palm fronds, are so abundant that we haul truckloads to the dump from our yards. Even though Mike’s materials are basically green waste, his brooms are just as sturdy as synthetics—some of the first brooms he made thirteen years ago are still sweeping länai today, he says. Not only do they last, they work— on grass, gravel, asphalt, cement and hardwood floors (without scratching them up). In the old days ni au brooms were ideal for Hawaiian thatch hale (houses), because they swept up refuse without damaging the dirt floors.
Mike sells most of his brooms at craft fairs around the island between November and December (go to www.icb-web.net for a schedule); they cost about $20. They’re so popular Mike often can’t fit enough in his car to keep up with the demand. The brooms should be hung by the handle, Mike says, to avoid damaging the bristles. That’s just fine with Mike’s customers, some of whom hang them in a place of honor, like a work of art.