Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

The Last Stand

Story by Sheila Sarhangi. Photo by Jenny Sathngam.

In 1928, Kapela Moses, a.k.a. “Auntie Bella,” started selling lei in Waikīkī. When she died, her ‘ohana took over the business. The stand ultimately closed in 2016 as the oldest and last lei stand in Waikīkī, a vestige of a vanishing era.

In April 2018, Auntie Bella’s reopened in the Royal Hawaiian Center as The Lei Stand, only this time not as a business but as an installation participating in CONTACT, an annual exhibition of contemporary Island art. For three weeks the hula hālau (hula troupe) Ka Liko o ka Palai made lei for visitors—and gave them away. “The idea was to construct a dynamic between visitors and locals in the middle of Waikīkī,” says Maile Meyer, curator of the installation and executive director of Pu‘uhonua Society, a nonprofit that supports the work of cultural practitioners and Hawai‘i-based artists. “To give lei, you have to be present. You put everything down, face the person, use two hands, honi [share breath] or kiss, smell the flowers together. We wanted to offer a tiny reset in Waikīkī.”

“Some people cried and took photos. Others asked, ‘What’s the catch?’ and would push us away,” says Misty Kela‘i, executive director of the Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts. “We would say, ‘There is no catch. We just want to say aloha.’” Some nights they gave away two hundred lei; others, they couldn’t give twenty. “Aloha is a two-way thing. I can offer you aloha, but if you don’t accept it, it just stops,” says Kela‘i.

When the installation closed, Monte McComber, cultural director for the Royal Hawaiian Center, asked Pu‘uhonua Society to continue The Lei Stand as a pilot for six months. Now it runs as a culturally based micro-enterprise. Local organizations gather materials, make and sell lei and keep the proceeds. It’s a partnership that might end with the stand as a stable tenant. “There’s value in having a Hawaiian presence in an area where you don’t really expect it,” says Meyer, adding that lei makers are still giving away as many lei as they sell. “It’s a nostalgic reminder of what was and what could still be.”