By Léo Azambuja
The lei po‘o, in all its beauty, is a lei especially made to be worn on the head, looking like a crown of flowers, leaves, ferns or feathers. Since ancient times, the lei po‘o has been an essential part of hula in Hawai‘i.
In the first written account of hula, Capt. James Cook described in his journal a performance on Kaua‘i in January 1778. Though Cook wrote about musical instruments, there was no mention of costumes. A year later, Cook returned to the Islands, and the surgeon of the HMS Discovery, David Samwell, wrote about a hula performance on the Big Island, mentioning for the first time hula costumes, including the lei po‘o.
“It was a woman dancing to the Sound of a Drum… An elderly woman advanced in the Ring dressed upon the Occasion. She had a feathered ruff called Herei on her Head, a large Piece of Cloth was rolled round her waist with part of it hanging below her knees, round the small of her Legs were tyed some Matting with Dogs Teeth in it in rows …,” Samwell wrote.
The feathered ruff mentioned by Cook’s surgeon was a lei po‘o. According to Caroline K. Klarr, in her book Hawaiian Hula and Body Ornamentation, feather lei were reserved for women of high rank belonging to the ali‘i class.
Fast forward two centuries. Elvrine Chow moved to Kaua‘i from California in the 1970s. When she visited the former Coco Palms Hotel in Wailua, she already knew about lei, but she was amazed to see people wearing it on their heads.
“I thought they were really royalty, I was just in awe with these people,” said Elvrine, adding she thought the lei po‘o was something really special.
It just so happened that Elvrine’s sister in law, a Hawaiian-Chinese, was a hula dancer.
“She taught all our children in her garage how to dance hula, and then she booked us for a baby luau,” Elvrine said. “So we got out the sewing machines and we made outfits for the kids to wear so they could dance,” Elvrine said.
Her sister in law then told the mothers they were going to dance in the luau; she told them they had to wear their best mu‘umu‘u and make their own lei po‘o.
“That’s when I learned how (to make lei po‘o), and I never stopped. I’m not a very good hula dancer but I’m a really good haku maker,” Elvrine says, laughing.
Today, the word haku is loosely used to describe lei po‘o. But haku, which means “to braid” in Hawaiian language, is just one of the old techniques of making lei, whether to be worn around the neck or on the head. In ancient Hawai‘i, there were six basic methods of building lei; haku, wili, kīpuʻu, hili, humu-papa and kui.
Elvrine’s lei po‘o are usually made with the wili method — flowers and leaves with stems up to three inches long are tied to a center cord by winding a string around it.
She said when she found out how to make lei po‘o, she couldn’t stop making them.
“I was giving them away for Christmas presents and birthday presents, and every time, wearing them, because they make you feel so special, to be crowned with flowers, it’s awesome,” she said.
Then in 1996, she decided to turn her hobby into a side business. In the beginning, she would get orders from shops, make the lei at home at night, and drop it off on her way to her day job.
About seven years ago, Elvrine started attending different farmers markets throughout the island, demonstrating how to make lei po‘o and selling them. Two years ago, she published a book titled Heavenly Hakus Kaua‘i, and it has since been distributed to public libraries throughout the Hawaiian Islands. She also teaches group classes at the Kaua‘i Museum once a month and private classes whenever requested.
Last month, Hope and Colin Tams, of Northern Nevada, came to Kaua‘i to get married. Hope found out about Elvrine by serendipity, and decided to learn how to make her own lei po‘o for her big day.
“It’s so much better than buying a random bouquet,” Hope said. Meanwhile, Collin made a braided ti leaf lei for him to wear in the wedding.
Though Elvrine is widely known for her art, she humbly says she’s “not all that; I’m just out there.” There are many other lei makers, “really expert lei makers,” on the island, she said.
During May Day and other special occasions, they get to see each other and admire each other’s work, said Elvrine, adding she puts herself more “out there” because she wants to perpetuate the art of making lei po‘o.
“It’s an art, it really is an art. It’s got to stay alive,” she said.
Evrine’s lei po‘o are certified by both Kaua‘i Made and Kaua‘i Grown programs. Find her on Facebook under Heavenly Hakus Kaua‘i. Or just take her class at the Kaua‘i Museum in Līhu‘e on the second Friday of the month. You’ll also find her at the Kaua‘i Community College Farmers Market in Puhi Saturday morning, at Kealia Farm Market in Kapa‘a Monday and Friday from 3-6 p.m., and at the Culinary Market at The Shops at Kukui‘ula Wednesday from 3:30-6 p.m.
“It’s a very cool life, I’m really grateful for this life,” says Elvrine, with a smile blossoming on her face.