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.