There's a small but skilled group of local artisans who practice crafts that were important to ancient Hawaiians. How can they make a living when foreign imitations of their work sell for much less?
By Ronna Bolante
(page 2 of 3)He knows that, for a long time now, what passed for kukui nut lei have usually been just plastic necklaces from China. Same thing with puka shells. But these days, he's seeing more and more imports meant to resemble native works that require a higher level of skill—fishhooks made of boar's tusk, mats woven from pandanus and even weapons. Kai, and the artists like him, live by the double-edged sword of globalization. There's an entire world full of people willing to buy their stuff; and, there's an entire globe full of people willing to make these same crafts for pennies.
"[These foreign producers] should stick to making aloha shirts and muumuu instead of delving deeper in native Hawaiian implements," Kai says. "It's sad, and the losers are the artisans who are trying to sustain a continuation of their culture."
But Kai has no idea what he can do about it. He understands how the free market works. Making Hawaiian implements is his passion, but it's not his career. His day job is as a sales and marketing executive for a rental car company.
"If you're a tourist and all you really want is a fish hook to take back for a nephew and you have a choice between a $15 hook and a $100 one, which one would you buy?" Kai says. "Stores have to satisfy their buying public, but markups are key for them. They're usually going to bring in the $6 fish hook from the Philippines, where materials and labor are cheap, rather than pay a local crafter who wants $50 for it, because he spent four hours on it."
Nobody understands the tensions between culture and commerce more than Maile Meyer, owner of Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii. Her store sells only locally made products, most of them on consignment from artists who don't make art for a living. The more people around the world fall in love with Hawaii, the more commercial interest there is in Hawaiian products.
"It's one thing if you're making soap or hair picks; it's another when you talk about feather lei, stone, bone and wood things," Meyer says. "These things have lineage, and there are artists in a continuum trying to perpetuate that culture.