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Passion of Collecting


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Photo: rae Huo

Clement Villanueva

Ukulele Collector

Ukulele were hard to come by when Clement Villanueva was a youngster in the Philippines.

“We were very poor back home,” he says. “Ten people shared one ukulele.”

I assume they took turns and didn’t all try to play the thing at once. In any case, the ukulele deprivation had a big impact on Villaneueva for which he’s more than compensated. At last count he had a collection of more than 130 ukulele, including 30 of the iconic Hawaii “cigar-box” ukes, many of which he has made himself.  But his passion for the little four-stringed instruments has spread, curiously, to the hand-made cases in which ukulele are carried around.    

“They are so pretty,” he says of the cases. “People admire them more than my ukulele.”

Photo: Rae Huo

Cigar-box ukulele were first made by Hawaii’s legendary guitar and ukulele maker Samuel Kamaka. Villaneueva, who was a metal worker at Pearl Harbor until his recent retirement, studied an original Kamaka cigar-box ukulele and began to make his own. The problem is finding original 1886 cigar boxes.

“They are very rare and hard to find right now,” he said. “I get one or two a month at swap meets and at the shows.”

He collects original Kamaka ukulele and yearns for one special one. “I have so many ukulele but my collection is not complete until I find a painted Kamaka,” he says. “Hand painted in the 1920s. That one is $5,000.  Hard to find.”

Yeah, I say, but what’s the deal with the cases. You’ve got 80 of them, why not sell a few?

“I don’t sell my cases yet because they are too pretty,” he says. And means it.


Photo: Rae Huo

Tomoko & Colin Young

Kokeshi Doll Collectors

Tomoko Young is crazy about the Japanese folk dolls known as kokeshi. Perhaps, her husband Colin, thinks, a tad too crazy. How many does she have? I asked him.

"In the thousands," he says. "Some are still in the box from our last trip to Japan. Four suitcases are still unopened."

Photo: rae Huo

Tomoko, who is originally from Japan, says, "I already had some experience with folk dolls. I was interested in this doll. Soon it became huge and I could not take care of them all. We come back (from Japan) with plenty of kokeshi."

Just what are kokeshi? To the Western eye they look suspiciously like wooden pepper grinders with faces. Traditional kokeshi originated in Japan in the 1600s and were straight pieces of solid wood with enlarged heads. Only artists with permits could make kokeshi because the emporer owned the forests, Colin said. To this day, only artists in Japan who can trace their lineage back to an original kokeshi maker are allowed to make traditional kokeshi. After World War II, artists were allowed to make the popular "creative" koksehi, with heads that bobbed around. (The Derek Jeter bobblehead doll can trace its lineage back to those kokeshi "nodder heads.")

Tomoko is typical of many collectors whose passion transferred from one collectible to another. Before getting kokeshi fever, she was breeding and collecting championship show guppies. In 2003, Tomoko became the first woman ever to win the International Guppy Breeders Association's top prize: Guppy Man of the Year. Of course, they had to change the title to Guppy Person of the Year.

Six years ago, Tomoko turned her collecting sights onto kokeshi and never looked back. She now is a leading kokeshi expert in the United States and is in the process of writing her only book in English about the dolls to help other collectors.

Colin has long since resigned himself to her love of kokeshi. "Her dream was to go out and get these things," Colin says. "I follow whatever dreams she has."


Charles Memminger is a national-award-winning humorist, screenwriter and author who lives in Kaneohe.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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