For the Stewardship and Evolution of Lei: The Dedication of a Deed
People ask me all the time “Why did you start the Lei Company?” My go to response is always, “It wasn’t an easy decision but why not?” At the point that I bought an orchid lei imported from Thailand from a Latino man in front of the Paramount Theater, a candy lei from an an African American grandma at a Berkeley High graduation or a cheap plastic lei from the Dollar Store so I could make a quick money lei for a birthday, I thought, “why not?” To those sellers leis are just a commodity to sell for a quick buck during the graduation season. They have the gist of what it means to give lei as a congratulatory act but they do not imbue lei with intention, with the heart and mana that is at the essence of every garland at production and throughout our supply chain.
I have always been in the business of co-creating the spaces to bring awareness to the pains of Pacific Islanders and so it was a natural progression for me to want bring to every sentient being and our living Universe not only our pains, but our joys. Marie A. McDonald, a Smithsonian lauded Master Lei Maker from the Big Island of Hawai’i said it best:
“Leis are a fragile art form, and giving lei represents love, affection, respect and honor. Leis exemplify arms entwined about another person’s neck — mother and child, lover and beloved, friend and friend. And the memory lasts forever.”
Those whose view of lei as just a commodity can never be stewards of such a delicate art form. My offering to lei’s stewardship is in it’s evolution here in diaspora for future generations. That is where my heart lies. In mana, it lies with community wealth building.
In 2013, the National Coalition for Asian Pacific Community Development reported that in the wake of the recession, from 2007–2011, Pacific Islander poverty in the United States increased 60%, 2.4 times greater than the average national increase of 27%. Entrepreneurship is an integral piece of the equation for any community to build wealth. How fortunate are we as Pacific Islanders to have a widely accepted expression of our love so woven into the Western mainstream.
At the time of this writing, graduation season is sailing full steam ahead. Graduation is a retail season that in the United States brings in on average $5.4B. And like our health and education statistics, the statistics on lei sales are not disaggregated within the floral industry nor compiled on any level that I can easily find. My gut tells me there are no statistics on the economic impact of leis to the graduation retail industry. We are also embarking on summer and here in the continental United States that means the proliferation of kitschy Hawaiian Luau themed parties with fake floral leis galore. I don’t think I need to go into any great detail here about the offensiveness of party store Hawaiian luau decorations but like graduations, it presents us with an interesting ocean of entrepreneurial and economic possibilities to navigate.
Currently in the continental United States, outside of the floral industry, leis are sold as a street product. Pop-up stands selling purple orchid leis imported not from Hawai’i but directly from Thailand line the pathway to graduation ceremonies while Pacific Islander Aunties and Grandma’s send youth into the crowds to sell leis hanging from their arms, their beautiful creations not equitably priced at the level of their true value.
How can we as Pacific Islanders disrupt these industries and reclaim and re-imbue the sacredness and mana of our art forms for the benefit of Pacific Islander artisans? How can we use this opportunity to increase our community wealth through entrepreneurship? And last but not least, how can we regenerate our society’s cultural commons and raise the value of the lei by educating consumers and evolving the art form and our artisans. My offering as a starting place is The Lei Company.
[Article was originally posted on May 11, 2017 The Lei Company’s blog at www.theleicompany.com/blog]