Aloha Abroad: Hawaii Meets San Fran

The Aloha spirit is alive. It extends beyond Hawaii, across the seas and into people’s hearts and minds throughout the world. It’s like a chunk of clay that’s been stretched and molded into all kinds of shapes and sizes. I set out to find some of these unique pieces of Aloha during a recent trip to San Francisco and discovered that it is, indeed, very much living…in its artistic appeal, flavors and cultural connection.VIDEO: A few ambassadors of Aloha I found in the Bay area.

The Treasure Island flea market we went to was infested with Aloha. It’s where I met several people with ties to the islands, like Melanie Wright. Her plumeria hairpin caught my eye, and I found out it was a vintage piece actually from Hawaii. Melanie’s father got the plumeria (originally as an earring) for her mother a while back. But she’s since refurbished it, turning it into a beautiful adornment for a hair barrette. Even her paintings, she told me, have been heavily inspired by Hawaii – from the ruffling coconut fronds to the gentle motions of the ocean. A stretched canvas painting of a palm tree sat next to her as she lightly glided from one side of her display table to the other, sharing with passerby’s her passion for art found in each hand-made barrette. The painting made for great conversation starters, too, as people frequently stopped to admire the tropical tree.

(Top) Melanie loves painting tropical trees, especially this one. (Bottom) Visitors trying li hing mui snacks for the first time.

There was no way I could have missed Michelle Francia’s booth. Her sign was a dead give away: Plumeria Flours. I strolled over and heard the words: li hing mui. That made me laugh a little. It couldn’t have sounded more familiar and foreign at the same time. Familiar to me as a part of my upbringing but uttered in a foreign setting. Michelle and her husband had been giving out free samples of li hing mui covered goodies and different kinds of popcorn, like seaweed (nori) and red hibiscus. But the most popular request had to be the kalua pig and chocolate caramel flavored popcorn. Turns out, Michelle was born on Oahu and moved to Cali soon after. She and her husband still frequent the islands, bringing back some of the local flavors to share with those abroad.

Although the last person I met had to be the least talkative of the three, it was what he’d been doing that spoke for itself. He carefully used a carving tool to hack away at a block of wood, chips flying in all directions. I spotted him earlier in the day, when the sun was just level with the Bay Bridge, and observed his deft hands at work, his forehead glistening with a hint of perspiration. I thought I’d talk story with him afterwards, so I continued my trek through the market in search of some cool vintage treasures. By the time I returned, the sun had moved almost well above the bridge, but it was apparent that he hadn’t let up. He worked on the same block of wood, but this time, it had a face and some arms. It looked strikingly similar to the Hawaiian kii (more commonly known as tiki) that we see all over Hawaii and parts of Polynesia. They’re statues that usually represent the gods.Kii statues stand guard in San Fran as another wooden masterpiece comes to life.

The man went by the name of Tualau Tauheluhelu and spoke very quietly with a subtle Polynesian accent. He rarely took his eyes off of the statue-in-progress that lay on his lap but summed it up nicely: “I carve all hours of the day, every day.” He actually knows a few well-known carvers throughout Polynesia, including a man living in Hawaii, from whom he’s learned his craft. Today, he shares the tradition with younger generations and gives a few private lessons here and there. He even had some koa wood and whale bone jewelry. I watched as Tualau continued to chip away at the block of wood – which, by the end of our conversation, had a nose. We eventually said our goodbyes after he finally got to his feet only to take his grandson to the restroom.

I’m so glad I have crossed paths with Melanie, Michelle and Tualau – each an ambassador of Aloha in his or her own way. As I travel, I’m finding that these kind of people are everywhere. They don’t necessarily have to be wearing a t-shirt that blatantly spells out, “HAWAII,” nor do they have to be wearing a lei. But rather, it’s the Aloha spirt they embrace that never fails to bring people together, exuding an island warmth wherever they may be.

Posted by: Bruce Fisher