By: Daniel Tossounian
As one continues their trek down Maunakea Ave they will be confronted by an assortment of small ‘one door’ establishments where specialty foods catering to the unique tastes of eastern palates are on ostentatious display. Dim sum, Saimin Bowls, Manapua, sashimi, Beijing duck, Chinese crepe, and steamed buns among myriads of other treats call out to from their respective glass cases beckoning you to wade in and try something new. Nevertheless, among these gastrointestinal delights are locally grown products not intended for human consumption but to be visually consumed as it were.
This delight for the eyes of course is the iconic Hawaiian Lei…that garland of flowering beauty which is probably more synonymous with the Hawaiian Islands than any other symbol. Sadly, the days when every mainland tourist was crowned with his or her own lei upon disembarking from a landed airplane -circa 1959, is long over. While not quite as ubiquitous as before nevertheless the presence of this lovely adornment continues as an enduring memento of Hawaii’s cultural and historical legacy.
Scattered throughout Honolulu Chinatown’s ancient streets are what can be called lei shops for lack of a better term. Generally small and unprepossessing, these diminutive establishments are usually fronted by large, refrigerated glass display cases inside of which are stored neatly stacked cases each containing a folded brightly colored lei garland whose freshness and vibrancy must be maintained by colder temperatures. This is the real thing and not a convenient nylon facsimile of the Hawaiian icon, readily available in any Walmart or on Amazon. Yes fresh leis can be had at various big box retailers but grabbing your lei in the chilled food isle ,next to the frozen pizzas just doesn’t seem to have the same feel as picking one up from one of those aforementioned personalized shops where the owners smile appreciatively while giving you your change and a small gaggle of aunties can be seen sitting at a common table engaged at leis making…all the while possibly gossiping about their grandchildren.
Somehow this seems the preferred way to obtain your Hawaiian lei. The proprietor of one of these charming little lei shops, called Tina’s Leis named after its name’s sake and owner was kind enough to grant me an interview.
Me: Hello, when did you first get the dream to start your own little business in downtown Hawaii? What gave you the inclination to want to take in that challenge?
I never really had a dream; it was just a matter of doing it.
Me: So, you saw an opportunity and you said …I am just going to do it. Basically, that was it? Yes ahah.
Me: Ok, can I ask al up your background…were you in a business before?
No I was actually in the military.
Me: Oh, so you have a. Military background… the American military?
Yeah, the American military.
Me: Ok then…well did you decide you wanted a change from that?
No not really, my auntie owned a flower shop and we decided we wanted to have our own flower shop.
Me: Was it the same one? Did you take it over from her? No, we have our own shop.
Me: Hmm, and how long have you had your own shop? Three years.
Me: Well then would you say it (the business) was going well?
It is hard to say, we got into the business a year before the covid 19. Business was well until the covid hit us.
Me: That’s tough. Yeah
Me: So, you were doing ok and then the covid hit everyone? I remember we arrived in Honolulu last July and the streets of China town were deserted. No one was out, and of course that means a big drop in walk-in business.
Me: Bye the way although the covid crisis was awfully hard on small businesses, it was even harder on new small businesses like yours. How did you get through it? Yeah, it’s a lot harder on a small business because we don’t have a lot of reserve.
Me: Especially a new small business. Yeah, for sure
Me: Well then what has rally made the difference between you and let us say another small business that could not make it. You know many businesses have closed their doors, some forever.
Well the govt did give us a small loan that helped and many of our customers have been supporting us with their business.
Me: I see, so local, loyal customers and a little help from the govt. gave you the help you needed? Yeah, the govt and the loyal ones.
Me: Was there ever a time you thought you really might not make it? Did you ever lose confidence? I mean …what gave you hope that you were going to make it through the (covid) storm?
No not really, we just moved ahead, and I didn’t think anything …just moved ahead.
Me: Just kept looking forward, eh? Did your military background help? Was it like meeting the enemy and going to battle? Ha-ha
No not really, we didn’t think about it too much. There’s too much stress in the world.
Me: Ok, you thought there is too much stress in the world, so you just do it…do not worry or think about it too much?
Me: Did you change your business to deal with the situation? Are you selling other things beside the leis? No new sales strategy? No, we just sell the same things basically.
Me: Alright then as I wrap it up, I would like to ask if you are optimistic going forward. Do you feel you have gotten through this crisis…and can prosper with your new business in a post covid world and economy?
Yeah definitely things are improving now.
Me: You know you are right on the street where you can see actual numbers of people and as I mentioned when my wife and I arrived we were staying in Chinatown, and it was depressing. There was almost no one on the streets except people who were living there…aka homeless which is another whole subject I would rather not get into here.
Me: Anyway, what I mean is the people you need to buy your products (local visitors and tourists) were virtually nonexistent.
Yeah but it is getting better. The visitors are coming back, and the tourists are coming back too.
Me: So, you are confident for the future? It’s not really about confidence. It’s just about moving forward and hoping for more visitors more tourists and making good business.
Me: Well, that is very practical isn’t it. With that then, I will wish you luck for the future.