Off the Beaten Path: Full Circle
During the “Boat Days” when visitors and locals used to travel in and out of Hawai‘i by steamship, they would throw their flower lei into the sea as the ship passed Diamond Head.
If the lei returned to the islands, it was said that they, too, would one day make the same journey. When I think of Uncle Wally Keonaonaonalani Ching, a cultural instructor for Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, I imagine him as one of these precious blooms coming full circle.
Ching, who is Hawaiian but grew up on the mainland, learned about his culture by attending hotel classes and is now giving back by sharing his knowledge with visitors. Born in Hawai‘i, but raised in Long Beach, Calif., the nearly 74-year-old Ching was separated from his culture for much of his youth and adulthood.
“I’m part Hawaiian myself, but when I left that was all lost,” says Ching, who did not get the chance to return to his birth land until the mid 1980s.
After setting up house in ‘Ewa Beach, Ching joined the Hui Aloha Club.
“I quickly realized how much I missed Hawai‘i and how important it was to immerse myself in Hawaiian culture,” he says. “One day, I was walking down Lewers Street, and I heard ‘ukulele music. It was so beautiful.”
Moved by the quality of the Hawaiian music, Ching sought out lessons. Eventually, he found a cultural home at Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, which offers guests free wedding vow renewals to lessons in ‘ukulele, hula, lei making, and a host of crafts ranging from making Hawaiian name tags to bookmarks to petroglyph cards to kukui nut bracelets and Hawaiian hairpieces.
“I wasn’t a guest, but they were kind enough to let me take free lessons. I started taking Matt Sproat’s ‘ukulele class,” Ching says.
Sproat, who is part of the Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning group Waipuna, mentored Ching until he became so proficient that the hotel manager asked if he would be willing to work for the hotel, too.
Ching agreed and the passionate student became a four-day-a-week teacher, who strives to give tourists an authentic visitor experience.
“I really enjoy sharing Hawaiian culture with the visitors,” he says. “I take it seriously. I want them to get it right. I don’t want them to go home and tell people that Hawai‘i is a rock in the middle of the ocean. I want them to know that Hawai‘i is a viable nation; it’s not a third world country.”
Jennifer Harris, a visiting teacher from San Jose, Calif., is only one of many tourists that say they are thankful that Ching came out of retirement to take a job giving back to his community.
“He’s so awesome,” says Harris, as she finishes stringing orchid lei. “We’ve really enjoyed learning about Hawai‘i and spending time together as a family doing things like lei making that we wouldn’t normally do.”
Ching’s class also afforded Richard and Maryann Junod, who were on O‘ahu to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, a relationship first.
“He’s brought me many flowers, but he’s never made a lei for me before,” Maryann says. “This was really special.”
But perhaps the most rewarding moment of the day for Ching came when little 9-year-old Mia Plaskiewicz of Washington state gifted her finished lei to Outrigger Guest Services Manager Lilly Tran.
“Uncle Wally said to give your lei to the one that you love,” says Plaskiewicz, who is a return guest at the Outrigger Waikiki. “I gave Miss Lilly my lei because she’s really nice.”
As I watch young Mia and Uncle Wally, I am reminded that aloha, like most of life’s important lessons, is best learned by example. Mahalo Uncle Wally bringing this lesson home.
A three-time national award winning reporter, Allison Schaefers serves as the Waikiki Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Based in Waikiki, she covers Hawai’i tourism and Waikiki issues. Contact her at email@example.com.