Pacific Islander

Leitis in Waiting | Cover Story

Pacific Heartbeat's Leitis in Waiting. The May Program Guide cover story by Emily Bodfish

May 2019 program guide cover story by Emily Bodfish, PBS Hawai‘i


Now in its eighth season, the anthology series PACIFIC HEARTBEAT brings the authentic Pacific – people, cultures, languages, music and contemporary issues – to your screen. This new season brings stories of determination and courage from Australia, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Tonga and the U.S. The series is a production of Pacific Islanders in Communications in partnership with PBS Hawaiʻi, and is distributed nationally by American Public Television.


Among the films premiering this month is Leitis in Waiting, which tells the story of the Kingdom of Tonga’s evolving approach to gender fluidity through character-driven portraits of leitis, or indigenous transgender women. The most prominent leiti, Joey Joleen Mataele, is a practicing Catholic of noble descent who, over the course of an eventful year, organizes a beauty pageant, and later a conference with fundamentalist Christians to discuss the rise of the rhetoric of intolerance toward leitis.


Filmmakers Joe Wilson, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu and Dean HamerFilmmakers Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kale – the subject of Hamer and Wilson’s earlier film Kumu Hina, which was also a film about gender fluidity that aired nationally on PBS – spoke with us about the film:


Could you give us some insight into your intentions with the film, the meaning of it for you and your audience?


Hamer: At first, we thought we would create a short film about the [beauty] pageant itself, which Hina won one year, by the way. While pursuing that, we realized we needed to make a feature length film on the leitis search for equality and recognition in their own country.


Wilson: We wanted our film to have an effect everywhere, but especially in Tonga. Our approach to filmmaking is to show, not tell, and let the viewers decide for themselves. That approach lends itself to the Tongan talanoa method of conflict resolution. You sit down with your opposition and try to come to a mutual understanding. Joey, the protagonist of the film, is currently using the film in that way as part of her advocacy.


Hina, you were instrumental in making the film because of your insider knowledge of the culture. Could you give some insight into those cultural differences some viewers might not understand, including the concept of the “usefulness” of the leitis?


Wong-Kalu: In Tonga, the royal family is held in utmost regard. They are synonymous with the nation itself, the flag, and the national seal “God and Tonga are my inheritance.”


On “usefulness,” the understanding in Polynesian culture is that your worth is not measured by how much you acquire, but rather by how much you sacrifice of yourself. The Tongan understanding of the word “useful” as it applies to people is different from in the west. When you hear people in the film say that the leitis are “useful,” it is praise for their service to others.


Wilson: At the same time, the frustrations that we tried to capture on film is the leitis’ struggle with something that marginalized communities struggle with everywhere. Whenever leitis, or anyone that has been relegated to a certain place, says, “I deserve more,” a backlash occurs.


What do you think the U.S. and Tonga can learn from each other?


Wong-Kalu: I would like to beg the question – why does Tonga have to learn anything from the U.S.? Tongans had a great way of embracing everyone in society. I want Tonga to be more discerning about what they import.


Hamer: One thing the U.S. can learn is that gender diversity has been around for centuries, and widely accepted in many parts of the world. The vast majority hid because the forces against them were so strong, but they were still there. It isn’t going to kill society if those people don’t hide anymore.


Leitis in Waiting

Saturday, May 25 at 8:00 pm

Click here to see PACIFIC HEARTBEAT SEASON 8 programming lineup and schedule




Poi E: The Story of Our Song

PACIFIC HEARTBEAT: Poi E: The Story of Our Song


POI E: The song behind our PRIDE is a story which brings to the screen, the life of Dalvanius Prime – a man who brought disco to Australia; the warmth of the Ngoi Pewhairangi, a community elder whose passion for indigenous Māori language; and the lives of the Patea Māori club, a traditional Māori Kapahaka (dance) group comprised of freezing workers from the small town Pātea. When Dalvanius returns to Pātea, he not only comes face-to-face with the reality of a dying mother but also to a devastated community whose livelihood was on the brink when the Freezing Works were shut down. The lives of everyone in Pātea were up in the air as families struggled to make ends meet. Dalvanius did the only one thing he could to make ends meet – tour and sing in a time when being Māori meant you had to watch where you step.






In Football We Trust


This insightful and moving documentary transports viewers deep inside the tightly- knit and complex Polynesian community in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the chief sources for the NFL’s influx of Pacific Islander players. Shot over a four-year period with unprecedented access, the film follows four young Polynesian men striving to overcome gang violence and near poverty through the promise of American football. The film is directed by Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn.


“Dr. Tusi” Avegalio


Original air date: Tues., June 25, 2013


Leslie Wilcox talks with Dr. Tusi Avegalio, Director of the Pacific Business Center Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A twist of fate brought him from American Samoa to a Kansas teachers college. Dr. Tusi, as he’s known on campus at UH Manoa, went on to earn degrees in education and social science. At the Pacific Business Center, Dr. Tusi helps organizations bridge traditional Pacific Islander values and western thought.


Download the Transcript




What we bring to the table, to me, a very compelling cultural perspective. It acknowledges that substance is enduring, and that form is ephemeral, and knowing the difference.


Achieving a balance between the wisdom of the past and the knowledge of the future, with the director of a program at the University of Hawaii Shidler College of Business at Manoa, Dr. Failautusi Avegalio, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. With a foot in both Western and Pacific Island cultures, our guest has been recognized nationally in economic business development. He is Dr. Failautusi Avegalio, better known as Dr. Tusi, at the UH Shidler College of Business. He runs the Pacific Business Center program with the college. Descended from a long line of Samoan chiefs, Dr. Tusi was raised in the coastal village of Leone in American Samoa in a family that included six other siblings. His father served in the U.S. Navy, and ran a successful agricultural business. His mother was a cultural practitioner who devoted her time to serving family members and supervising the family plantation during his father’s military assignments. After graduating from high school, Dr. Tusi, following the family tradition of military service, was on his way to the Marine recruitment office to enlist, along with four friends. But a twist of fate intervened.


Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, it was the same day that the newspapers published the list of scholarship students. So, my name starting with an A, Avegalio, was the first on the list. So, my aunt brought it to my father’s attention, and the family was absolutely sure I must be the smartest kid on the island, because I was named first on the list. They actually caught me just before I entered the recruiting office.


How interesting, how a life can change on timing.


So, he grabbed my hand, and for the first time, I was almost disobedient. But, when you got a big father with a big hand, I gave it a second thought and was obedient.


And he wanted you to go into education?


Wanted me to go to school; college.


Which became your livelihood.




Your profession.


And so, two weeks later, my dad went with me. Went to Hawaii to meet family there, and then he saw me off in San Francisco. So, I was on the same flight as the other four. They went on to Vietnam, and I went to Kansas. Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, Kansas. Our Commissioner of Education of Department of Interior at that time felt that small Midwestern schools would best be for acculturation purposes for students from the islands, and I’m glad I went there.


So, strong family values, but still culture shock.


Extreme culture shock. Especially with winter. But family values were very much the same. In fact, I sort of developed a tongue – in – cheek book called Coming of Age in Kansas. And it’s just basically the cultural adjustments that coming from a tropical sea coastal village, going to the middle of Midwest, and interacting and working with people there. What amazed me was that many of the young Kansas boys had never been to Kansas City, or had never flown on an airplane. So, they had their own kind of insularity, their own kind of island, so we actually had a lot in common, and we certainly had a lot of fun.


So, they welcomed you, and you embraced them too?


Well, they didn’t welcome me at first. They didn’t know what …


What to make of you.


They didn’t know what I was. [CHUCKLE] It’s the usual, He’s too big to be a Mexican or an Indian, American Indian. He’s too light – skinned to be Black, so they figured that might be one of the light – skinned Negros, or something of that nature. So, it was fun trying to get to know them, and they get to know me. And it usually comes around by playing music, playing the guitar. [CHUCKLE] Little cultural things that eventually got their curiosity to the point that it laid the foundation to some very enduring relationships.


Enduring, as in marriage.


Yeah; marriage and friendships. I married a young gal from Emporia, Kansas. She had no idea where American Samoa was. But I think what really helped make the transition to Kansas were the Hawaiians, the Hawaiian students that were there. They, more than anything else, helped me to transition successfully. Because they already had networks, they had relationships, and they were extremely popular. And so, I was very fortunate that they sort of took me under their wing, and … rest is history.


And you never once considered leaving, saying, Oh, this is so different from what I’m used to?


No, because, again, being part of a collective culture, I think the shame would be unbearable.


You represented your community.


Yeah, because it wasn’t just me that left.


But didn’t your community want you to marry a local girl from your village?


Oh, yeah. Well, that came later. I was already gone, and it’s a lot easier to make a decision when you’re like, seven thousand miles away from the village. [CHUCKLE]


How did that go over in Leone?


It didn’t go over as well as I thought. My grandmother was very concerned that my wife was so skinny, and she was fearful that her health would not allow her to bear as many grandchildren as she would like to see. But I think in time, Linda became a very endearing part of the family, to the point where when we’d go anywhere, the first thing they asked for is, Well, where’s Linda? [CHUCKLE] And I said, Hello? Oh; where’s your wife? [CHUCKLE] So, yes. So, in many ways, going to Samoa enriched her life, and her life enriched my family’s life and my people’s, those that she had the occasion to interact with.


So, the people who decided about the match between a Samoan culture and the Midwestern Kansas setting were right.


Yes; in ways, yeah. And what also helped was that my dad, having served in the military, was able to keep the family and traditions at a distance to allow his son to make a decision. Dad knew me so well, and he was able to see without having to ask me where I wanted to go in this situation. And I think my mom attuned to me also, so they both, without having to sit down and draw it out, felt and sensed where my heart was. And knowing my heart better than most, they just supported it.


Failautusi Avegalio, or Tusi, returned to Leone in American Samoa to teach at a local high school while considering a career in law. With most of their teachers trained locally, the students were excited by the accomplishments of this native son who had returned home with a college degree. Finding his true calling, Tusi went on to pursue his education in Missouri and Utah, earning masters and doctorate degrees in educational administration. After earning his PhD, he proudly returned home. Sitting together under a breadfruit tree, his mother asked him to explain why he thought it was such a great achievement.


And I was thinking that this is too much, too complex, et cetera, for my mother to understand. And I sadly also included the fact that she only had two years of education in elementary school, thoroughly confusing the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I shared with her, because I love theory, so much of my emphasis was on looking at the theory of giants in the field. Mintzberg, Hertzberg, Adrius, Hertz and Blanshard, and political people like Montesquieu, Locke, and looking at organization, et cetera. She sort of just absorbed all that and listened quietly. And then, she told me to go feed the pigs. So, [CHUCKLE] I was thinking, Feed the pigs? I mean, that’s what I used to do when I was a kid. Meanwhile, thinking to myself, Wow, the great value of my doctorate degree is no higher than feeding pigs, and a little miffed as I left. But then, when I returned, my mom then asked me, questions that thoroughly put me in my place and forever endeared me to appreciating wisdom. She asked me if all the books that these men wrote were to be put in a large basket, how large the basket would be. And I said, It’d probably be as large as the village. [CHUCKLE] And I was thinking, Where is this going? And a towanga [PHONETIC] is a fibrous mesh that we pull from the Heliconia stem, and we use that to squeeze grated coconuts so we get the milk out of it. So, she said, If we got a towanga and you squeezed all of these books, what would you get? Privately, I was thinking, a lot of ink. But I really didn’t know where she was going, so I said, I don’t know. And she says, This what you’ll get. You’ll get respect, consideration, dignity, sensitivity and compassion, the very things that are needed to make men do the kinds of things that need to be done, especially if you’re a leader. And I was thinking, Damn, she just encapsulated it. Essentially all the theories said the same thing, is to treat a human being humanely, followership and leadership can become that much more effective. And then, if you take those words and you squeeze them in the towanga again, what do you get? Then she really got me there. I said, I don’t know. She said, You get alofa. And alofa means, in our language, love. And then, she said, How strange that you should go so far away to a place, at great expense to learn how to alofa. You could have learned that here at home in your family and among the village. She was just reminding me that, Don’t be so full of yourself. [CHUCKLE]


Throughout her life, the mother of Failautusi Avegalio gently imparted to her children the values of the elders, their alofa and hopes for the future. Dr. Tusi’s work honors his mother’s vision that he would one day play a role in enhancing the quality of life for those of the Pacific Region. As the director of the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Business Center program, he consults with and coordinates assistance to organizations that have business and economic development projects in the area. The Center’s staff provides the technical assistance; Dr. Tusi’s key role is bridging traditional values and Western thought.


What we bring to the table, to me, a very compelling cultural perspective. It acknowledges that substance is enduring, and that form is ephemeral, and knowing the difference. That by preserving the substance of the past, and then clothing it with the forms of the future, we would be able to achieve an enduring balance between the wisdom of the past and the knowledge of the future. My technical staff are very good in the areas of fiscal management, accounting, marketing, financing. What I bring to the table are the social, cultural, and the historical and the spiritual ones. It’s weaving these two things together. My approach in the Pacific is very different from the person that might be approaching from a corporate business or a business from the mainland or from Europe. I think Bank of Hawaii might be the best example, just recently when American Samoa was hoping to get at least twelve months transition period versus Bank of Hawaii wanting to withdraw within thirty days or ninety days. When a meeting was held at the last minute, the discussions initiated from the Samoa delegation dealt with issues of commonalities, common history, family, ancestors, wisdoms, things of that nature, and reminders that even though we may be separate on the surface, that we all connected in the deep. Now, I can imagine the Bank of Hawaii strategic consultant freaking out and says, What does this have to do with assets and projected profits, et cetera, things that are more business associated? But fortunately, the leader, CEO Peter Ho, as a boy grew up here, was born here. And it resonated. It resonated at that depth. They had reached an agreement that twelve months might be something that the Bank of Hawaii can certainly accommodate and would reconsider its original position. All the lawyers in the world could not have done what occurred there. And again, it’s bringing the social, cultural, spiritual side, and then weaving it with the technical and the knowledge side to arrive at a place where there can be some mutual understanding, basic human decency and consideration. And I think it has worked out then, and I think it will continue to work for the future.


So, in a sense, you find partners and ways to get people moving together to enhance mutual lives. It’s so tough to pick personal partners, business partners. How do you do that? How do you identify?


We have a term called iike. In Hawaiian, it’s called ike. It means attunement, sensing. And that can only come about from experience, from maturity, and learning, and living wisdoms over a period of time. So, I lead with my senses, which is really peculiar, because my more quantitatively oriented colleagues are wondering, What are you talking about? But we always get there. And I need to be able to sit down with the various leaders, whoever they are, and sense them. Our ancestors used iike to navigate. So, they can sense not only the wind, the wave, the winds and the stars, but they can also feel. And I think that is what enabled them to achieve their destinations, and in a very small humble way, that I was able to tap into that to help me to achieve what goals that we were able to for our purposes.


Tapping into the wisdom of the ages did not come easily to Dr. Failautusi Avegalio. With the distractions of youth and exposure to many philosophies and models, he says it’s taken a long time. Today, his life perspectives are well developed, and they begin with the belief that his ancestors have always held, that people and the universe are family.


We have two mothers. There’s the birth mother, and there’s your Earth mother. And in Samoa, it’s called Papa. Papa is the name of the Earth mother. The burying of the afterbirth in a ti leaf – and ti leaf is a very spiritual plant, metaphorically symbolizes the connection of your umbilical cord to the Earth. So, my birth mother, and there’s my Earth mother. And there’s also your father, your human father, which is my dad, and Tangaloa Langi, which is the universe, the stars in the heavens. When you have this sense of awareness of who your parents are, that gives you a sense of wholeness that you wouldn’t have without it. What it also means is that the offspring, both your mothers and your fathers, are your siblings. They’re your kin. If the Earth and the heavens are the parents of all living things, and they’re also my parents, that means all living things and inanimates, stones, rocks, et cetera, are my relatives. So, that really didn’t bear fruit in terms of its meaning until I was in college. One of my student friend’s family owned a large ranch. They were clearing some land with huge trees, and they had this tractor knocking down the trees. And in fact, I couldn’t even stay, I couldn’t watch. But I’d been having those kind of feelings every time I see these kinds of things, and then it sort of all came together. It’s like watching your kin being slaughtered or abused. The basis of nature is God; they’re one and the same thing. You can’t separate the two, and it’s this separation thing that I had a real difficult time trying to reconcile. But what made a big difference for me is when I sat in on a lecture about Howard Gardner. Howard Gardner did these studies on human intelligence. What he pointed out is that there’s more than one intelligence. Before, it just used to be either your IQ, and that had to do with problem – solving and quantitative thinking through mathematics. That there are other intelligences, and the one that just jumped out at me was attunement. It was an intelligence, people had an ability to sense and feel what is not readily apparent to others. And then this quantum mechanics things comes out with physics, that all things emanate rhythms or energies, and that there are animals and humans; they can sense these. And I said, Ah, that’s what my grandfather meant was, we talk to the trees. He didn’t talk, literally talk to the trees. If you’re a healthy tree, you would emanate a different energy than if you’re a sick tree, or if you’re young or inappropriate. So, many of these kinds of attributes can actually now be validated or at least reaffirmed with modern science.


How do you develop attunement?


We develop it only if we focus on it. But we don’t focus on it, because we have technology that does it for us. Let me give you an example. A mother has a child. The child is a block away, and falls off the stairs. Mama knows something happened to Baby. She said, Oh! And there are many incidences where people say, How did you know? Well, I just knew something was wrong. Another more common example. You’ve ever visited a place where it just felt really foreboding? And then, you go to another place, and nobody’s there, but it felt so warm and inviting. An example for that for me is the church in Leone. When I go into that church, I have an incredible feeling of embrace. I now know why, but at the time, I didn’t know. In the late 1800s, churches were built by crushing coral into lime, and then making sort of a cement, but there were no rebar, they used stones. But they ran out of stones when the walls were sort of halfway up. Gathered them from the river and the streams. And so, the only stones left were on what we call kia [PHONETIC]. Kia’s are like the heiau’s where alii are buried. So, Leone, if you go to that village, is noteworthy in the sense that it has no kia’s. So, a very agonizing decision and a testimony to their faith had to be made. So, all the chiefs of the clans gathered, and the proposition was suggested that we have no stones, and the only stones remaining are the stones on the kia of each of our families. And these are our ancestors, these are the giants of our history and the past. So, each clan, I think very emotionally, made a decision that they’re going to build, finish the church. And so, each one brought their stones, and completed the walls that now hold up the church. That explained to me why I felt the way I did, because the kia’s of my alii ancestors are in the walls of this building.


Do your cultural values get in the way of your job at all?


If you only have a foot in one world, reconciling dilemmas may be an impossible thing. But having a foot in both worlds, I can move back and forth very comfortably in both of these worlds. I’m a firm believer that trust begins with looking in another person’s eyes, and feeling them, sensing them, observing their behavior. It has been a traditional practice of our traditional leaders. We sit and we look at each other, and we share food and drink. Sharing food and drink is so essential to sharing oneself. And you take it even further when you can invite them to your home. It’s important for me to have them feel that I’m comfortable, that they are welcome to meet my grandchildren, my children, and my wife, and others in the family. But see how disarming it could be. When I can move then into my world, then I think I’m in a position where I can enhance a trusting relationship. In our traditional settings, before we engage or receive visiting dignitaries or chiefs from other villages, they do their homework. They check your genealogy and your history so that when the engagement actually occurs, there is a context in which pathways can then be extended out. And multiple pathways enables the guest to find which is the most comfortable to walk on. Once that one is identified, the others all collapse into that one. And then, we receive them that way.


Dr. Tusi says he’s thankful for the collective guidance, wisdom, and sacrifices of his parents and extended family in his voyage through life. It’s now his turn, an obligation to impart those Pacific lessons and his Western educational experience to be there for his four children and seven grandchildren, as they navigate toward the future. Thank you. Dr. Failautusi Avegalio – Dr. Tusi, director of the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Business Center, for sharing your long story short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou, ‘til next time. Aloha.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


Our people, we think in metaphors and we learn through stories. And because we’re a navigator people, most of our wisdoms derive from the ocean. When the winds don’t shift, adjust your sails. My favorite metaphor is the one that deals with challenges. And it’s about being bold, being courageous, being entrepreneurial. Only you can sense when it’s time to turn into the wind and reach for shores yet untouched. When is your time? When do you turn into the wind? When do you adjust your sail? Like my mom said, anybody can hoist an anchor and unfurl a sail. You know how to do that, but it’s knowing when to do it, and more important, why do you do it.


Nakeʻu Awai


Original air date: Tues., Sept. 7, 2011


Designing Timeless and Unique Island Wear


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Nakeʻu Awai, a Kalihi-based clothing designer renowned for his timeless and unique island wear. Nakeʻu initially pursued an entertainment career that led him to Broadway and Hollywood. Eventually he returned home, where he found his calling in fashion design. For three decades, Nakeʻu’s creative Hawaiian prints and equally stunning fashion shows have wowed clientele throughout the islands.


Nakeʻu Awai Audio


Download the Transcript




I used to often tell my mom, How come we can’t go shopping in slippers and wear shorts? And was, No, any time you’re Downtown, it’s pants and shoes. Well, all the Haole tourists wear slipper and shorts. But, yeah.


It’s a long way from Kalihi to New York, to Hollywood and back, but it’s the journey of a man whose life has been dedicated to entertainment and design, from a big city to a little shop at the foot of Kamehameha Heights. It’s Nakeʻu Awai, on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, you’ll meet a Honolulu man who’s had a fascinated—well, careers, really. After graduating from Kamehameha Schools with an interest in drama, Nakeʻu Awai went on to take his shot in the bright lights of the New York theater scene. Later, he appeared in network television shows in the heyday of live TV production.


But these are careers that few in Hawaii really know much about, because since he returned home, he’s made a name for himself as a fashion designer. To have a Nakeʻu Awai design in your collection is to have a dress or shirt that will never go out of style.


Where did you grow up?


I grew up in Punchbowl.


What was that like?


Sidewalk skating. Golden Wall Theater—swim and tap at the YWCA down on Richards Street.


Tap, as in tap dance?


Tap dance; Mrs. Barnes. My first try at dancing, and swim, it was mainly swimming, and I got interested. Oh, I want to take tap, I want to take tapping. And then, I snuck into Alice Keawekane’s, some of her classes, and that’s Alicia Smith, Loyal’s mother is Alice Keawekane. And Loyal and Alicia, I mean, they’re all connected, Loyal and Alicia. And she taught hula. And because, when you’re waiting for your parents to pick you up … Come on, keiki, come join. So I snuck into some of her hula classes. So that was my early exposure to dance, which I would use later on. Golden Wall Theater, lot of my background comes from the movies, from the time we were little, during war years when blackout was part of our living. I don’t remember that part of it, ‘cause I was a baby. But Mom would take the kids and she, so it was brother and two sisters, and we’d go to the Golden Wall. And she’d come out and it would be all dark, and she’d hold me as the baby, and everybody would grab around her skirt, and we’d make it home.


And Golden Wall showed the latest Hollywood movies?


All and one day, I thought maybe if I had enough money, I’d bring back Saturday matinees. It was where all the kids came. And ee screamed our hearts out, because it was all the Westerns, and they would have serial chapters where at the end, the guy would be falling off the cliff. Next week—




—follow through what happens. And when he fell off the cliff, he grabbed a branch, so he was saved, yeah.


Do you remember how much it cost to go to those matinees?




What did you have for snacks?


I wasn’t too much of a snacker, but popcorn, I guess. And they had seed mui in bags, the paper bags. I mean, they dug it out like this, and that’s how you got it.


Influenced by all those afternoons at the movies in the Golden Wall Theater in Nuuanu, Nakeu Awai began to see a future in art and design, eventually merging theater and fashion.


But you’re a visual person, so movies—


But this helped—


—were preferable for you.


Yeah. This helped me, yes. Yes. And then television came after that, from black and white into color. Yeah. So a lot of things that I create today because aside from fashions, it’s putting fashions into visuals that is I enjoy that more.






So putting fashions into, say, musical revues?




And … shows.


I enjoy—


Fashion shows.


I enjoy that. I enjoy that the most. And using other people’s—you know, so I will use my clothes as well as the other people and do shows. Because drama was what I majored in at University of Washington.


So the shows are more important than the clothes that you have designed?


I feel that. The segments that I do are universal emotions that we all experience.


Have you thought of doing other than your fashion-related shows as musical revues?


I’m open to, I’m always open to being creative. I’ve already started my Christmas show this year. I’m thinking about next year up at the Waikoloa. You know, Pili Pang’s haula in Waimea.


So you’re that generation that sort of—you were before the Hawaiian renaissance. You didn’t speak Hawaiian.


No. In fact, we grew up speaking only English.


And Kamehameha insisted on it when you were a student there.


And Kamehameha had a Hawaiian language teacher. His name was Reverend Judd. But I felt so bad, and I guess I wasn’t strong enough to stand up against my peers. But it was after lunch, and the movie The Blue Angel, where the guy becomes taken advantage of, where he plays the dummy in the club, and all these horrible things happen to him. In the movie The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich, yeah. So the same thing I thought about this man. See, so I relate back to when I saw this man. After lunch, kids brought straws back from the dining hall and was doing spitballs at him. And this old man was going, Oh, ooh.


And he was the Hawaiian teacher.


Yeah, language. And so, did we learn the language?


What did your parents do for a living?


My dad was a land abstracter.


What’s a land abstracter?


Well, he worked at the Land Office, and it was reading land deeds and stuffs, and translating them. So on his own, he helped a lot of Hawaiians find land that was due them, that they weren’t aware of. He’d ask them, Where were you born, who’s your parents? And he’d go do research kind of stuff. And my mom was an educator. And every weekend, my dad because see, we grew up without cars, because Mother and Dad never drove. We’d get on the taxi down at Aala Park. The kind that had all the extra seats, and go to Haleiwa because—


Is that a jitney?




Was that a jitney, with extra seats?


Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, but it was called the Waialua Taxicab, and it drove you to your homes in Haleiwa, Waialua. And then it’d come back and pick you up. But we’d spend weekends there because he’d work up in the taro patch. Every weekend, he was in the loi, because—and by himself. And loi and kalo, as kalo people today will know, it’s hard work


It’s very hard work.


And you have to keep working at it. You can’t let it go by, because—


So he worked five days a week, and then he goes to the taro patches—




—on the weekends?




That’s not a weekend. That’s not a break.


But he enjoyed that. And he would bring back a bag of taro, and he would cook, we would have to peel.


That’s what he did it for, a bag of taro?


And he also sold. He started selling some of his kalo to Chun Hoon’s Market, the old market on Nuuanu. So we had fresh poi. It was lumpy. I preferred the factory poi, because it was smoother, but we’d peel. Oh, and I still have his boards somewhere in my shop, the poi boards that he used and pounded poi.


Did you tell him his poi was too lumpy for you?






‘Cause he’d just strain it, yeah. And so, I mean, it was fine. It was fresh. But, after you get spoiled by having some factory made poi.


What was your mom like?


Mom was a hard worker. She believed in education, so she pushed all of us. After I graduated from Kamehameha School, I really wanted to get out and get into the working field. But, No, you gotta to go to college. So she pushed for that. Hard worker, a woman that wore the same pair of shoes until it kaputsed, then she got a new pair of shoes. So she gave up a lot. But then she wanted to see the world, so my first year after University of Washington, she wanted to see America. And Father hated traveling. So she ployed me into going, and so we saw America on Greyhound. From Seattle, we went straight across the northern route to visit friends and upstate New York, and then went down south, and came back across. Yeah.


Was she still very frugal?


Yeah. As she got older, because see, I was the last one. Everybody was—the two sisters were on their own, Brother was on his own, so maybe she felt a little more freer to do these trips. Because then she and Dad went to China, with Char’s Tours. I still remember that, because it was such a negative thing.


After graduating from the University of Washington, and seeing North America by bus, it was time for graduate school. Catholic University in Washington, D.C. was a fine school; but for a young man from Hawaii in the 1950s, D.C. was not quite the place to study theater. Where would Nake‘u Awai head next?


So I told my parents. What are you going to do? I said, Live. Pause, pause. And they hung up on me, click. Next episode. So I moved to New York. But, I went all over New York. And when you’re young, you’re really kinda daring, so I looked up every conceivable rental. The nice thing about New York is they have rentals by price. So you can look for what you want to spend, and they’re right there. Well, I went Bowery, I went Harlem, I went all over New York. And after when I settled in New York, I said to myself, I would never, ever go back to all the areas that I went into. But one wintry morning, I was in Brooklyn Heights, and this woman in—you know, they have brownstones. She opened this tall black door. And she had a place, and it was within my price range, and it was a … so everytime I watch TV, they have those steps going up into the brownstones, and to the side they have these two steps that go underneath. I was there. It went from sidewalk, all the way to the back of the house. It was long rental.


And did you think you were gonna be a lifelong New Yorker at that point?


I wanted to. Because New York will always be my happiest years.


Why did you leave New York?




[CHUCKLE] How many winters did you get through?


Four. And the last winter, I had electric blankets. But when you’re sleeping, you go, [GRUNT]. Just slight turning. It was freezing. And I had moved, how you move around, you find a better place. So my last rental was on the fifth floor of this walkup. Wonderful. I wish I still did that. Overlooked the—you could see the Statue of Liberty, and the lower rivers before they split off the Hudson, and the Hudson and the other river, and subway and stuff, and stuff, and stuffs. Yeah, but New York, the energy, there’s no city that has the energy that keeps you, keeps you going.


Did you feel your Hawaiianess in New York?


Yes. I have some pictures somewhere that we’ll see Rowena Akana and I, and this Filipino guy doing a Hawaiian revue down in Atlantic City for Tutasi Wilson. She was a woman that lived in Florida, and would come up and do these big Hawaiian conventions in Atlantic City. And that was the only time I did Hawaiian. I never really studied Hawaiian. There was a Hawaiian restaurant that all the Hawaiians gathered, but I quickly stayed away from it, because even back then in the 60s, the Alamihi Syndrome … Hawaiians—


Explain that.


The alamihi is the black crab that goes crawling up, yeah? And as it gets up to the top, another one will come and grab and pull them both down. So, I didn’t want to be part of the Alamihi Syndrome.


Definitely not. The ambitious Nake‘u Awai had a lot more that he wanted to do, and he kept on his path, a path which eventually led him back to Kalihi. But first, there would be a stop in Hollywood.


I keep expecting that you’re gonna say, And then I became a costumer and a design person. But you’re not saying that.




When did that come along?


Not until my years in Hollywood. Because then, after the last winter, I came home, and got right into My Fair Lady with Linda Ryan. And the choreographer who came from Vegas saw that I had potential, so he pushed me to get the role of Carpathy the Hungarian. So besides being a dancer, I played a secondary part. And so I did that. While I was doing that, the people that I worked with in Atlantic City, Flower Drum Song, were being hired for this show in Reno. Direct from Japan, Hello Tokyo. We need another guy. Well, there’s Joel Awai, he lives in Honolulu. So they called me. I got hired to go up to Reno. And the three male singer dancers were myself, Jimmy Borges, and Bob Ito. Now, Bob Ito … Quincy. Remember that show? It was where he was the mortician.




His assistant was this very well spoken Japanese guy, Bob Ito.


I remember him. Okay, that’s Bob Ito.


And he spoke so well. See, Bob Ito is a Canadian, so of course, he will speak very well.


And that’s where you met Jimmy Borges?


And that’s where I met Jimmy Borges.


What was he like then?


Well, like all the dancers, they make fun of the singer’s walk, Jimmy.




In other words, the same leg and the same arm swing. Instead of opposition, yeah? That’s the natural walk. They walk da, da, da, da. Yeah.


So he was definitely a singer, the way he walked.


Yeah, but the three of us had to do singing and dancing. I stayed in West Hollywood until I found my own place. Then I started going to auditions, and I started dancing on television. So that is the next nine years of my life.


Nine years dancing on television and other venues. What kind of dancing did you do?


Jazz; modern dance. Back then, musical specials were big, so I performed like the Jack Benny Special, or the Petula Clark Special, or Elvis had a special I was a part of.


Now, you said you weren’t an extraordinary dancer, but it sounds like you’re getting some good roles. You’re getting hired.


Well, so maybe I was better than some of the others. But I mean, I don’t consider myself a solo dancer, because I worked with a number of people who were great solo dancers, like in the Elvis Presley Special.


So what was it like? Did you actually encounter Elvis? You saw him on the set?


Well, Elvis was a very quiet, timid fellow who was like a school kid. And when he tried to relax and socialize, the moment Colonel Parker came in Elvis.


How old was Elvis then? Was he out of the Army?


He was out of the Army, yeah. I don’t know. Because this was in preparation for him to go to—because Elvis performed, then he went to movies, then he went into the Army. Now he’s out of the Army, and he’s gearing to go back to— because then he made a big—after television special, he went to Vegas, yeah? I think Elvis and I would be about the same age. I don’t remember. Do you know how old he is, or would be?


No, I don’t know how old he would be.




So did you have any interaction with him?


No. No. Because he didn’t socialize with us, because he was under wraps, or when he did come in and the Colonel would come in, he would jump up and he would disappear. Yeah; so dancers, they’re like cattle. They’re just kept in some room until they need them. And the thing with television, which is really junk, is you don’t have time to really warm up. So we call it the warm up special. We’d come to work, go get our face done. So you go to make up, get your face done, then we greased up our bodies with um, Bengay. Because then—


You didn’t want to hurt. [CHUCKLE]


Yeah. No, because then when you got up to dance, you would be all warmed up. Because Bengay would get your muscles and bones ready for performing. Because you never knew; sometimes you would wait hours before they’d call you. Dancers! So like when these musicals started to dwindle, the first people they got rid of were the dancers. The second people they got rid of were the singers. The last people they got rid of were the actors. That pecking order; yeah. So I worked with a lot of big names. Bill Cosby was one, his special. I came back to do Don Ho’s special, because the dancers were hired in LA, and so we came back when he did his special. And I still remember getting flown, a few of us getting flown to Lahaina to work with the children at the elementary school there, where they did this One Paddle, Two Paddle, walking down Front Street. And we were like guides, yeah, or aides or guides, I mean, as dancers. So that was Do Ho’s special.


It was in Lahaina, during the shooting of a Don Ho television special, that the germ of the idea of a career in fashion design finally took hold in Nake‘u Awai. Remember those photos of jumpsuit Elvis, macramé’d beaded belt flying? That was his handiwork.


While I was there, I was fortunate to have a close friend from Japan teach us how to do macramé. And because all Japanese children grow up learning knots, what the sailors do, the art of knotting. And so he taught us how to do macramé. And so this other fellow from Hawaii and I decided to go into business doing macramé belts. This was before the hippies then got hemp and were doing macramé baskets, macramé wall hanging and stuffs. We did belts and accessories. So I sold these belts to stores in Beverly Hills, to fur shops in Beverly Hills, to designers like Bob Mackey, where I still have some drawings. ‘Cause Bob Mackey was a good artist, and that’s how he started before he got into fashions. He was an artist who drew for designers. And so, he gave me some sketches of macramé that we did for Carol Burnett and stuffs and stuffs, where we did the macramé, and he did these sketches. Because he could make the drawing look like Carol Burnett. And so I got to meet designers besides he, Jean Louis, which is the old film that Lana Turner did, her gowns by Jean Louis. Jean Louis, who was a French designer who also, for a long time, did the uniforms for United Airlines, long ago. Well, he had a factory in Beverly Hills. And what’s interesting, half of his factory were Japanese, and the other half of his factory were Haole. And you could tell the difference, because the Japanese factory was zz, zz, zz. The Haole factory, [GIBBERISH]. So, I became aware of clothing design there. My Black choreographer mentor, Claude Thompson, felt that I could do it. So he gave me this job where I was doing costumes for Sammy Davis’ girls, because Claude was choreographing them. And he wanted me to do the costumes, so I was given this wonderful budget to do costumes for six girls. And that was my first try at clothing.


What did you do for them? What kind of costumes did you come up with?


I had fun. I was very creative. I went downtown LA and found all these places like where you could buy leather. And I bought chamois. The stuff you clean cars with? I bought skeins of chamois and cut them into—left parts of it rough, because the edges of chamois uncut, and did a wrap blouse for them, and sewed and hung beads on them. And then I got scarves that they did what the Blacks do, a do-wrap, the tight um, head wrap with a knot here, and bought a whole bunch of scarves, and did a scarf skirt. So I asked friends of mine, Well, if I want a scarf skirt, how do you do it? Well, you hang the scarf point-to-point, you sew from point to this point, from point to that point. And so, as long as I knew the construction, then I could pass it on to a seamstress. So they had these scarf skirts. So when they stood … would be all scarves hanging, but when they spun, it didn’t split apart, it connected. And with that, I had these big clunky boots.


And it worked.


Yeah. He loved it, and Sammy loved it too. So on a couple of times, I met Sammy and his wife Altovise, who was one of his dancers that he ended up marrying, and Sammy’s little black poodle, who I hated, because he’d run down from the house, and he’d straddle your foot, and shee all over you.




And I’d go … [GAGGING]. [CHUCKLE]


When you look at your career, and you’re still going, how do you describe it?


Well, it’s something that I look forward to every morning. It’s not like I don’t want to go to work. I get ready, I get up at five-fifteen, I do my things.


What’s in your shop? Tell us about your shop.


My shop is a collection of my fashions, and a collection of things that I like, and have cluttered my shop with. Like I have these blown-out Portuguese man-o- war [CHUCKLE] that Colleen Kimura did. So it’s like this blue spacey thing, and it has all the tendrils hanging down. And I have an old wreath that Noelani Pomroy did when she came from Kauai. I have an old, old, old, old wreath that Amelia Bailey brought to the shop many years ago, that’s still hanging up there. So it’s like going in a Chinese shop full of all kinds of—I mean, people come in, and they’re like [CHUCKLE]—the look is … Or they’ll come in, and they’ll take a long time, because there are too many textures and colors, and blends, and things to look at. I mean, yeah. And I like it. Everybody says, You need a bigger shop. No, I’ve gotten used to it.


At the time of this conversation in the summer of 2011, Nake‘u Awai continues to create and design, an icon of Hawaiian fashion. From his overflowing shop in Kalihi, he continues the dance of life, inspiring a new generation with his timeless textiles. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


When you see Elvis and he has these gyrating hips with these belts with beads on them, those were the belts that we did for Bill Ballou was the designer. A lot of things, as I look back, I’ve done stuffs that people didn’t understand what I did, and why I was doing it until later, and then you see them doing it and understanding it.