The lei sellers at the Honolulu International Airport say their daily struggle to stay in business would be eased if they had 15-year leases like they did in the past, and more respect.

They mean respect from their landlord, the State Airports Division, and respect from some of their tightwad customers who continue to haggle with them to sell leis for $2 and $3 apiece, even though the cost to hand string each lei has increased exponentially.

Ever since the state moved the airport lei sellers in the early 1990’s to the concrete structure by the departures ramp, they have been on revocable month-to-month permits. Their location is so difficult to find, lei seller Myrna Milan Chun says, “Some of our friends don’t even know we are here.”

“Basically, we feel the state wants to get rid of us, “ said Mike Onaga Jr., the president of the Airport Lei Sellers Association.

Airport lei seller Mike Onaga Jr

Mike Onaga Jr. is president of the Airport Lei Sellers Association.

Denby Fawcett

The airport lei sellers have been moved four different times since their mothers and grandmothers first began selling leis to airport customers from the backs of trucks on Lagoon Drive near Nimitz Highway in 1945.

The Civil Aeronautics Commission, the territorial predecessor to the State Airports Division, moved the lei sellers in 1952 from their truck stands to thatched hut structures closer to the entrance of the old airport on Lagoon Drive.

Then the state Airports Division moved the lei businesses to the new airport in 1962, and after that to still another location on the new airport grounds, and finally in the early 1990s to their current location in the concrete building that is a challenge to locate in the web of byways circling the airport.

“Sometimes people call on their cell phones and say where are you,” says Onaga. “They tell me they have driven around the airport three times. When they finally drive up to the stand to buy leis, they immediately ask how to get back on the road to the airport. It’s confusing.”

Onaga has been stringing leis since he was 7 years old for his mother, Dorothy Andrade Onaga, and his father, Mike Onaga Sr., who was once also the president of the Airport Lei Sellers Association.

The airport lei sellers now worry they may be relocated a fifth time in the face of the construction of the rail transit system and the new car rental facility at the airport.

And if not moved, they’re concerned that at the least their businesses will be severely disrupted by non-stop airport construction.

airport lei sellers circa 1940

A woman sells leis at the Honolulu Airport in the 1940s.

Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Transportation

In an email, state Transportation Department spokesman Derek Inoshita says, “There are currently eleven lei vendors operating at the Honolulu International Airport, all on monthly revocable permits.  DOT has no current plans to relocate them.  Hope that helps to address the concerns.”

But the uncertainty of the wording “no current plans to relocate them” is what concerns the lei vendors. If not now, will the state move the lei vendors sometime in the future? And if so, when would they be moved and where?

“They have no idea of what they are going to do with us,” says lei seller Myrna Milan Chun, who has been stringing leis at the airport for the last 45 years. Chun operates the lei stand named “Martha’s” formerly owned by her grandmother, Martha Akui, a pure Hawaiian woman from Kaimuki.

Although some of the employees these days are Filipinos, all the owners of the lei stands like Chun and Onaga are Native Hawaiians, the descendants of the original airport lei sellers who worked out of trucks on Lagoon Drive in the 1940s.

It is rare in Hawaii today to find so many businesses operating side by side that are Hawaiian-owned and directly connected to a time-honored Hawaiian custom.

Allowing only Hawaiians to lease the airport lei stands might one day spark a lawsuit, but that would probably upset many supporters who think maintaining the Hawaiian tradition and stand names of the original Hawaiian owners is the right thing to do.

“We are part of the Hawaiian culture and tradition. We are assets. We belong here at the airport,” says Chun.

And besides, it is not as if hundreds of people from other ethnic groups are standing in line to get into the airport lei stand business. Selling leis is tough work.

Chun and Onaga say the costs are high and the profits very slim.

airport lei sellers Myrna Milan Chun

Myrna Milan Chun has been selling leis for 45 years.

Denby Fawcett

The days of a lei strung inexpensively from flowers from a lei seller’s backyard are long gone.

Lei sellers in the early days grew their own flowers or bought plumerias at a low cost from cemeteries or from backyard non-commercial growers in their neighborhoods.

But many cemeteries don’t plant plumeria trees any more. Too messy. And the adult college-educated children of neighborhood backyard flower growers don’t want to continue their parents’ tradition of supplying flowers to the lei sellers. Plus, very few people have big backyards with flower trees these days.

The lei sellers now buy their plumerias from commercial growers in Nanakuli and Molokai.

Carnations and roses for leis, once purchased from Maui and the Big Island, are ordered from as far away as Equador and Bolivia, and the orchids come from Thailand.

In addition, lei sellers have more competition then they have ever had before. Everyone is selling leis, including Walmart, supermarkets, convenience stores, florists and even flower wholesalers. Some large companies ship in hundreds of leis already strung in Thailand, which undercuts the prices of individual lei sellers.

Adding to the difficulty is what Chun calls the “cheapness” of some of their customers.

Chun says, “They remember the days of 50 cent plumeria leis and they can’t understand why the same lei now costs $5. They want us to sell them the lei for $2 or $3. They call us and say can you sell us cheap leis or will you sell me the leis you are going to throw out?”

Interestingly, Onaga says leis about to be tossed out are often given away as gifts to regular customers or sold very inexpensively to friendly and sweet people who appear to have very little money.

Chun and Onaga say many of their most steady and generous customers at the airport lei stands are from the military.

But some local supporters like Phil Arthur of Kailua have been coming to the airport lei stands with their parents since the earliest days of their childhoods.

Says Arthur, “If you establish a relationship with an airport lei seller, they will sell you leis for less money than the Chinatown lei sellers.”

Chun and Onaga and the other lei airport vendors would like to return to the 15-year leases they had with the state before they moved to the current location.

Under their month-to-month revocable permits, they pay $100 a month or 10 percent of their gross, whichever is greater.

“We have been fortunate to have these low rents,” says Chun.

But she wishes for more security.

airport lei sellers

Lei sellers say making a living stringing leis is not as easy as it was when flowers came from neighbors backyards.

Denby Fawcett

Onaga says the state also needs to treat the lei sellers’ concerns more seriously. He says their requests to the Airports Division for the last three years for improvements have been ignored.

“They don’t listen to us,” he says.

The Airports Division is responsible for repairs and grounds upkeep of the lei stands but the roof of the lei sellers’ building is damaged and has missing shingles. Weeds are growing out of the gaps between the shingles as well as in the rain gutters.

Says Chun, “In my day, when we had problems, five of us Hawaiian ladies would pile in a car and drive right to the governor’s office to get an answer. I know. I was the driver.”

Chun says if they had the security of leases instead of revocable permits, the Airport Lei Sellers Association would once again be strong like it was in the past when it policed the sellers and made sure they hewed to Hawaiian traditions.

Chun says the lei stands, by agreement with the state, are supposed to sell only fresh flower leis and fresh flowers, but now some lei stands sell silk and candy and plastic leis as well as trinkets from the Philippines.

And Chun says some of the relatives of the original lei sellers who don’t really enjoy the business pass the time by playing ear-splittingly loud non-Hawaiian music on their boom boxes. Others can be pushy and rude to customers.

“That is not the Hawaiian way. We need to get on the ball, to police ourselves, to make the state realize why it is important for us to be here,” says Chun.

So why do they lei sellers remain at the airport despite all the frustrations?

“I would like to do this for the rest of my life,” the 74-year-old Chun says. “It is something very simple but very gratifying. There is nothing like happiness a visitor feels after being greeted with a lei. It is really a part of Hawaii like hula, like the spirit of aloha, all in one. It is who we are.”

Onaga, 60, says, “It is our legacy. When you see people so happy with even the simplest plumeria lei you sell them, it is a very good feeling. I never wanted to be in this business when I was young. I just wanted to surf; now I am glad I stayed with it.”

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