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The Heart of Waikiki

Mana Hawaii brings a new business plan and an old soul to the tourist industry


Social and cultural fabric: Mana Hawaii’s Maile Lee examines floral print fabric sold at her store. photo: Karin Kovalsky

Even though Maile Lee is running Mana Hawaii’s sales floor by herself, no one enters or leaves her store without receiving a heart-felt aloha, mahalo and handshake. If she’s not too busy, you might even get a big hug and a kiss. The recipients of Lee’s hospitality and affection are not only her customers, but also an unfamiliar vendor taking inventory and an unsuspecting journalist taking notes.

Lee is happy that they’ve all come to Waikiki. Maybe more importantly, she’s happy to be there, too.

“Waikiki was the richest kalo land in Hawaii. This is where our kings and queens walked,” says Lee, Mana Hawaii’s operations manager. “It’s important for us [Native Hawaiians] to be here to educate, inform and share with the tourists what Hawaii really is.”

Mana Hawaii sits on the second floor of the recently redeveloped Waikiki Beach Walk and sells a wide variety of art, crafts, books, music, hula implements, fabric and many other things Hawaiian. While the surroundings may be modern and upscale, Mana Hawaii’s business plan is decidedly old fashioned. The store is comprised of a hui of local businesses, the Hula Supply Center, Ukulele House, Na Mea Hawaii/Native Books and The Lomi Shop Vaa, each of which occupies a cozy corner of the 1,600-square-foot store. And each entity has its own kuleana, or responsibilities.

Na Mea Hawaii/Native Books’ Maile Meyer calls the unique cooperative a kau hale, or a grouping of houses. In Old Hawaii, the term not only referred to the structures and their placement, but the interconnected lifestyles of the inhabitants. In Mana’s case, the kau hale determines not only the location and amount of the sales floor that is allocated to each business, it also establishes the division of labor and the financial responsibilities of each partner. This kuleana is taken very seriously and, as in Old Hawaii, it’s a truly cooperative and fluid effort, adapting to the changing landscape.

“It’s just like a Hawaiian luau. Everyone sits down beforehand and they decide what they can do and then they go out and take care of it,” says Meyer, who utilized the kau hale concept successfully at her store Native Books and Beautiful Things from 1995 to 1999. “You don’t sit around and spend all your time planning and discussing. It is about the process and the doing, achieving a natural balance. It has to feel right.”

Mana’s business plan isn’t the only thing that makes it stand out. With its emphasis on authentic Native Hawaiian goods, the shop is a fish out of water in Waikiki, where most of the products and images have been conceived in California and made in China. But for the partners, tourism officials and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), this fish is now essential for Waikiki’s waters, and they are putting their money where their mouths are. Mana Hawaii’s startup capital was supplemented by $200,000 in loans from OHA, as well as a $94,500 grant from economic development organization Enterprise Honolulu.

Wall of Sound: Ukulele House, one of Mana Hawaii’s partners, offers a wide selection of instruments ranging in price from $20 to more than $1,000.

“A Waikiki without the presence of Native Hawaiians? You can do that in Las Vegas. Slowly and surely we have chosen not to go there, because it is not welcoming,” says Ramsay Taum, director of External Relations & Community Partnerships at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Travel Industry Management. “I think the presence of Mana Hawaii is critical, because it is bringing Native Hawaiians back into Waikiki in a substantive way. They can now enjoy direct benefits of the industry. But this isn’t only about Hawaiians. It’s about the tourism industry, too. If Waikiki is being promoted as a Hawaiian place, then we need Hawaiians there.”

Working in the tourist industry and doing so at its urban Mecca wasn’t an easy journey for Maile Lee, who also operates The Lomi Shop Vaa with her sister Kauhane Lee. Maile and Kauhane are daughters of legendary singer/songwriter Kui Lee, whose playful and dreamy songs (“Tiny Bubbles,” “The Days of My Youth” and the unforgettable “I’ll Remember You”) became anthems of the tiki-torched Hawaii of the jet set 1960s.

After their father died of cancer in 1966, the Lees moved from their home in Waikiki “over the mountains” to Kaneohe with the rest of their family. Maile would eventually relocate to the Big Island and Kailua-Kona, where she would live for 30 years. More than five years ago, Kauhane called Maile, asking her to help with a lomilomi business on Oahu’s Windward side.

“I agreed to move to Oahu as long as I didn’t have to go through any tunnels,” says Maile Lee. “I didn’t want anything to do with Waikiki. It just wasn’t a local place anymore.”

But it didn’t take long before Maile was traveling through the tunnel, returning to Waikiki. She and Kauhane helped open the Hyatt Waikiki Resort’s spa, providing lomilomi massages to tourists, who would often ask if they were “real” Hawaiians.

Instead of getting angry and frustrated, the sisters decided to become a part of the solution.

“At first I had the attitude that Waikiki was a place where I had to fight the traffic, fight for parking and then fight to get out,” says Lee. “Then I realized that this is our place, too. Every store, every vendor has its place and its reason for being here. But tourists are also looking for the real Hawaii, and we have to show them we are here and these are the things we do.”

That is exactly what Lee and the rest of Mana Hawaii are doing. The store’s selection of products is extensive, with price points varying widely, from $3 artificial flowers to Niihau shell necklaces priced at more than $7,000. Mana also has a library of Hawaii-themed books and music that would be the envy of many local academics and collectors.

It’s too early to tell if the eclectic mix will appeal to the tourist market unaccustomed to the “real” thing. But Lee is unfazed. She says she and the other partners decided to cast their net wide and then make adjustments along the way, just as any kau hale would operate. Besides, products aren’t the only things that Mana Hawaii is selling.

“Every piece that you pick up here has a story and is attached to a family and piece of land somewhere in Hawaii. There is mana [life force] in it,” says Lee. “We’ll tell that story. They may buy the product, they may not. But they will remember us, because we were good to them.”

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