Feature story: Carving out a new life | News | Palo Alto Online |


Feature story: Carving out a new life

Tualau Tauheluhelu brings tradition and skills to Tongan men in East Palo Alto

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In the driveway of an East Palo Alto cottage, wearing a 3 1/2-foot-tall headdress and long braids down its back, a 12-foot-tall redwood god of war named Ku towered above three Tongan wood carvers.

Hardwood mallets pounded against chisels, the sound mingling with the rhythmic rasp of a large scraper and the rumbling of trucks on U.S. Highway 101, a stone's throw from the Green Street home.

Tualau Tauheluhelu (pronounced Too-uh-low Tow-hay-loo-hay-loo), 57, was shaping a 4-foot-tall Tiki god of good luck and peace. His large, muscular hands moved over the black acacia wood's burled surface as if sensing a life to be coaxed from its grain.

Two of Tauheluhelu's students, Malakai Vimahi and Gary Feao, worked intently over their Tikis. They made zigzag patterns, grimacing mouths and piercing eyes by gouging out U-shaped bits of wood in shades of brown, red and yellow. Their tools were simple, visceral: rough, calloused hands; legs forming a vise to steady their carvings.

Because of the recession, regular daytime work has dried up for many Tongan men who worked in construction, said Tauheluhelu, a carpenter and master carver. So he has turned full time to the art form he has loved since his youth in Tonga: custom carving. He has started teaching other Tongan men in East Palo Alto how to carve and do carpentry so they will be able to work and maintain a strong sense of their culture.

"I'm doing it for free for my people," he said.

Tauheluhelu currently teaches about 10 students and plans to add others. The men arrive at different times throughout the day, sitting in the driveway with Tauheluhelu as they work on their projects under his watchful eye. Eventually, Tauheluhelu hopes, they will get work carving custom sculptures or marketing their products through galleries, stores or at festivals.

The market for Tiki sculpture is thriving these days, Tauheluhelu said. There has been a resurgence ranging from collections of vintage Tiki mugs to hotel and bar decorations. Tauheluhelu gets many calls for the latter, he said.

Feao said he is hoping some of that interest will turn into lucrative work for him.

"Nobody has a job. I am learning so I can have a chance to make money," he said. He has been carving for two weeks, and three of his sculptures lay at his feet on a recent Monday, awaiting a final coat of sealant.

The term "Tiki" is derived from the language of the Marquesa Islands (a closely related tongue to Tongan and Samoan) and Maori in New Zealand, according to dictionary definitions.

Some believe the statues of stone or wood originated as representations of creation mythology. Their size ranges from neck pendants to totem poles. Capt. James Cook's expedition was the first to describe them in English in the late 1700s.

The humanoid statues represent gods such as the guardian of the underworld, god of war, god of peace and progenitors of birds, people and fishes. They are found in Polynesian cultures from many Pacific islands, including New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Hawaii.

Tiki as a mainland cultural phenomenon began in California in 1934 with the first Tiki bar opening in Hollywood and in 1937 when Trader Vic's opened in the East Bay. It took hold after World War II with a proliferation of Tiki-themed kitsch, cuisine and drinks after servicemen returned from the Pacific, according to writer Wayne Curtis's 2006 article, "How sex, rum, World War II, and the brand-new state of Hawaii ignited a fad that has never quite ended."

The 1990s saw a return of interest in Tiki sculpture that continues to become stronger even as the presence of Pacific Islanders has grown in the United States. The Tongan population alone in the U.S. has increased 55.2 percent from 2000 to 2010 -- the second-largest jump of any Polynesian group. In California, the number of Pacific Islanders has increased by 29.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

The culture of Tonga -- a South Pacific archipelago of 160 islands and more than 100,000 people -- is traditionally social and cooperative. Tongans emphasize extended family, interpersonal relationships and harmony. Status and relationships are determined by age and/or role in the family, according to a 2005 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Like many Tongans who have come to the U.S., Tauheluhelu arrived with a goal of leading a better life. He emigrated at age 18. Those in the Tongan community who know Tauheluhelu said they admire him for his dedication to craft and his desire to keep carving alive.

He started woodworking while still in school in Tonga, he said.

"When I came home, as a little kid I didn't have anything to play with. I started making dolls out of wood -- little Polynesian people. I grew up as a carpenter in a family of builders. I worked with my father. When I got off from high school, this was something that interested me. It was my favorite thing to do," he recalled.

After about two years he graduated from carving dolls to animals and birds, and later he went on to Tikis and large sculptures, he said.

As it was in his youth, carving remains a central part of his daily life. After a long day's work he still returns home to do his beloved craft.

"It makes me feel that it's a part of me," he said.

After 42 years of steadily carving everything from gods to dolphins, Tauheluhelu can nearly complete an elaborate 4-foot piece such as Lono, the god of luck and peace, in just a day, taking another day or two more to refine it, he said.

Tauheluhelu modestly does not call himself a master, but his accomplishments are many. He has done custom carving throughout the world, including stints in Rome and Florida. Last year he made 27 sculptures for Trader Vic's restaurants, and his carvings are at Disney World in Florida. He said he will carve anything and will go anywhere to carve. Among his repertoire are bears, land tortoises and birds.

"I do big fish -- big marlins. I've carved a lot of dolphins and pelicans."

He stopped at the thought.

"When I lived in Florida, it was pelican, pelican, pelican every day. I got so tired of pelicans," he said.

But then he smiled.

"One time a lady in the Chinese community wanted two pigs -- a lady pig and a man pig. They were wearing clothing. The man pig had a jacket and tie," he said.

Dennis Romero, owner of The Downtown Tiki Lounge Bar and Grill in San Mateo, learned of Tauheluhelu's talent after seeing the Tualau Wood Carvings stand in a gas station parking lot on Shoreview Avenue in San Mateo. He hired Tauheluhelu to carve banisters, doors and parts of the bar at his restaurant.

"Customers like the mermaids and turtles," Romero said.

Karen Chow bought one of his carvings for her son.

"Tualau is a wonderful artist and a soulful man. I met him when he came to De Anza (College) to display his wood and whalebone carvings. I bought a beautiful carved whalebone piece for my son for his second birthday," she said.

Chow, a professor of English, women's studies and Asian American studies at De Anza, has also found Tauheluhelu to be a repository of information on Pacific Island culture and art. Tauheluhelu has explained to Chow about how he incorporates both Pacific Islander and Maori motifs in his art, and she hopes to invite him to speak to her class next year, she said.

Tauheluhelu said he enjoys talking to students about the meaning of Pacific Island cultures. San Mateo County has the eighth largest population of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders from all islands in the country, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Roughly one-quarter of the 10,317 county residents -- 2,118 Pacific Islanders -- reside in East Palo Alto.

But overall they make up just 2.1 percent of the county's population. Their children are awash in cultural influences from other groups, which sometimes have led to conflicts, Tauheluhelu said.

The Tikis stand as reminders of a resilient culture that in many ways has not bent under the influences of the dominant society. At the Green Street home, Tikis will serve as portals to welcome Tongans new to the Bay Area or who want to maintain their heritage.

The home, known as a fofo'anga, is a meetinghouse central to Tongan life. It is a place where traditional song and oral traditions are kept alive.

Occasionally, community members will spend long days and nights drinking kava, a medicinal root-based beverage consumed during celebrations, weddings and funerals. Singing from the cottage can be heard through the neighborhood.

Tauheluhelu maintains a room at the East Palo Alto house, although he lives in San Mateo. Last year when their balloon-mortgage payments topped $4,500 a month, the original owners of the fofo'anga lost the house. Now the group rents the property from its new owner, he said.

Tauheluhelu would like to see the meetinghouse develop into a place where Tongans will expand their knowledge of their culture -- through activities such as making sculptures and handmade whalebone and animal-horn necklaces.

Raising a new generation of carvers and artisans in the Bay Area has special meaning to Tauheluhelu, who had no one to teach him when he was learning, he said.

The importance of carving -- and carving traditional imagery such as Tikis -- resonated deeply when he discussed his culture and attempts by outsiders to change it.

Tauheluhelu's demeanor changed, as if trying to suppress a deep and painful personal memory.

"These Tikis and totem poles remind people of the time before the missionaries came (to Tonga). They keep us in peace; they keep us reminded to love one another. The missionaries thought we worshipped these sculptures, so they burned them all. But these are symbols. We keep them in our culture as a reminder still. We understand these things as we understand there is one God the Father," he said of the Christianity many Tongans practice today.

Traditional Tongan cultural values include an emphasis on community that helps retain strong cultural identity, said Malissa Netane, community facilitator and Pacific Islander Initiative co-chair at the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center.

"Because of its core values of family, faith and culture, I don't think the Tongan community is in a position to be watered down," she said.

The support of families, villages and faith groups has kept homelessness low among Pacific Islanders, she said. Tauheluhelu has been part of a nonprofit group that welcomes newcomers here. New immigrants from Tonga are brought to the East Palo Alto meetinghouse until they have set up their own jobs and residences, he said.

Netane said that what Tauheluhelu is teaching is "absolutely" beneficial to the Tongan community.

Fathers teach their children their trades and traditions in Tonga, but a tradition of farming that might pass down among families might not continue in the U.S. In Tonga one doesn't need much to survive, but farming is about all the opportunity one would have, and no more, she said. People come here because they are seeking opportunities to advance in education and work. A father might want his son to be a doctor.

But Tauheluhelu is keeping something valuable alive and sharing it with other people, Netane said.

"What Tualau is doing is applying something that would be traditional at home. By Tualau doing this, he's offering an opportunity to be rekindling the tradition of carving. It's a good preventative strategy to help youth veer away from violence and crime," she said.

Malakai Vimahi is among the younger men learning traditional carving. In his early 30s and wearing an "I'm better when I'm drunk," sweatshirt, he dug deeply into a hardwood Tiki held across his lap, shaping elongated eyes. In just three days he would finish the 3-foot-tall Tiki.

Asked about what attracts him to carving, Vimahi shrugged.

"I like arts. This is supposed to be a traditional thing, and it reminds me of back home," he said. Tauheluhelu said Vimahi is already an accomplished carver. His family immigrated to Hawaii, where they have carved for the public for decades.

When he is not carving, Vimahi cuts hair for a living and plays guitar. He performs during the meetinghouse singing ceremonies, he said. He spoke little, deferring to Tauheluhelu, his teacher.

On a woven mat Tauheluhelu arranged two large tortoises, a small bear and an array of Tikis in the dappled shade. A sculpture of smoothly sanded dolphins leaping from the sea stood out on a wooden pedestal. Their sleekness and made-for-the-public feel contrasted strikingly with the more traditional sculpture.

Tauheluhelu said he isn't worried about the next generation assimilating too quickly, especially if the tradition of the meetinghouse continues.

"I don't think our culture will ever be lost. We have here a social group. We have kept this place -- and this place belongs to each of us," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Cid Young
a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm

It's nice to see they are keeping on touch with their heritage.

Like this comment
Posted by Keep Up Tradition!
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Is there a place that we can see their workmanship? I'd certainly like to see it, them working on them, and the finished product. I live in Palo Alto, CA

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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