Laie carver completes Hawaiian wa’a kaulua

[Story and photo by Mike Foley, originally published in Kaleo, April 9, 1998]

Tuione Pulotu shows his nearly completed Hawaiian wa’a kaulua.

When the young man from the tiny island of Fangai in Tonga’s Ha’apai group first visited Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1961, he fell in love with Hawaiian tikis.

“I really admired them,” said Tuione Pulotu, who came here 38 years ago as an LDS?labor missionary to help build the brand-new Polynesian Cultural Center and additions to The Church College of Hawaii, the Hawaii LDS?Temple.

“I started with a pocket knife and small pieces of wood,” Pulotu says, “and by the time we were ready to do the carvings for the original entrance at PCC and the tikis on the bridges, I was a carver.”

Since then, Pulotu long-ago left the pocket knife behind and now does almost all of his carving with various sized chainsaws, and the finish work with adzes. He explains he envisions his creations in his mind, “and then I make the thing I see.”

Pulotu has lost track of all the tikis and other Polynesian carvings he has created; but a few stick out in his mind, including: the set for the LDS?movie Johnny Lingo, which was filmed in Laie; the Hawaiian village set for PCC’s large-format movie, Polynesian Odyssey; a Japanese village scene for Karate Kid 2; and an ornately carved throne which was a 70th birthday president for the king of Tonga.

“The king’s chair really stands out in my mind,” Pulotu says. “I’ve visited with him and he really likes it. In fact, every big occasion he goes to now, they bring the chair for him and he sits on it.”

Pulotu’s latest project is on an even grander scale — a 35-foot wa’a kaulua or double-hulled Hawaiian sailing canoe made from koa logs. The canoe, commissioned by the Weinberg Foundation, includes a traditional lauhala mat sail.

Pulotu explains he built a Hawaiian village last year for a shopping center the foundation owns in Lahaina, and “they came back and asked me if I could do a canoe.

“I was thrilled,” Pulotu recalls. “I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time, but financially I couldn’t afford it. I looked at this as a great experience.”

Pulotu says he used four koa logs from the Miloli’i area of the Big Island, at a cost of almost $40,000. He estimates the canoe, which turned out beautifully, is now worth over $100,000.

“I didn’t expect this. It’s the most beautiful canoe I’ve ever seen,”?Pulotu says was the reaction of the Weinberg Foundation representative. He adds the foundation may ask the State to put it on display in the airport.

For now, the canoe is on Pulotu’s one-acre lot in Laiemalo’o where he lives with his wife, Mahana. The couple met in the formative days of PCC and now have six children and eight grandchildren.

Pulotu’s next commission is an 80-foot Tongan canoe which he plans to build in Fiji. “All of our big canoes were done in Fiji,” he explains, “because they have big trees there.”

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