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Carving out his roots.

Rental car executive Gordon Kai is learning about his Hawaii roots through the use of his hands and heart. He's become an accomplished carver of Hawaiian artifacts. And he's becoming proficient in an ancient Hawaiian martial art.

There are some in these Islands who believe ancient Hawaiian practices have no practical use in today's world. Don't count rental car executive Gordon Kai among that group. In fact, learning the old ways has become Kai's method of dealing with modern society.

He learns the lessons of the past through the ancient Hawaiian martial art of lua. It's Hawaii's traditional version of kung fu or karate. Used in precontact Hawaii, lua involved the use of weapons and bare hands with the intent to maim or kill. Although tribal warfare isn't an issue for Kai and his brethren, studying lua has helped them to understand a central tenant of the martial art: the duality of ku (the rigid or masculine) and hina (the flexible or feminine).

"You need the two in good proportion to be successful in life as well as fighting," says Kai, regional sales and marketing director for Budget Rent A Car in Hawaii. "If you have too much of either, then you will break mentally or physically during pressure conflicts at work or play. If you have a proper mixture, then you can flow with it."

This Hawaiian philosophy has helped Kai both in and out of the office at Budget. The agency this year ranked 71st on the Hawaii Business Top 250 with $86.3 million in sales in 1997. Kai manages a staff of six employees in a company that deals with 19,000 rental car customers a year. When things heat up in the office, Kai concentrates on ku and hina to better deal with customer complaints.

"It calms me down," says Kai. "Instead of reacting, it helps me to stop and think. I'm also calmer in situations where there might be aggression because of budget restraints with lack of personnel support."

Kai was selected in 1993 to attend one of the first classes at the Bishop Museum that taught the practices of lua. He meets with the 200-member Pa Kui a Lua, a group that practices lua twice a week.

Learning the Hawaiian culture didn't come easy for Kai, who grew up in Kaimuki during the 1960s - about a decade before the Hawaiian Renaissance began to flourish. Although poi was served at the dinner table, everything else associated with being Hawaiian was discouraged. Kai remembers hearing stories of how his mother was spanked as a little girl for speaking the Hawaiian language.

"We were told not to learn it because it wouldn't do you any good in the future," says Kai. "Today, it'll do you good, but you also learn your western ways as well."

Just like the hula and Hawaiian language, lua went underground upon the arrival of western missionaries to the Islands in the 1800s. King Kalakaua made a brief attempt to revive it for the Royal Guard. But it didn't go further. Today, like many Hawaiian art forms, lua is enjoying a revival.

"You can be of Hawaiian blood," says Kai. "But if you don't know the general philosophy or protocols of the culture, it's hard to identify yourself as being Hawaiian."

Kai's identity is also shaped through Hawaiian carvings, which he does during his off hours. He takes wood, bone, stone and other raw materials and shapes them into fish hooks, poi pounders, and weapons once used for lua. His craftsmanship reflects ancient Hawaiian techniques as much as possible.

Kai became interested in carving just out of high school after observing his uncle carve a wooden spade-shaped paddle that included sharks teeth. At first it was hit or miss. He now works with master Hawaiian carver Wright Bowman, among others. At one time, Kai sold his carvings in the Hawaiian retail store Beautiful Books and Things, but he couldn't keep up with demand. His biggest problem now is finding enough free time away from business phone calls at home and having to go into the office on weekends. He even tries to fit in time to do his carvings during 8-hour business flights to Budget's home office outside Chicago. Adds Kai: "You always run out of time doing your passions."


TITLE: Director of Sales and Marketing-Hawaii, Budget Car and Truck Rental.

AGE: 48

EXPERIENCE: Marketing consultant, Kai Kompany; marketing director, Emerald Hotels; vice president of meeting and conventions, Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau.

EDUCATION: B.S. (Marketing Science), Chaminade University, 1973; Kaimuki High School, 1968.

FAMILY: Wife: Janice, lauhala weaver; Sons: Kahauanu, 25; Umi, 22; Kauwe, 21; Daughter: Noweo, 17.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Hawaii Business Publishing Co.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:profile of Gordon Umi Kai, businessman turned martial arts expert
Author:DeSilva, Craig
Publication:Hawaii Business
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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