The Light Fantastic

The man who’s been decking the streets of Honolulu for nearly two decades each holiday season passes the torch.

Nobody in the country celebrates the holidays like Honolulu. For one thing, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be snow-less on December 25th-in fact, if it does snow and the keiki get to experience a fabled white Christmas, something environmental has gone terribly wrong.

No, like most things in Hawai’i, Honolulu’s holidays are wonderfully unique. Santa pays his annual visit to the throngs of people who visit downtown Honolulu every December, of course, but in the only way a Hawaiian Santa can-with a giant shaka, surrounded by palm trees and sea creatures. He’s joined by mrs. Claus, known here as Tutu Mele, wearing slippahs while she’s decked out in a mu’umu’u.

They’re the centerpieces for Honolulu city lights, an annual parade and light festival (named after a classic Keola beamer song) that rings in the holidays here and will kick off this year on dec. 3 with food booths, a tree lighting ceremony, and the legendary electric light parade that winds around the grounds of Honolulu hale, Honolulu’s seat of government and the mayor’s chambers.

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In his 20 years of planning Honolulu City Lights, Alex Ching was responsible for orchestrating all the décor and festivities from the giant Christmas tree to the Hawaiian snowman sculptures. Photo courtesy Honolulu Star-Advertiser archives.

Honolulu city lights has been an annual tradition for everybody on the island since it started in 1985, but 2016 marks a big shift in its history. As Honolulu’s son, Barack Obama, makes a big transition in his career, so too will another son of the islands say goodbye to his long-held job, albeit on a much smaller scale and much more quietly: Alex Ching, the guy whose hands and plans have been responsible for making Honolulu City Lights for nearly two decades. He’ll still be around, he’s just been promoted and can no longer take on the extensive job required to put out such a project every year.

“I honestly thought that I would retire in the position, because I liked it so much,” Ching says with a tinge of nostalgia in his voice. “I enjoy working with my hands; I like creating things. I mean, who doesn’t like Christmas?”

Ching graduated with a bachelor of the arts at the university of Hawai’i in 1990 and almost immediately got work with the city and county of Honolulu, working in its parks department on special programs. It wasn’t long before he saw an outlet for his creativity: Working to build and bring giant holiday characters to life through sculpture for display in the annual city lights festival.

The legendary “Shaka Santa” was first designed and carved in 1989 by Kurt Nelson (who died in 2000 at the age of 50), and has been a mainstay of Honolulu City Lights every year. But much of the sculptures that have followed-a giant penguin family, a 17-foot tall snowman family, squirrelly octopus and frolicking polar bears, not to mention santa’s outsized sleigh-were all overseen by Ching over the years.

It’s always been one of those jobs with an oral tradition. Mike Smith, the arts and crafts specialist for the city at the time and the guy who brought Ching into the fold of working on the growing collection of Honolulu City Lights sculptures back in 1991, was the arts and crafts specialist for the city at the time. He’d bring Ching, who was only working 19 hours a week back then, out to the warehouse where the sculptures were kept and teach him how to make the statues. Back then it wasn’t many, just the clauses, a scroll and a big “Mele Kalikimaka” sign (all of which still come out to celebrate).

“He was very meticulous, talented,” Ching says. “He put in a hundred and ten percent to get the job done. I live by that, too. Part of it was ingrained in me from before. I’m kind of anal retentive, I’ve got to have things done a certain way. He was even more OCD, almost to a fault. He was always able to get things done.”

But over the years, Ching gradually took on more hours and more responsibility, and in 2004, Ching was assigned as the sculpture guide for Honolulu City Lights.

For Ching, the holiday season started in April or May, for that’s when planning for Honolulu City Lights began most years. Ching would fold it into his main duties, which was organizing projects for the city’s parks around the islands, but come August, he’d have to head over to the warehouse in Pearl City, 12 miles away, full time (seven days a week the closer it got to Christmas).

“I always say that I didn’t find my job, my job found me,” Ching says. “I didn’t plan on being a recreation director. I didn’t plan on being a sculpture guide for City Lights. Everything just presented itself as an opportunity for me at the right time, and I just fell into it.”

Like Santa to his elves, Ching would manage a team of one-to-three part timers and any number of volunteers who would come out from the various parks offices around the island to help refurbish the sculptures and sculpt any new fixtures as directed by the committee of stakeholders and members of the Friends of Honolulu City Lights.

Needless to say, it’s a huge undertaking: a sculptor (sometimes Ching, sometimes a commissioned artist) will carve out the hulking statue out of Styrofoam (such as Santa, who’s 21 feet from toe to shaka pinky), and Ching will cover it in cement and fiberglass mesh and a second coat of cement before sanding, smoothing and priming the surface for the paint. Then he or a volunteer will roll on the masking tape (a job the Honolulu Star-Advertiser estimates takes two to three hours for one person per statue) before a flat color and clearcoat are painted on.

Add that to the logistics of organizing and assigning the volunteers with meaningful work, and figuring out the safest ways to transport the sculptures down the interstate and installing them at Honolulu Hale without incident (Ching recalled a day when Mrs. Snowman’s head fell off and rolled out of the truck onto the highway, luckily into a gutter without trouble), and you’ve got a project that only a special type of person can really handle.

So who’s that new person? Ching is passing on the baton to Daniel Nakamoto, a man he’s worked with for 15 years and says knows the ropes.

“I do feel a bit of pressure,” Nakamoto says. “However Alex is always willing to provide advice and encouragement. Also, the people from all the other departments working on Honolulu City Lights are very helpful and competent so I do feel confident that things will work out fantastically.”

Maybe it’s to keep it a bit easier for the new guy during his first year in charge, but there won’t be many new sculptures or characters to the scene from last year, aside from an addition to Santa’s parade float.

Still, Ching’s former supervisor and now peer, Kaiulani Kauahi, recreation specialist and culture and arts coordinator for the C&C, says everything’s in good hands, and Ching’s only a phone call away.

“The type of person that Alex is, I know that he would help whoever would apply for the position,” Kauahi says. “He encouraged Dan to applying for it.”

So what’s Ching’s advice for Nakamoto? “Start early. Plan your schedule out, and stay in good communication.”

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