Loea Hoʻomākaukau ʻŪpena: John Yu

Here is an interview conducted by Jacob Hauʻoli Elarco with Mr. John Yu at Native Books/Nā Mea Hawaiʻi on May 29, 2015. John Yu is from Hauʻula and is a practitioner of the art of net making. He will be holding classes on net sewing beginning June 20. Classes are free and will be held at Native Books/Nā Mea Hawaiʻi. For more infromation, please contact Hauʻoli Elarco at hauoli@nameahawaii.com


John Yu and Hau'oli Elarco

Uncle John and Hau’oli throw nets in the bustle of Ward Warehouse.

Hau’oli: Could we start by telling me your full name, Uncle?

Uncle John: John S. Yu

Hauʻoli: You were telling me before that you first learned how to make ʻūpena (nets) when you were 8 years old, who did you learn from?

John: Princess Kawananakoa’s yard man. He taught me because I’d go with my dad, and we were taking care of the Kawananakoa’s estate in Punaluʻu. He was doing some net sewing, and I was interested and I asked him. Then he said, “before you learn to sew, you gotta to learn to make the hiʻa”. So, I started craving the hiʻa and he started showing me how to sew the net. But, his knot was a square not. And square knot, if you donʻt pull it right, it will slip. So, I made it to a bowline knot. So, I find it’s easier. Those days, we only used nylon and cotton. There wasn’t know monofilament.

Hauʻoli: Can you tell me about the hiʻa? What is a hiʻa?

John: That’s the shuttle. The needle to sew the net.

Hauʻoli: So generally, the hiʻa and spacers are made out of bamboo?

John: Well, if the bamboo is big, you can use it but generally I just find a flat piece of wood and shave it down, and use it to the size of the project.

Hauʻoli: What else do you need to make an ʻūpena?

John: The first thing is to know what you want to do, what kind of net, and the size. In our days, we didnʻt do to much crab net. We did the lay net. So you had to sew a long line of net, and that takes time.

Hauʻoli: How long are the lines?

John: You’d usually make it about 125 feet. That’s a lot of threat to use.

Hauʻoli: What kind of nets do you know how to make?

John: Usually I make any kind of net. From fishing kind to sports, like basketball nets. Also, the hanging glass ball net, ornamental kind. During Christmas time, we do a lot of the net for the plastic ornaments.

Hauʻoli: So for the throw nets, how long do they usually take you to make?

John: Two months if I was being rushed, but at my leisure time, generally, about three to four months for a net that is nine to ten feet. The longer the net, the wider. You’d be sewing about 450 eyes in about 1 hour.

Hauʻoli: What is your favourite fish to catch with your throw net?

John: Usually, before it was the mullet, moi, manini, ʻāholehole, weke, but nowadays, the fish is very scarce.

Hauʻoli: What kind of crabs do you catch with the crab net?

John: Samoan crab, Hawaiian crab, and deep-water kona crab. You have to make the lines float in the deep water for that. It’s really tedious work.

Hauʻoli: Can you tell me about the oldest net that you have here with us today?

John: That throw net was made when I was in the army in 1945. I was on duty all the time, and someone stole my throw net earlier. I wanted a throw net, so I made that while I was on doing many, many years ago.

Hauʻoli: I know that there are some people have broken throw nets. Are you able to help them with that?

John: Yes, patching is really easy. I can teach them to patch and they wonʻt believe how easy it is. It is just really tedious work and a lot of people get frustrated. I can also shorten the nets, make them longer, or lighter. This 7 year old boy really wanted a net, so I cut down my 10 foot net, and made it 7 feet. A 7 year old boy can’t use a 10 foot net. A lot of them, I can modify their net.

Hauʻoli: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

John: Well, I’d like to see people continue the story of sewing nets, and making hiʻa because it’s kind of a lost art. I interviewed a class and I asked the students if they knew anyone who could sew nets, and out of the whole class, none of them! So I said “oh gee”, so I want to continue and teach the kids and whoever wants to learn.

Hauʻoli: Wow, yes! We are really grateful for you and we are excited to start this class.

John: I am glad that I am still capable to drive at my age, because I want to be able to still teach and keep this tradition going.

Uncle John Yu’s class begins:

June 20, 2015 | 2:00PM – 4:00 PM
Native Books/Nā Mea Hawaiʻi


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  1. Aloha,

    I was so stoked to find out that uncle John Yu is willing to teach and share his knowledge about this lost art. My father William Chu was one of the few that mastered this art. I did learn a little when i was young but at the time i was more into playing sports then learning this “ART” and never applied myself to learning from my father to where i can say that I’am one of the few…. the proud to have this knowledge. Sadly my father has passed on but i remember the days when i was by his side watching him like it was yesterday. I’m would love to meet uncle John and talk story… but better yet i would love to learn this art so i can pass this on to anyone who would want to learn just like uncle John is doing…call it my second chance. Please reserve a spot for me to attend this class, i’m so looking forward to being apart of something special.

    Derek Kala Chu

  2. What a great interview and effort to preserve this knowledge. Is the classes ongoing? I am from Hauula as well and would love to talk to uncle John about fishing and memories from Koolauloa. How may I contact him?

  3. Aloha Uncle John,
    My name is Peter Castillo and my number is 218-9582. May I learn the art of making a throw net for the main purpose of teaching my daughters and the younger kids of hawaii. Mahalo, peter

  4. I am very interested in learning to make hi’a and nets in the old style with craftsman John Yu. I have 2 sons and 5 grandsons who are interested in learning some of Grannies talents like feather lei making, lauhala weaving, lei making (fresh flower, haku lei, wili lei, ti lei, and more). Net Making will be another skill, I can teach them when I learn from Uncle John Yu.
    In many Hawaiian Craft Skills, students are always turned off to learn because good tools and supplies are in short supply. Thank Goodness Na Mea Hawaii provides teachers, classes and sources to help people who want to learn and share their talent.

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