Merrie Monarch 2022

Through Faith and Trust, a Pioneer Leaves Tradition in the Dust

By Taylor “Uʻi” Barongan

“Kumu (teacher), you are really known for your creative choreography. Where do you draw your inspiration from? [...] Every song you choreograph for, I feel like I’m there,” the reporter asks the man standing shyly next to her. His arms still resting respectfully in front of him, his shoulders relaxed but his body slightly retreated from the camera, he replies “Well, you know something, in the later years as time went by, I got to know God more so, […] when you know Him good, you get [a] good relationship with the Lord and then I find, ‘Oh, wow He helps you,’ and I thank him all the time, [Hawaiʻi News Now interview in 2019 with reporter Lacy Deniz].”

Kuuhiapo Jeong in his hula attire Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho competed in the Merrie Monarch Festival with his hālau (a hula school), Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, since the beginning of the festival itself back in the 1970s. When he wasn’t choreographing, Lum Ho could also be found composing music and singing. He is well known for his choreography in collaboration with Natasha Oda, Miss Aloha Hula 2001, in which the story of the moʻo (lizard or reptile) is told. What made Lum Ho stand apart from other hula masters was his transcendent creativity. While Lum Ho incorporated tradition into his choreography, his creative visions of what a story could be resulted in groundbreaking choreography that never failed to move his audience.

In this year's Merrie Monarch, Lum Ho is remembered for his decades of dedication and inspiration to hula as he passed away on the April 3rd of this year.

“He was highly creative. He had visions no one could even fathom. Hula is told in Hawaiian language but people feel that despite not speaking it, they can understand the story in Lum Ho’s choreography.” one of Lum Ho's students of 17 years, Kuʻuhiapo Jeong remarked.

While most locals in Hilo would recognize Kuʻuhiapo Jeong from his iconic roles in Hilo theatre-productions such as Larry Reitzer’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and ‘Aladdin,’ or Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi Campus’s Hā‘upu production at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh Scotland; his roots with performance in Hawaiʻi go much deeper. Jeong is a senior at UH Hilo graduating this spring with a double major in Psychology and Communication, and has been a part of the Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua as a hula ʻōlapa (or student) since the age of four. Upon first entering the hālau, he was the youngest male hula dancer there. A short while later, he became the only male hula dancer there. His kumu, Lum Ho, and the assistant instructor, John “Kawelo” Kong Kee Jr., took notice of his innate talent. For the next seven years, Jeong was trained as a soloist. Though made to feel special, Jeong felt timid being around his people as he was the only boy in a hālau full of women. He grew close with Uncle Kawelo and Uncle Johnny—as Jeong would called them—during this time, and entered two competitions under their direction.

While most locals in Hilo would recognize Kuʻuhiapo Jeong from his iconic roles in Hilo theatre-productions such as Larry Reitzer’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and ‘Aladdin,’ or Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi Campus’s Hā‘upu production at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh Scotland; his roots with performance in Hawaiʻi go much deeper. Jeong is a senior at UH Hilo graduating this spring with a double major in Psychology and Communication, and has been a part of the Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua as a hula ʻōlapa (or student) since the age of four. Upon first entering the hālau, he was the youngest male hula dancer there. A short while later, he became the only male hula dancer there. His kumu, Lum Ho, and the assistant instructor, John “Kawelo” Kong Kee Jr., took notice of his innate talent. For the next seven years, Jeong was trained as a soloist. Though made to feel special, Jeong felt timid being around his people as he was the only boy in a hālau full of women. He grew close with Uncle Kawelo and Uncle Johnny—as Jeong would called them—during this time, and entered two competitions under their direction.

As the golden boy of the hālau, Jeong was prepared by Lum Ho to take on other responsibilities.. Part of the kuleana Lum Ho dreamed for Jeong was to take on the role of assistant instructor when the time was right. Eventually, more boys joined the hālau, and Jeong learned to dance with them as part of a team. When Jeong was just 16, Kong Kee (Uncle Kawelo) suddenly passed away, leaving Jeong heir to the role of assistant instructor. While advised and supported by the other “hula aunties” at the hālau and his kumu, Jeong was left to lead on his own. At 16, he was just coming into his own and was very involved with his high school community. He led another life outside the walls of the hālau—one filled with family, friends, the arts, and, most overwhelmingly, learning who he was and who he wanted to be. Taking on the role of assistant instructor meant he needed to juggle being a teacher who could discipline and teach a variety of students, while also being a friend to many of them outside of the hālau. He wore many hats and enjoyed taking on the role of a leader—in fact, the responsibility felt natural to him. However, this didn’t mean that he didn’t doubt himself or feel alone amongst his own.

Image of Ku uhiapo Jeong, student of the late kumu hula Johnny Lum HoKu’uhiapo Jeong, student of the late kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho.

“He had a lot of trust in me as a student, which felt good but also had a lot of pressure. Assistant instructors like myself would ask [Lum Ho] questions and Uncle Johnny had this thing he would always say—‘you so smat, why you asking me for mo help, you guys know what you doing.’ Uncle Johnny seemed like he wanted to move away from an authority figure at the hālaucreatively so he didn’t want a lot of instructors to come to him for advice, but I love that he had that trust for all of us as his students.”

Lum Ho’s faith in his students led to the rise of many successful hula masters today. Among Lum Ho’s mentees were Kumu Hula Napua Greig of Hālau Nā Lei Kaumaka O Uka, and Kumu Hula Keʻano Kaʻupu IV of Hālau Hiʻiakaināmakalehua.

Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho at Merrie MonarchKumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho at Merrie Monarch (2016.)

“He was a prankster and also strict, he was fun but also quiet and meek,” Jeong recalled. After running his own hālau for so long, Johnny struck a unique balance in teaching—a duality that not many can accomplish so well. “Inside, we saw the softer side of him. We saw the caring side that people don’t necessarily see on the screen. I think that’s what I’ll miss the most about him—his caring nature.”

Lum Ho, while caring deeply for his students, was also a man of faith and humility.

“He was a simple man,” Jeong said. “He didn’t overcomplicate things. If he said one thing, he meant it. He said to love God, trust God, love what you do, and be humble.”

When prompted to describe what it was like to work with such a humble yet extremely gifted icon, Jeong smiled and enthusiastically launched into gushing praise about his late kumu. “Knowing him made me a better person and he reminded me to be humble. He reminded me to trust in Jesus. ‘Always praise Jesus. Don’t be prideful, always be humble.’

This humbleness persisted outside the teaching space.

“He never really liked the spotlight, and would persistently give the spotlight to his own students and never put it on himself,” Jeong laughed. “It’s notable for a kumu hula because usually, when praise comes to a hālau or to a dance at the Merrie Monarch, the praise goes straight to the kumu. The kumu usually takes it—as they should—because he or she has all the knowledge. Uncle Johnny was different. He never really liked being interviewed; being filmed. At the Merrie Monarch Festival there would be a time where the various kumu hulas would come onstage and be recognized for their hard work… Uncle Johnny never went up. He always stayed in the back; he didn't run up on stage […] He didn’t take the credit. Yet, all the credit was towards him because he had all the knowledge, all the creative juices going through him, but yet he never took the credit. He was always like ‘No, it’s not me, it’s God.’”

Jeong choreographed hulas for Lum Ho while in his hālau, an uncommon honor for a student to share with his kumu. Jeong beamed as he recounted a time in which he had Johnny’s indelible support.

Young Ku'uhiapo Jeong, pictures with Kawelo Kong kee (left) and Johnny Lum Ho (right.)Young Ku'uhiapo Jeong, pictures with Kawelo Kong kee (left) and Johnny Lum Ho (right.)

“One of the hulas I choreographed for myself won a hula competition at my own high school, Kamehameha Schools, and he was there to watch. To get his approval with that and just other hulas I choreographed in general has been so satisfying for me—just to know that your kumu approves of your own creative endeavors. That’s what you want as a hula student underneath your kumu. You want to live up to their expectations.”

Jeong took the leadership skills he refined at his hālau to UH Hilo, acting as first Vice Chairperson for the Board of Media Broadcasting (BoMB) then Executive Chairperson, and the president of the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology (UH Hilo Chapter.) Now a senior with plans to pursue a master’s degree in Public Relations & Reputation Management at Biola University,an online university, Jeong has no intention of leaving his beloved hālau anytime soon. Still in the role of assistant hula instructor, he commented, “I will continue to choreograph hula where I am needed. Everything I got to do and still get to do moving forward is because of Uncle Johnny. I want people to understand this: I wouldn’t have been a hula instructor nor remotely successful at what I did in hula—and will continue to do in hula—without my kumu.”

At the time Jeong and I spoke, Merrie Monarch was days away.

“We lost a gem of Hilo, but also a gem in the hula community,” Jeong professed. “I hope he is proud of me moving forward and I hope that he is dancing in Heaven… Merrie Monarch won’t be the same without Uncle Johnny.”