Profile: Sam Lee
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Author:  Will Heath [ Thu Nov 29, 2007 9:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Profile: Sam Lee

Profile: Sam Lee
Robert Steven with Sam Lee

The year was 1938, three years before the attack on Pearl Harbor which begun the Second World War that Sam Lee began his life in Honolulu. Hawaii. Sam was educated in Honolulu area schools then went on to Colorado state university. When asked why he chose a university so far from warm weather and his beloved ocean, his answer was that his parents chose a school as far away from the ocean as possible, to improve the chances for graduation. The strategy worked, as Sam did graduate with his class with a degree in agricultural economics.

Soon back in the islands, Sam met and married the love of his life Sheila who, for better or worse and through sickness and health, has been his wife for forty years.

Hawaii had become the 50th state in 1959. In just a few years, fueled by federal dollars, Hawaii began to grow and grow and grow.. Change had come to Honolulu, freeways were being built and the population exploded. Yearning for a more rural environment to raise their family of four boys., the lees moved to Kauai, then a sleepy backwater 100 miles north of Honolulu.

Sam worked for the state of Hawaii as a land manager, responsible for thousands of acres of the government land on the island on Kauai. Much of his workday was spent outdoors. As the boys grew, Sam introduced them to the mysteries of the ocean, mere feet away from their home.

Sam spent all if not most of his free time, in, on or under the ocean, having no interest in horticultural pursuits. Keeping the lawn mowed and cultivating an occasional backyard vegetable garden with the help of the kids was about it; so in 1996 when Sam decided to try bonsai, all the people in Sam's world arched their eyebrows, shook the heads and walked away muttering...

The following is an on-line interview with Sam Lee.

AoB: Tell us about bonsai in Hawaii, are there many practitioners of the art there and how would you describe the challenges and advantages of the region?

Sam: Hawaii is unique among the 50 states in that its four counties are separated by ocean. Kauai"s nearest neighbor is Oahu (Diamond Head, Waikiki, Honolulu) about 100 miles south. The two other major counties are as much as 400 miles south . Each island has its own bonsai community, operating independently of each other with no regular contact between bonsai organizations. Unfortunately there is no State wide federation of clubs in Hawaii to bring all bonsai done in Hawaii together. On our island there could be 50 people involved with bonsai at some level and maybe a dozen who are avid. If I had to guess how many folks statewide do bonsai, I would guess somewhere between 200 - 300.

AoB: Could you share with us the history of bonsai in Hawaii, how it was introduced there, and who are considered as being the fathers of Hawaiian bonsai?

Sam: I am not much of a historian, however, from speaking with folks and reading the limited archive of written history of bonsai in Hawaii, I learned that bonsai was probably introduced to Hawaii in the late 1800's by Japanese families who were brought in as labors. The name I hear most frequently as being the father of bonsai in Hawaii is Haruo "papa" Kaneshiro. I understand "papa" kaneshiro has a gallery at the national exhibit in his name for his contributions to bonsai.

AoB: Much of Hawaii is protected, making collecting native material difficult at times and impossible at others, do you see much collecting of native species in Hawaii for bonsai and if so, what native species are valued for bonsai?

Sam: If your reference to collecting native material refers to endemic species, my answer is that very few endemic Hawaiian plants are used for bonsai, either because of their rarity or unsuitability as bonsai material. Exceptions include Ohia Lehua and Pohinahina (beach vitex).


AoB: Is it true that at high elevations in Hawaii one can grow almost any temperate species that requires cooler climate? And on the same island, these trees would not survive at sea level?

Sam: I am not certain about the first part of your question. Yes it is cooler at higher elevations, especially on the other islands where the mountains are much taller, but I have never heard of a thriving population of maples, or satsuki or white pines at any elevation in Hawaii. I can tell you cool weather loving trees have absolutely have no chance where I live.

Sam Lee in his garden

AoB: The Taiwanese have unbelievably lush and exuberant growth on bonsai, and they readily admit that in their climate, bonsai can be developed much faster than in the rest of the world, due to the much faster growth rate. Do you think the climate of Hawaii is just as good (or not) for creating those spectacular large bonsai.

Sam: I think the same can be said for bonsai being cultivated in most tropical climates providing the grower is using plant species adapted to the climate. I saw many large and beautiful bonsai at the recent Asia Pacific convention in Bali. Tropical trees never sleep, so they grow year around and develop faster than temperate species. The downside is we cannot grow species that need to go dormant or that require winter's cold to grow successfully.

I have never visited Taiwan and know little of their climate, however, I would guess that our climate could be similar and if that is so, it is probable that we could grow material for large bonsai. Having said that, I also believe the size and quality of Taiwanese bonsai has less to do with climate and more to their long term commitment to every facet of bonsai cultivation and training.

AoB: Since the climate of Hawaii is not too different from that in Taiwan, how would you compare the quality of bonsai of the the two islands. The material being used? The styles?

Sam: I am not experienced enough to make such an evaluation. From speaking with people who have visited Taiwan and attended exhibits there and from pictures I have seen, I know their bonsai skills are at a very high level and their trees are among the best in the world. In my opinion their ficus bonsai is in a class by itself.


AoB: Since Hawaii has very strict regulations as far as importing plant material, do you agree with this policy, or would you like to see some changes in this regard?

Sam: I think most government regulations have good purpose at the time they are conceived. I truly wonder, however, as time passes and more and more rules are adopted, whether we are being over regulated. Speaking about our situation, the face of Hawaii's economy has changed from agriculture to tourism.

We once had over a dozen major plantations growing sugar cane and pineapple. We are down to two. One wonders whether restrictive rules adopted long ago to protect Hawaii's agriculture are still necessary.

Hawaii is also unique from the other states because of its location. Yet Federal rules promulgated by USDA to protect agriculture in mainland states still apply to us in the middle of the pacific. Even more confusing and seemingly contrary to the USDA's protectionist rules is the allowance of Taiwanese orchids and Thai fruit to enter the country. Maybe this is a sign of easier times ahead for the importation of bonsai material? I hope so.

Personally I would like to see relaxation of the rules. Quality bonsai material from Asia is readily available in many countries without ill effect. Yet this same material is barred from entry to the U.S. Bonsai created from imported material are winning awards in international competition. American collected bonsai material is exportable to Europe, where some trees have become internationally known.

Access to good material enhances the chance that high quality bonsai will result. The Europeans have proved this. I spent a whole day walking through and photographing tropical material for sale at the Pluit bonsai center in Jakarta. there are literally thousands of high quality tropical yamadori for sale-thousands! for citizens of the U.S. this resource may as well be on the backside of the moon.

In light of what is common practice in other countries, I believe there is cause to wonder about our policy.

Sam Lee with an amazing nebari

AoB: Is there any plant material in Hawaii that is not often used in the rest of the bonsai community, but you see in it good potential?

Sam: Yes, there are several in my mind. varieties of wild guava, several varieties of acacia, wild olive, black wattle, paper bark, just to name a few.

AoB: Importing any plant into Hawaii is next to impossible; can this be done legally at all?

Sam: Imported plant material comes in to Hawaii regularly but under strict control (tropical flower and fruit stock, orchids, ornamental, etc) bonsai or older material suitable for bonsai training is essentially banned.

AoB: Considering the import restrictions, is there a lot of experimenting happening to develop new native species as bonsai?

Sam: I am sorry to say, no.


AoB: What is your favorite material, and what do you consider as inspiration when styling it?

Sam: Any material that is weathered, gnarled and twisted, hollowed out with lots of deadwood, captivates me. The masters hand (mother natures) has done the major work and our job is only to enhance what we are given to work with.

AoB: Since you live on a volcanic island, crushed lava must be abundantly available to bonsai enthusiasts. Do you consider it as superior growing medium for bonsai in your climate?

Sam: Yes, we have an abundance of volcanic cinder. cinder is the predominant ingredient in bonsai soil mixes in Hawaii.

AoB: In your opinion, are the Hawaiian artists influenced more by bonsai on the mainland, from Asia, or from the creations from Hawaii?

Sam: Definitely, the major influence in Hawaiian bonsai is Japanese.

AoB: Many flowering species are used by Hawaiian artists, although the flowers are beautiful when in bloom, the bonsai seem to be incomplete in many cases without the flowers. Do you think some are creating flowers in bonsai pots as compared to creating trees?

Sam: I think your observation could be extended world wide and should include non flowering trees as well. Actually there are very few species in Hawaii grown primarily for their blossoms. In general, tropical bonsai have small non-descript flowers, usually white.

Robert Steven, Piko, and Sam Lee at APAC 9

AoB: Designing a flowering bonsai for the maximum visual effect when it is in flower must require techniques that are not common on non-flowering species; can you share your ideas on this?

Sam: In my mind, how one designs a tree has very little to do with whether the tree flowers or not. The design is driven by the nebari, the shape of the trunk and the availability of branches. Flowers are a bonus. True, there are some things one can do to promote blossoming, however, the structure of the bonsai is most important element in showcasing the blossoms.

AoB: On the mainland there are many artists who travel and teach with workshops and demos, do you see enough of this form of education in Hawaii or do interested people need to come to the mainland for such?

Sam: Because of where we are, we see very few prominent bonsai folks in teaching situations. For the most part, we have to travel outside Hawaii at considerable expense.

AoB: Who do you see as being the most influential artist for tropical bonsai inspiration?

Sam: Tropical bonsai has only recently begun to be recognized, so many of the top stylists of tropical material are unknown. This will change as the larger bonsai community recognizes that top level warm weather bonsai is on par with the best of the traditional species. Certainly, no one is even close to the Taiwanese in the development of ficus. Robert Steven from Indonesia is a name that comes to my mind because he is experimenting with new varieties from his country and creating beautiful non traditional forms from this material.

AoB: What do you see happening now in the bonsai community that excites you the most? The least?

Sam: I just had the opportunity to attend the 9th ASPAC held in Bali- my previous convention experience being confined to several GSBF conventions. I was blown away by the number and quality of the displayed trees-all tropicals. The for sale trees in the bazaar where astounding in their quality and affordable pricing as was the completeness of the convention program and the overwhelming care and hospitality provided by the host country. I am excited by the shrinking world and the opportunity to share ideas with and learn from bonsai people all across the globe.

I think the Internet has been a tremendous asset to the spread of bonsai knowledge. It amazes me that I can communicate with bonsai acquaintances on the other side of the world almost instantly.


AoB: What would you like most to see happen?

Sam: That there be more tolerance and acceptance of the differences within the world bonsai community.

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