Weaving Together Past And Present

Eugene Punzal is of Filipino ancestry, but he loves Polynesian culture, and now that he’s retired from the hotel industry, he spends his time sharing his love of the traditional art of weaving with coconut fronds

Eugene Punzal weaves together the past and present with coconut fronds. His modern-day decorative masterpieces create a link to Polynesian and Hawaiian history.

“We are lighting the way to the past,” says Punzal, who is commonly referred to as Uncle Onio by friends and family.

The Kaua’i native teaches coconut-weaving classes and voluntarily shares his talent with visitors at Kaua’i Museum each week.

“I like the feeling over here,” he says of the local nonprofit.

Now that he has retired from the hotel industry, Punzal devotes his time to cultivating and perpetuating the art of coconut weaving. His charisma is infectious, and the talk-story aficionado noticeably draws in people at his booth at the museum, where he regularly shares knowledge. His weekly presence there has led Punzal to other teaching engagements, such as summer school and hula halau.

Kumu hula Sabra Kauka agrees that his alluring presence is contagious. She met “Onio” for the first time earlier this year at May Day by the Bay where, side-by-side for six hours, they both taught cultural workshops.

“He never lost his positive attitude the whole time,” she says. “Visitors and locals had smiles on their faces as they walked away with something they made.”

Punzal delights in teaching others the ancient art of weaving.

“I don’t want my weaving ability to die when I die,” he says. “I want to pass it along.”

The Kapaa resident currently is focusing exclusively on Hawaiian-style weaving, and is learning how to differentiate among the various Polynesian cultural techniques.

“I want the museum to benefit from my learning,” he says. “I want the museum to prosper from my education.”

Although he is of Filipino ancestry, Punzal always has felt a close connection to the Hawaiian culture, and his desire to perpetuate it through weaving is undeniable.

“Hawaiians are so loving and giving,” he says. “People take for granted the aloha spirit.”

Sharing the culture with others provides kama’aina with knowledge of the past, and also visitors achieve a way of connecting to the island – as well as with one another.

Punzal has been nurturing this kind of community connection through his coconut-weaving workshops for many years. His skill, however, originated when he was a child. The young Punzal would help gather coconut leaves that were utilized in roof structures for family gatherings. After the parties, he used the fronds to play games with his friends and to craft fish, birds and various other shapes.

“It was all hands-on,” recalls Punzal, whose mentors include musician Happy Oyamot and a neighbor who taught him Samoan-style weaving.

Later in life, Punzal entwined leaves while in between surf sessions and sold the finished basket products to visitors on Wailua Beach outside of Coco Palms. Little did he know that one day he would actually become an employee of the resort.

After graduating from Kapaa High School, Punzal attended a business college on Oahu and obtained an Associate of Arts degree in business management. He returned to Kaua’i and, in the early 1970s, landed a job at Coco Palms Resort, where he served as a bellman.

“They were thriving and offered so many different jobs,” he recalls. “It was such a fantastic resort.”

Education took him off-island again when he accepted a full scholarship at Tenri University in Japan, where he obtained a degree in Japanese language.

“I was so very fortunate,” he says of the scholarship, for which thousands applied but only 27 received. “I guess it was based on good looks and personality. I don’t know,” he jokes.

Though he had several job opportunities on Oahu after graduation, he returned to the Garden Isle.

“This is my home,” he says.

Coco Palms happened to need a Japanese-speaking agent at the time, and Punzal was fit for the job.

He fondly recalls those years when he worked as the hotel’s bellman in the evenings and attended Kaua’i Community College during the day to learn carpentry skills for the home he was building in Kapahi.

He continues to return to the now-defunct resort to collect coconut leaves as well as sentimental memories.

“I always look for the chance to go to Coco Palms because it’s a part of me,” says Punzal, who met his wife, Laurie, there while working together. “That was a growing-up stage of my life.”

In fact, he attributes his employment at the resort, as well as being constantly surrounded by the coconut trees around the property, for inspiring him to pursue his weaving profession.

After Hurricane Iniki struck the island, Punzal sought employment at Wyndham Hotels, where he really began to put those skills to work by teaching classes and selling the finished products. He continues to teach classes, not only at Kaua’i Museum and various events, but also at The Cliffs at Princeville, where he regularly teaches visitors how to weave coconut fronds.

“I enjoy working with my hands,” he says. “And I love meeting people.”

Punzal also loves giving back to the community and he invests his time in other voluntary activities such as Lydgate Beach cleanups and, more recently, the Malie Foundation board of directors.

Still, the father of three adult children, Marcus, Moses and Mari, manages to find as much time as possible to spend with his new grandson Taj.

He also likes to spend time in his garden, which is flourishing with many different vegetables and herbs includings radishes, beans, corn, basil, lemon grass and mint. Besides being with his family, the most fulfilling aspect of Punzal’s newly retired life is giving back.

“I have time to do the things that I want to do. And the big part of it is to give back,” he says. “What goes around comes around. You’ve got to give.”