As I drove to meet Rebecca to find out more about her expertise in Hawaiian weddings, I chuckled at the humor at my wishful thinking in being able to garner the warmth of the islands with some tropical floral arrangements. They sat in the back seat eagerly awaiting to be showcased, their yellows and oranges attempting to cut through the grey sky. In the days leading up, my biggest worry was that our photoshoot would occur in frigid Seattle winter rain. So in preparation, I had brought with me two large umbrellas, one for Rebecca and one for me and my camera, a waterproof camera bag, and my new winter coat, in case the Hawaiian-style dress that Rebecca would be wearing proved to be insufficient for retaining any amount of warmth. It was a chilly 32 degrees that morning, but the skies, at least thus far, were holding out on releasing any precipitation.
I pulled up to Twin Willow Gardens, the wedding venue that Rebecca has owned with her husband, Brian, since 2019. Twin Willow Gardens is one of my favorite venues here in Washington. While it doesn’t have the palm trees and sandy beaches of Hawai’i, it does have an abundance of flora and fauna. In the summer the main grounds are filled with an array of flowering plants. It’s a big, beautiful, and colorful garden. Tucked off to the side is the ceremony area, which is enclosed by towering pacific northwest trees and lush ferns. Like that of the Hawaiian islands, the venue exudes aloha – an unseen, but very much felt sense of welcoming, harmony, and peace. Part of that comes from the beauty of the venue itself and part of that comes from the warmth radiated by its owners. As I followed Rebecca along the path through the gardens, I noticed small bits of ice in the garden beds. “Oh, yes,” Rebecca turned back with a look indicating she, too, had been worried about the weather for our photoshoot. “It hailed here yesterday.”
As we both got situated in the bridal suite where we planned to chat, Rebecca took a seat in one of the beauty chairs. Brooke of Onsite Beauty by Brooke, who was doing Rebecca’s hair and make-up, had also just arrived and was getting her make-up tools ready. I pulled out the Hawaiian inspired mood board document I had put together and asked Brooke to make Rebecca look like a glowing Hawaiian princess who had just come from the beach. In this case, a Hawaiian princess who just executed a flawless beach wedding in Hawai’i.
WEDDING PLANNING ROOTS IN HAWAI’I
Rebecca is no stranger to coordinating weddings in Hawai’i. In 2003 she moved to Oahu to go to school for Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawai’i. While in school and living on the island, Rebecca answered a job posting with a local wedding planner. Rebecca and Sandra Williams, the owner of Finishing Touch Hawaii, hit it off immediately and Rebecca ended up working for Sandra for 4 1/2 years. “I worked with her [Sandra] first as her Day of Assistant before taking my own weddings under her company. She’s Burmese and Chinese, so I got thrown into Asian & Pacific Islander wedding customs pretty fast. One, because she attracted a lot of Asian clientele, because she’s fluent in Cantonese, but also the geography of Hawai’i attracts a lot of Asian & Pacific Islander couples to it.”
Those first few years as a wedding planner was a lot of learning for Rebecca. Never having planned a wedding prior to working with Sandra, Rebecca was trying to soak everything in, retain all the information she was learning, and execute her weddings well under Sandra’s company. “Overall I really looked up to her [Sandra]. She had a very successful business and I was honored that she trusted me to represent her business.”
Rebecca laughs as she remembers something Sandra said to her in those early years. “I was putting out candles on a head table and Sandra came over – ‘Rebecca, you’re too symmetrical! Asymmetry is fine! You can move things around!’ So she [Sandra] would always come behind me and cluster the candles together.”
Amused, I ask Rebecca if she still finds herself placing candles symmetrically on tables. “Ha – not as much! I’ve moved on. She’s broken me of that.”
“Number one best thing I learned from working with Sandra was the total submersion into Asian & Pacific Islander wedding customs. I would have not learned that as rapidly as I did with anyone else. Hands-down that has been the most beneficial thing of my career.”
When Rebecca launched her own wedding planning business in Washington after moving back to the mainland in 2008, she spoke at a Wedding Network Seattle event about Asian weddings, which essentially launched her career here in Seattle. “I got several bookings off of just meeting people at that event and talking about Asian wedding customs. So many venue reps came up to me [after that presentation] and said they had no one who does Asian weddings,” she remarked. Venues continued to send their Asian couples to Rebecca. They were looking for wedding professionals familiar with Asian wedding customs to help support both the venue in what they needed to do for their couples, as well as support the couples themselves, without the couples having to educate their vendors. Rebecca also spoke on a panel at NACE event about Asian & Pacific Islander wedding customs, along side other wedding professionals who discussed Jewish weddings, African American weddings, and LGBTQ weddings.
I ask Rebecca about the flower image in her logo and if that has any connecting to her time in Hawai’i. “Yes,” she says. “I wanted to do a subtle nod to my background, where my roots are, and how I got my start. So I felt like it was a very fitting logo for me.”
HAWAIIAN WEDDING CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
Most of the weddings Rebecca planned when she lived on Oah’u were true destination weddings. The bulk of her clientele were from China, Japan, the Philippines, Samoa, the US, and Australia. She has coordinated weddings on the big island, Oah’u, Mau’i, Moloka’i, and Kaua’i. Often, her couples wanted to feature the flavor of the islands by incorporating Hawaiian customs and traditions into their celebrations. The most common of these was the giving and exchanging of leis. “We did a ton of welcome parties and had arms full of leis being ready to hand out upon guest arrival,” Rebecca remembers.
Leis were worn by ancient Hawaiians to beautify and distinguish themselves from others. With the rise of tourism to Hawai’i, the lei became the symbol of the islands. Nowadays, leis are meant to represent love, friendship, celebration, or honor. In a Hawaiian ceremony the couple will honor their family members by giving them a lei as part of the ceremony. This almost always includes the parents, but can also extend to the grandparents. The lei exchange between the couple themselves is meant to symbolize their affection for one another and their giving of themselves to one another. Traditionally, the bride will get a pikake lei, a very delicate, white, very fragrant flower that is worn in multiple strands. And the groom will get a maile lei, a green leaf lei that is open-ended when the ceremony starts.
As she describes the lei exchange, Rebecca looks over with a knowing smile, “You know the term ‘tie the knot’? That’s where that came from. The bride will reach over and close the open end of the maile lei and tie the knot.”
She then she gestures in the direction of the contain I brought with the two haku leis I made. “And then, of course, as you’ll be featuring today, the bride can sometimes wear a haku lei in addition to the pikake lei.”
The haku lei was one of the first flower creations I learned to make in my floral design journey. Like Rebecca, I also have ties to Hawai’i. When I was 9 years old my family moved to the island of Kaua’i. That next year I enrolled in a lei-making workshop at the local community center and we were taught the art of making haku leis. Even though that was many years ago, I vividly remember taking my first haku lei home and feeling quite proud that I had made something so beautiful. To this day, I still get that warm glow of accomplishment whenever I make a beautiful personal floral piece, like bridal bouquet or a flower crown.
Another Hawaiian tradition popular at weddings, one that I had also first-hand experience with while living on Kaua’i, is the hula dance. While all the 5th graders on the mainland were probably learning gymnastics and how to play the clarinet, I was on an island in the middle of the ocean learning hula dance and how to play the ukulele. Many of Rebecca’s Hawaiian brides are in halaus, which are formal hula groups. Sometimes her brides will work with their halau instructors on a specific choreographed hula dance to perform at their wedding. Hawaiian Wedding Song is a popular choice for the performance, but any song can be danced to. “The bride will typically perform a hula for the groom, which I think is incredibly intimidating. You’re doing this in front of all of your guests and you’re out there solo dancing for your groom,” Rebecca explains. Generally the groom will have a seat on the dance floor while the bride performs her hula dance.
I ask Rebecca if the groom ever dances for the bride. “Nope,” she replies. “The bride starts off doing most of the work from the get-go.”
We both break out into laughter.
Incorporating Hawaiian food is also popular at Hawaiian weddings. The guava cake is most prominent, which a lot of Hawaiian couples will seek out for their weddings. It’s a coconut flavored cake with guava frosting. The sides of the cake are covered in sliced almonds and the top is bright red gelatin. Around the edge is a piped in, cream-filled frosting. Other Hawaiian foods include the haupia coconut cake, roasted pig (kalua pork), poke, and Mai Tais. “And poi,” Rebecca muses. “Which no one really eats at weddings, but is there mostly to feature for the tourists.”
As someone who has never liked poi, even fried, I nod my head in agreement.
COORDINATING WEDDINGS ON-ISLAND FROM SEATTLE
Rebecca moved back to Washington in 2008, but she still plans weddings in Hawai’i, often with Washington couples that want to have a Hawaiian island destination wedding. Her process for working with a couple getting married in Hawai’i is the same for full planning weddings here in the Seattle area. Rebecca will begin by reaching out to vendors (mostly those on-island) to check availability and to check pricing. She is diligent in making sure the vendors align with her couples’ expectations, which she then submits to her couples for review. “I have them pick their top one or two [vendors] that they like. They either want to set up an interview or we’re ready to have the vendors go ahead and send us a contract.”
Prior to their wedding, Rebecca recommends that her couples visit the islands at least twice to do their venue walk-through, tasting, hair and make-up trial, and potentially see a floral mock-up. “All those pieces that you do want to be in person for,” she comments. Rebecca will line up all the on-island vendor meetings for her couples, and then either zoom into those meetings or get filled in afterwards. Sometimes she will schedule a virtual debrief specifically about the tasting, so she can be up to speed on her clients’ bar menu, what their final entrée selections were, or if there are any questions the catering sales manager had.
When doing on-island weddings, Rebecca requires that her couples have her there a minimum of 4 days. During that time she will meet with the venue manager and do a walk-through, to make sure she is familiar with the space. She then connects with her couples one last time to make sure they are good to go. In addition to managing the wedding day, Rebecca also runs the wedding rehearsal the day before. And she is on-island least the day after the wedding, so she doesn’t have to fly out that night.
“I still really do try and maintain relationships with people on the islands. I know who is relevant, what price-point they are in, and if there are any new up-and-comers.”
When planning a wedding in Hawai’i you have to be very aware of both the bugs and the weather. “I’ve seen a cake that looked alive, because it has so many ants crawling on it. They’ll climb up the skirting of the tables. And of course you have to be aware of the cockroaches. Even in the cleanest of hotels, you can’t get rid of them. It’s just a part of island life,” Rebecca muses. Most of the time Hawai’i is 82 and sunny, but every once in awhile you get the trade winds that come through, or a monsoon that comes through, or the 40 days of rain that happened in 2006. Rebecca’s advice: “Just be ready for Plan B.”
Worse than inclement weather, there is no doubt that coronavirus pandemic wrecked havoc on the wedding and event industry in 2020, but Rebecca thinks the that first year of the pandemic was a turning point for planning destination weddings. “I really think 2020 has changed the way vendors in general go about setting up interviews, and talking and interacting with our couples,” Rebecca explains. “Before couples [in Washington] would wish they could meet [on-island] vendors in person, but now meeting virtually has just become the norm. It’s actually made it easier to move forward with booking vendors.”
DESIGNING HAWAIIAN WEDDINGS IN WASHINGTON
Having a Hawaiian wedding doesn’t have to be restricted to the Hawaiian islands. The important cultural elements of Hawai’i can be found on and brought to the mainland. This wedding season Rebecca is working with a couple where the bride is Hawaiian. This couple is getting married in Washington, but they are incorporating the leis, the hula, and the Hawaiian cake into their celebration.
Rebecca’s top recommendation for having a Hawaiian themed wedding in Washington (or anywhere) is to hire a halau to come and perform. I learn there is a huge Hawaiian contingent in the Seattle area, especially the south sound, where most of a halaus in Washington state are based: Federal Way, Auburn, Enumclaw, and Tacoma. Much of the Pacific islander food is in the south end, as well. The Hawaiian bakery in Wallingford is Rebecca’s go-to for Hawaiian cakes. And while she will often source the family and guest leis directly from Hawai’i, there are a few local Seattle florists that Rebecca will work with for the specialty pikake and maile leis.
Rebecca and her husband celebrated their 10 year anniversary in 2020. I ask Rebecca if she were to have a 20 year vow renewal with her husband on their property and it was Hawaiian-themed, what tropical flowers would she choose? “So I really like textural flowers,” she says. “The pincushion flower, the coxcomb, and certainly some orchids in there, as well. And then mixing it up with some textural ti leaves. I like them when they are looped, so it’s not like a giant ti leaf that’s sticking out. And the flowers that smell so good, like the ginger flowers. Certainly the pikake flower and the plumeria, although I know plumeria is hard to put into an arrangement.”
I silently give myself kudos for for looping some of the ti leaves in Rebecca’s bouquet.
REBECCA’S HAWAIIAN FAVORITES
In relatively recent times, Rebecca noticed that in Asian & Pacific Islander weddings, a decline in couples embracing their culture. “It’s really sad to me, because there are so many amazing [cultural] things,” Rebecca laments. “But I feel like this year, even just with the lunar new year, I saw so much celebration around Chinese and Asian cultures than I have seen in a really long time. I don’t know if people are finally starting to embrace it or if there is just more awareness of the beauty of diversity.”
Either way, this wedding florist also hopes that trend continues.