By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A California businesswoman with a love of flowers is bringing Nani Mau Gardens back to life.
Helen Koo has been planting the seeds of revival since May for the Nani Mau Gardens and Restaurant — the property’s new name — which have taken root quickly on Makalika Street about three miles south of downtown Hilo.
Koo expects to see her plans bear fruit for the once-popular gardens in February, when she will reopen it for the Hilo community and visitors to Hawaii Island, especially Asian visitors who have been her steady clients for years.
Koo, whose legal name is Yee Shum Severson, owns America Asia Travel Center in Los Angeles, a 32-year-old, $70 million a year business that specializes in tours for Chinese visitors.
Last year around Easter, she and three of her sisters vacationed at the Naniloa Volcanoes resort. Upon discovering a vibrant Chinese community in Hilo, and being Christian, they wanted to organize a Chinese community get-together for the holiday. She spoke to Naniloa lease-holder Ken Fujiyama about a space at the hotel to hold the event, but the hotel was booked.
Fujiyama still owned the 22-acre Nani Mau Gardens, however, which was then closed, and offered the group use of that facility for their one-time event.
“It was so beautiful,” Koo said. “I had to ask, ‘Why is it closed?’”
Fujiyama told her he owed $2.2 million for the 22-acre property, including the restaurant and two office buildings, so Koo made an offer: $2.2 million. However, the deal couldn’t be done without the consent of the owner of the debt, who wanted either the property or the cash — right then.
“I thought to myself, that’s just the cost of a house in Los Angeles,” Koo said. She quickly phoned her L.A. office and had the cash wired to Hilo overnight. By May, the property was all hers.
“God made me have this place,” she said. “My vision at that time was to have it for the Chinese people.” But as she started buying supplies and furnishings for the gardens and restaurant, everywhere she went people talked of how much a part of Hilo and their own lives the Gardens and restaurant had become. Even without advertising, people still call wanting to schedule weddings, birthday parties and other events, she said. “I decided then that it’s not just for Chinese, but for all Hilo citizens.”
Koo, 65, hired four full-time gardeners, and for 12 days a month since May she has come from California herself to work in the gardens and plan her new business. “It’s beautiful, all God-created. I wanted to do it all myself. I want it to be perfect.”
She’s negotiating with two local restaurants to reopen the Nani Mau kitchen. By February she expects to be serving the walk-in public and tour groups for lunch, dinner and special events in the ground-level dining room. Prices will be set at “what people can afford,” she said, with discounts and garden passes for kamaaina and seniors.
Eventually, she wants to open an upscale Chinese dim sum restaurant in the smaller second-floor dining room.
In February, she will invite other travel agencies to see what the new Nani Mau Gardens and Restaurant, and Hilo, have to offer. “Hilo at first looks like just a small village,” she said. “But you will fall in love. This is really beautiful here. The Chinese people don’t swim, but we like to see the ocean. It’s the right place for Chinese people.”
“Hilo is good for Asian people,” said Koo, whose California business attracts up to 4,000 visitors a month from China. “I really want to promote Hilo.”
George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau, said, “It’s a wonderful idea. Bless her for coming and investing in our beautiful island.”
Applegate recalls when Mack Nitahara was inspired to create the gardens in the early 1970s. “Flowers and foliage is so appropriate to our island.”
“After all, we are known as the Orchid Isle, and flowers bring a sense of beauty and serenity … with Akatsuka and Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Gardens, it’s added value for flower lovers here. It gives them another venue.”
Koo’s plans also include horse-drawn wagons with glass covers for visitors on rainy days, and a glass church for weddings in the garden. When done she expects to have invested $400,000 in the property.
“I want to make the gardens as pretty as possible as soon as possible,” she said. “I like people to be happy. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”
“We really wish her well and welcome to the community,” Applegate said.
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.