Isle families record
their history, culminating in
“Chinese Women Pioneers in Hawaii”
By Nadine Kam
A newspaper’s No. 1 task is to document its times so that 100 or 500 years from now — if mankind can survive itself — the facts of life of living in Hawaii in 2003 will be accessible to students wondering how we lived in such primitive times.
Those studying the Star-Bulletin archives will discover the foods we craved, how we dressed to impress, the music that brought us to our feet, our love-hate relationship with television, and our desperation to find an idol, any idol, as well as the bigger picture of our politics and our reactions to major events such as that of Sept. 11, 2001.
But what is often lost is the minutiae of daily life: the way families relate to one another; and their daily or Sunday rituals — whether it involves gathering at a favorite restaurant, mall or spending the day with a hibachi under the shade of a tree at Ala Moana Beach Park.
Those stories are often deemed too manini for a daily newspaper, but they are no less valuable in conveying a history more intimate and accessible than can be gleaned from reporting “just the facts, ma’am.”
It’s with regard for their own descendants that a number of families have taken up pen or computer keyboard to record their own genealogies. The Associated Chinese University Women have compiled 53 such stories into a 264-page volume capturing the lives of “Chinese Women Pioneers in Hawaii.”
“Chinese Women Pioneers in Hawaii”Edited by May Lee Chung and Dorothy Jim Luke
(The Associated Chinese University Women, 264 pages, $20)
May Lee Chung and Dorothy Jim Luke were the two members who edited the works and oversaw the project, the third publication put out by the organization. The ACUW was started in 1931 by 12 women educators — only one charter member, Elizabeth Lam leong, survives — to raise scholarship funds and promote understanding of Chinese customs and folk practices.
“The first two dealt with Chinese festivals and customs, but not the experiences of the older generation, many of whom have passed away,” said Luke. “We thought it would be a good idea to canvas our members and found daughters, granddaughters, sons and relatives who could write down their memories of these women.”
Subjects include Amy Wung Richardson, mother of former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Richardson; Chong Sum Wing, the wife of Wing Coffee magnate Chong Yet You; Florence Young Doo, the mother of Leigh-Wai Doo; Lee Oi Chun Hoon, of Chun Hoon Family Enterprises; and Soo Yong Huang, an actress who began her career on stage, starred in films such as “China Seas” and “Soldier of Fortune” with Clark Gable, “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” and “Flower Drum Song,” in which she played the mother of Richard Soo.
SOO YONG’S story is told by her niece Aileen Wong Ho, who also writes about her mother, Harriet Young Wong, Soo Yong’s sister.
Their stories begin with patriarch Young Ming, who arrived in Hawaii in 1875 at age 14 to work on a Wailuku sugar plantation. After three years he had earned enough to go back to China to get a wife, but during a stopover in Honolulu lost all his money gambling. It took him 15 years of peddling dim sum at two for a nickel to recover.
He and his bride, Chut Cha, settled in Happy Valley in Wailuku — then covered in taro patches and rice fields — and had six children who grew up attending a missionary school. Harriet was urged to continue her education in Boston, but after her father died, the family lacked the necessary funds. She married Pak Hoy Wong, who worked for the Wailuku Sugar Co. as a clerk earning $60 a month.
Soo Yong moved in with her sister to help her care for her children but was angered when she was scolded after being spotted sipping soda at a drugstore with a Hawaiian boy, which Pak Hoy said was improper for a Chinese girl. Her resentment over being told how to behave drove her to Honolulu, where she found work doing household chores and tutoring children of prominent kamaaina families. She saved enough to enroll at the University of Hawaii and eventually Columbia University, where she worked toward a master’s degree in education while auditioning for theater productions.
Other stories, such as Beatrice Liu Ching’s remembrance of her mother-in-law Ching Lum Shee, offer such details as a diet for new mothers comprising chicken soup cooked with wood fungus, ginger and rice wine, and sweet-sour pigs’ feet with sweet black vinegar.
Grace Richardson Wong’s tale shares the family’s Sunday adventures attending church, then stopping at the Kapahulu Poi Shop to pick up 25-cent bags of poi for her father, Wilfred, or visiting Hind-Clarke Dairy in Aina Haina for ice cream served in sugar cones. Other excursions took them to Squatter’s Ville in swampy Waikiki where the Ilikai now stands, or to the country in Kailua, where the family owned lots in Coconut Grove.
In those day’s Wong wrote, “It was not uncommon for Chinese men to marry Hawaiian girls, but for a Chinese girl to marry a Hawaiian man was never thought of.”
The Richardsons would go on to raise six children while mom Amy worked at Castle Kindergarten, arriving at work in a Ford Model A, and later on, tooling around with her friends in her green Valiant, “a pillow under her, another behind her in order to reach the pedals, going 15 miles per hour in a 35-mile zone.”
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IN CASES IN WHICH sons, daughters and nieces had to interview their popos, Luke joked: “Senior citizens go by a different schedule. They wake up early in the morning, go out to all kids of events and senior classes. They nap in the afternoon, eat early dinner and are in bed as soon as it’s dark.”
It wasn’t easy to find them or get them to commit to telling their life stories.
So the project took eight years to complete. That means that some of the information is outdated, particularly census information offered in the back of the book, which author Carol Fan, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, was not given the opportunity to update.
Because the book was a grass-roots labor of love, often dealing with individual memories rather than actual history, there are errors such as a reference to the abolishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1800s, when it was established in 1882. And life itself presented changes. Lara Jean Tsui-Chuan Mui was a college student when she wrote pieces about her great-grandmother Lai Cho Hee Luke and grandmother Jannie Luke Thom, and after marrying three years ago, now goes by her married name, Lara Mui Cowell.
The book was never intended for a wide audience, but for ACUW members and their families and those interested in what it was like to grow up in Hawaii in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
And ACUW’s principal aim was to focus attention on women whose contributions are often overlooked by society.
“Men had all the fame and the women are forgotten, even though they provided all the support that allowed men to achieve.”
While today a lack of a cellular phone might represent a hardship, Luke said: “We forget about the hardship these women went through. They often had several children, 10 or 12. They worked hard all day and night, but they didn’t give up striving for a better life — not for themselves, but for their children.
“We had no deadline. We just worked when we could do a bit here and there,” Luke said. “So many people passed away while we were working on it, but that just shows its value, that their relatives can have these stories in printed form to pass down.”
Copies of the book are available by calling Roanne Matsuura at 596-2668.
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