4 Moms &
A lineage of caring and nurturingBy Betty Shimabukuro
started with a fixed wedding and
dowry of Chinese wedding cakes,
half a roast pig and $100
POPO loves Vegas. Yuk Chun Sin Chun is the 97-year-old matriarch of a family that extends through five generations in Hawaii. Her life has been devoted to the raising of children -- her siblings, her own children, her children's children, her grand-children's children -- and that is why we tell her story two days before Mother's Day.
But everyone deserves to indulge sometimes, so for more than 30 years, Chun's family has helped her with this one personal pleasure. At least once a year -- as many as three times when she was younger -- someone takes her to Las Vegas.
"She parks her wheelchair, and once she gets to the one-armed bandits she'll use her cane or her walker and go from machine to machine," daughter-in-law Mildred Chun says.
"Sometimes win, sometimes lose," "Popo" says matter-of-factly. "Good fun, though."
Kind of like life, wouldn't you say?
We'll go back to Vegas later, but first let's hear the story of Yuk Chun and the family she founded. It's a story involving her two children, nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Many names and relationships are involved, so to give ourselves a touchpoint and avoid confusion, we will call her Popo, Chinese for grandmother.
Popo speaks Chinese and broken English, and her memory about events of long ago can be clouded. But over many decades she has been the rock of this family -- the one who cared for the children, which meant their parents could pursue the careers that brought them today's security.
It's a fact they appreciate deeply.
"It's always children," granddaughter Kalfreda Wataoka says. "She's always with the children."
Popo herself was one of eight children, the first generation in Hawaii of a family line that can be traced to a small village outside Canton, China.
She was born, she says, in "Mr. Lum's rice mill" in Moiliili and at first was considered a bad-luck child because the mill burned down shortly afterward.
She never went to school, but rather, cared for her siblings while her parents worked on their rice farm in Kaneohe. She tended the garden, cooked the meals, kept the home.
A granddaughter guides her through the story of her first meeting with her husband-to-be, Tong Chun, in 1921. The engagement had been arranged by Popo's mother and a matchmaker.
"The matchmaker brought him?"
More persistent questioning leads to this account, which manages to speak volumes despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it: "His cousin bring him over. 'Hello.' That's all. Nothing happened. I didn't talk to him. My mother talked. And the matchmaker."
"Did you like him?"
"Like him, no like him -- my mother promise already," a pause. "He handsome guy. I no say I no like."
And so Popo became a bride at age 18. Her family paid a dowry of 100 Chinese wedding cakes, half a roast pig and $100 cash. Her mother gave her the personal gift of a trunk filled with clothes and a Chinese blanket.
By the end of 1924, she had two children, a girl and a boy. In 1925 Tong Chun died of internal injuries suffered in a fall from the roof of a home where he was doing carpentry work.
Popo and the children moved in with her mother and brothers. She went to work as a seamstress and her mother watched the kids.
"She earned enough money to send my father through St. Louis," granddaugther Kalfreda says. She also earned enough to take the children to China to see their ancestral village.
She must have put many hours into her work, yet Popo was a most protective mother.
"When they were children, she guarded them," daughter-in-law Mildred says. "She was so afraid they would be hurt."
In fact, the one story Popo tells with enthusiasm from that time involves a threat to son Kalfred, Mildred's husband, when he was in the first grade:
"Big truck bang him. He was in a crosswalk, come home from school. Somebody take him hospital. Oh boy. I scared like hell. That kind of trouble, so scared. I thought they kill him."
The injuries turned out to be minor -- "bang the head, fall down" -- but from then on, she walked both her children to and from school. In later years she did the same for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Generation No. 2: Mildred Luke enters the family. Matchmaking days were over, but approval of the mothers was still important at the time she met Kalfred Chun.
"My mom was the one who liked him, because he smiled all the time ... she encouraged the match."
In 1944, Kalfred took Mildred to his 20th birthday party to meet Popo. "After that he told me, 'OK, you passed the inspection.' His mother's and his sister's inspection."
The dowry this time: A whole roast pig, four chickens and many wedding cakes.
From this marriage came five children. Popo lived with them and baby-sat all the kids. This allowed Kalfred and Mildred to continue working full time at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.
"We didn't have to worry about (the kids) all that time and when we came home, she would have dinner ready," Mildred says. "She was just terrific."
Popo took on her daughter's children as well, and at one point was watching nine grandchildren at her son's Alewa Heights home.
"She made us breakfast in the morning," granddaughter Kalfreda remembers. "We never left for school without breakfast, and it was always a hot meal. No cold cereal."
With generation No. 3, no more matchmakers: Kalfreda marries Jeff Wataoka and has two sons -- Darrin and Derrick. Popo is 65 when Darrin is born, but offers to baby-sit, if their parents agree to finish college.
"She made it a condition that if we went back to school, she would baby-sit," Kalfreda says. "But if we didn't and went to work instead, she wouldn't."
Generation No. 4: Derrick marries Sandra Young, who takes her place in the female line of this extended family.
Generation No. 5: Derrick and Sandra's 3-month-old daughter, Jaclyn, is born. Popo is too old now to baby-sit, so Derrick and Sandra have hired a sitter. Finally, a break in the chain of Popo's nurturing.
Ask all these adults who came under Popo's care what they remember of those years, and they speak of the food. She made fabulous kau yuk, pork hash, fried rice and sweet-sour cabbage dishes. She also made the time-consuming sticky desserts of gin dui and gao.
And what else? She was strict, managing to keep order despite a language barrier. Derrick remembers running away from a yardstick in Popo's hands.
"She used to spank us if we needed it, or she would scold us in Chinese," Kalfreda recalls.
Her mother, Mildred, would hear about it after work. "They'd remember the words and when we came home they'd ask us -- 'What did she call us?' "
Usually the word was ma lau -- monkey.
On Sunday, Derrick is taking the five generations of women, from Popo to little Jaclyn, to the Pagoda Hotel for brunch. Later that day, the extended family will gather for a potluck dinner, as they always do on Sunday evenings.
But next month comes the real celebration. Popo will go to Vegas.
Derrick says she sleeps less and eats more when she's in the gambling capitol. Mildred says she used to follow her mother-in-law around and carefully change one $20 bill into quarters at a time, to keep tabs on spending. Then she realized Popo knew how to work the change machine herself.
In this city that never sleeps, Popo never tires, Mildred says.
"We'll get on the plane to come home and she'll say, 'When we coming back?' "
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