COURTESY "WAIPAHU ... RECOLLECTIONS FROM
A SUGAR PLANTATION COMMUNITY IN HAWAII"
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY BRYANT FUKUTOMI /
Tatsuichi Ota often sat in front of his house on Pahu Street and talked story to people as they came by. At top is Ota with an award that cites him as a master of calligraphy. The kanji writing at left, a ceramic tile that was displayed at Ota's home, says "Ota Tatsuichi."
‘A town of sugar and rice’
Grandfather Ota's family collects a volume of remembrances about growing up in Waipahu
One thing leads to another, whether it's a community built upon a foundation of sugar, or a book that's a labor of love. For Michael and Karen Yamamoto, their book "Waipahu ... Recollections from a Sugar Plantation Community in Hawaii" started out as a simple reminiscence of grandfather Tatsuichi Ota, but these things have a way of snowballing, and the project instead became a lively collection of anecdotes about growing up Waipahuan. Aunt Nina Yuriko (Ota) Sylva also became a contributor.
Grandfather Ota was a frugal store owner on Waipahu Street who, falling in love with Hawaii after emigrating in 1901, purchased what land he could near the store, some rice paddies near what became Farrington Highway. This property eventually became the little community-within- a-community called Ota Camp, famous for chicken fights and a 1970s tenant dispute: The residents there loved the site so much they didn't want to leave, and when they did, they called their new location "Ota Camp" as well.
The book is anecdotal and filled with unusual details -- the alma mater of Waipahu Elementary School, the size of sea horses in West Loch, swiping watercress for sandwiches, a bizarre Oahu Sugar experiment in raising American buffalo, baking eggs inside a loaf of bread, the intermixed smells of various ethnic dishes, the lonely radio tower of KAHU radio, wartime gas masks made of sanitary napkins and rubber bands, Punahou students attending a wartime school there dubbed the "Haole Social Club," the image of no-frills landowner Ota recycling trashed wood for the nails and walking down the street eating mangos with pleasure.
"If you dig deep enough, there are amazing stories," said Yamamoto. "Like the time brothers Shigemi and Goro Arakawa created a club when they were teens, to promote good citizenship, and charged dues! Entrepreneurs from small-kid time!"
COURTESY YAMAMOTO FAMILY
Michael and Karen Yamamoto remember Tatsuichi Ota, at top left, whose property became known as Ota Camp, with a book about Waipahu.
Yamamoto, a retired teacher and machine-tool distributor, and wife Karen, an educator now working with the Navajo nation, now live in Albuquerque, N.M. They began the project after the funeral of uncle Tatsuo Ota (Tatsuichi's only son) in 2002. Family members began sharing memories of growing up in the shadow of the Oahu Sugar smokestack, the spindle around which Waipahu seems to revolve. The Yamamotos, being educators, couldn't help doing additional research and then organizing the results.
"We started looking for people who really knew the town, and were constantly surprised by what we found out," said Yamamoto. "Did you know that at one point, Waipahu was the capitol of Oahu? The name comes from 'wai' -- water -- and 'pahu' -- rushing forth -- and refers to the amazing freshwater spring in the middle of the town.
"The books starts with where and what is Waipahu, and goes up through 2005, painting a picture of a town of sugar and rice. It's mostly from interviews -- that's why it's called 'Recollections' -- but we also had access to the extensive libraries of citizens like Kay Yamada. Waipahu Cultural Garden Park opened its doors and files to us. We even discovered there's a group that meets on the second Wednesday of every month in Torrance, Calif., who are all grads of Waipahu High School."
They bankrolled and published the book themselves, creating Innoventions Publishing. The $25 book is modest but highly readable, is available at Waipahu Cultural Garden Park and is working its way into local bookstores.
A "sequel" is in the works. "It's about Waipahu's remarkable life journeys, in-depth stories about people we've learned about," said Karen Yamamoto. The current book barely touches on some of the remarkable people who hail from Waipahu, including the Arakawa entrepreneurs, labor leader "Major" Okada, tough but insightful plantation overseer Hans L'Orange, United Airlines head Pat Patterson (who named the first UA airliner "Waipahu"), master mechanic and aeronautical pioneer Shigeru Serikaku -- it could fill a book.
"The reaction from people has been good," said Yamamoto. "You know it is when they begin buying extras for family and friends. When someone says, 'Thanks for writing this,' it feels good. Not in the pocketbook, but in the heart. It's very satisfying."