Tale of Waipahu ChineseBy Nadine Kam
reflects Hawaii's history
Ancestral Reflections: Hawaii's Early Chinese of Waipahu By Douglas Chong, published by the Waipahu Tsoong Nyee Society, hardcover, 360 pages, 200 black and white photos, $27.95
It was child's play, renaming the river that flowed past the Waipahu Gardens subdivision where I grew up. My brother or one of my sisters had the bright idea of dubbing the waters "Sow River." Don't ask me why. I never saw a sow there, although I did sometimes spot a cow or two moseying through the tall grass that clogged the river.
The "river" later shrank in prominence in my life, and I realized it was little more than a stream. I knew that Sow River was not its correct name, but was it Waipahu Stream or Waikele Stream?
If future generations were to recall history based on my memories of growing up Waipahu they could just kiss their heritage goodbye. The shrine next to my elementary school was regarded, not as a monument, but rather, as home to the "green lady" that devoured kids who loitered or dallied on their way home from school -- a very effective country legend.
Thank goodness then, for Douglas Chong, an educator and historian who has written an exhaustively researched account about the Chinese experience in Waipahu and tells it to us straight. More than a specific history about a specific place, his book "Ancestral Reflections: Hawaii's Early Chinese of Waipahu," in a way, tells the history of all immigrants in Hawaii.
"It's really about the things people did to survive," he said. "They were very industrious, hard-working people. Nothing would stop them.
"I think of my work and how I get so tired at night. But my grandmother never ran out of energy. She ran a store (Yuen Sock Kee general store) after my grandfather died, while taking care of her children, raising ducks and chickens, and sewing tabis and bonnets to sell to plantation workers. She really had a mission in life."
Waipahu, as it turns out, was a big place to get to know. Details of geography, such as the name of the stream of my childhood, Kapakahi Stream, were the least of Chong's woes. Much of the community Chong was writing about was gone when he formally started his project. It took more than two decades of interviews, research and poring through photo archives to complete the book.
"It was like being pregnant and unable to give birth for 20 years," he said. "The sad thing is all the old folks are gone, those of my grandmother's generation who pushed and encouraged me.
"This book is for their descendants who no longer feel connected to their roots. One person came up to me clutching one of my fliers. He pointed to a picture and said, 'This is my grandfather and I didn't even know his name.'
"The fourth, fifth generation can now read about the practices, the rituals, traditions and lifestyle they never knew. That is heartwarming. That is the fruit of this whole effort."
Chong's book tells of Waipahu as a site dominated by Chinese farmers from the late 19th century through the 1930s. The size of its Chinese settlement was second to Honolulu's Chinatown. Land was plentiful and planted with rice paddies, lotus and vegetables. Salt beds and old Hawaiian fishponds that stretched to Pearl City and the tip of Waipio Peninsula, were cleared and repaired with the help of the Chinese before being filled in during World War II. The Ted Makalena Golf Course now stands on the site of one of the smallest fishponds, Loko E'o.
"Everything is gone," Chong said. "There's no evidence of it at all. If not for Hawaii's Plantation Village (in Waipahu), few would have any idea that the plantation camps, stores and restaurants were there."
Those who have seen the book are surprised when they find out Chong never grew up in Waipahu. By the time he was born, his family had moved to Young Street in Honolulu.
"I lived vicariously in Waipahu," he said, having grown up listening to tales of his maternal grandmother, Ching See Moon, whose married name was Mrs. Yuen Sock. She spoke to young Doug while the two passed time making toong mai, or puffed rice, in her kitchen.
"I started writing down the information when I was 8 or 9," Chong said. "I didn't know it was 'oral history' then, but I could tell she was talking about real pioneer, real cowboy times. I was very interested in this kind of stuff."
Covered in the book are traditions associated with Chinese marriage, education, festivals and religion.
The only problem with such a focused work, Chong said, is "Now the Japanese are after me, asking, 'how come the Japanese weren't included?' "
Got 20 years?
Book signingWhat: Author Douglas Chong signs copies of his book, "Ancestral Reflections: Hawaii's Early Chinese of Waipahu"
Where: Borders, Waikele
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Call: Borders, at 676-6699