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StarBulletin.com

Market ties a family together


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POSTED: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kam Heong Market marked its 61st anniversary in January, without the fanfare that bigger companies might use to mark their 10th or 20th milestone years.

It was a day just like any other, with Choy Fu Kam — with two of her daughters, Ruby and Karen, never far — sitting behind the counter, waiting to serve those who, without straying too far from home, just needed to pick up a few snacks and soft drinks to get them through the lazy day.

The Kam store at Lanikila and Judd streets was started in 1947 by Stanley Kam, who had returned home from World War II service and back to civilian life. Kam Heong was the name of his father, who bought the property after running another successful grocery in Kapahulu.

With few jobs available, such neighborhood stores presented a business opportunity for entire families at a time when there were few big grocery stores, there were no shopping malls and statehood was more than a decade away.

Today the store serves as a neighborhood sundry store, with people dashing in for snacks and toiletries as a matter of convenience, but back in the '40s, Kam Heong was a full-service grocery, carrying produce, bulk meats, canned foods, household goods and firecrackers at New Year's.

Choy Fu, now 80, still has the sharp mind she needed in the old days for keeping track of goods purchased with IOUs, when people had little cash. She didn't have the luxury of plantation stores' bango, the metal identification tags that helped store owners keep track of families' debts. Instead, she simply wrote their names down with what they owed.

“;I had to limit sometimes. Some charge $100 and they pay back only $75, so next time if they try to take more I tell them, 'That's too much.'

“;Once in a while, people still come back and pay. Last week one man came back and said, 'I think I owe you $20.' I never see him for eight, nine years.”;

 

ALTHOUGH neighborhood corner groceries represent an endangered business model, the family is committed to running it as long as possible. Five of Choy Fu Kam's six children moved to the mainland; Karen Kam returned 19 years ago to help her aging parents. Stanley died four years ago.

Karen had a good job working in San Francisco for Merrill Lynch and said returning was one of the hardest decisions she has had to make, but she did it without pressure from her parents.

“;This kind of business is very hard, but it was just something I felt I had to do.”;

It was certainly not something she expected to do. Like most children of family-run companies, she grew up working in the store, starting at age 9.

“;When you're young it's kind of fun and something you want to do because you want to help your family. We all knew we needed to work together,”; she said, adding it wasn't always easy, “;especially when we got older. The store took priority over our other plans.”;

She said business at the store suffered after Costco opened in 1988, and she noticed another big dip after Wal-Mart opened in 1993.

“;I think competition is good for consumers,”; she said. “;A lot of people say they miss mom-and-pop stores and lament that we're a dying breed, but what they say and do is different. We say we want cheap labor so we can have affordable homes, but on whose back is that cheap labor coming? Immigrants? Or people who can't earn a living wage?”;

 

BEHIND the counter, Choy Fu is unfazed by the changes time has brought. She has never needed much to live on, and has seen worse times.

Her family was originally from Peru, but she was born in Macau and also spent her childhood in Canton, China. She spent the war years shuttling between Macau and Canton to stay one step ahead of the Japanese armies. She married Stanley a year after he opened the store.

She'd had a difficult childhood raising chickens and pigs on a farm, so when she arrived on Oahu and at the shop, she said, “;It was OK,”; even though she worked long hours, from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, while raising the couple's six children.

In all that time, her life revolved around the store and a few streets around the neighborhood. “;I never go anyplace,”; she said. “;No beach, no show. Waikiki, once in a while.”;

She said her husband worked hard so “;he never have time to holoholo.”;

“;Only now, with my kids in the mainland. I visited them about three or four times. Las Vegas, six or seven times.”;

She's also gone back to China a few times to visit her brother and sister, also in their 80s.

Once in a while, she's happy to receive an unexpected visitor, someone who lived in the neighborhood when residents predominantly were Hawaiian.

“;They come say hello,”; Choy Fu said. “;Some moved to Waianae, some moved to Waimanalo. People say Lanakila is a poor place, but people here are very nice. They give you respect.”;