Thursday, October 21, 1999

Being nice
is the secret
of success

Robert 'Steamy' Chow,
knows everything about
Hilo and the Big Island

By Rod Thompson


HILO -- When 500 people showed up at the Kress building in downtown Hilo yesterday to honor Robert "Steamy" Chow as a living legend, Chow knew almost every one of them.

"Bob can tell you who lived next door to who, who's related to who," said admirer Donna Saiki at the nearby Hilo Tsunami Museum.

"Mr. Hilo," county worker Greg Branco called him. When tourists get stranded downtown, Chow sometimes drives them back to their hotels, Branco said.

What Chow, 77, doesn't know, he finds out.

A woman arrived in Hilo one day with an Elderhostel program seeking information about the bakery her father once owned.

Chow found out that the man, retired from the military, ran the American Bakery beginning about 1915. He married one of his employees, the Elderhostel woman's mother. Later the family moved to the mainland, leaving the bakery in the ownership of an "Aunt Mabel."

Chow said he learned how to track these facts down because he's a "street person," meaning he has street smarts.

His earliest job was shining shoes in Mooheau Park using supplies from his father's shoe repair shop carried in a wooden box he built from an orange or apple crate.

Others were also inventive. At Takeuchi store, the owner made raincoats by soaking linen or canvas coats in linseed oil, he said.

Later Chow delivered the Hilo (now Hawaii) Tribune-Herald. "That's how I know every crack in the road," he said.

When he turned 21, he heard that the police department was looking for officers who spoke Chinese. Chow spoke Cantonese, the language of many plantation workers at the time. He got the job on the spot.

It didn't hurt that he was 6 feet tall. He was still growing. Eventually he stood 6 feet 1 inch.

His knowledge of Hilo continued to grow. Once, years later, a man referred to a red light on the banks of Wailoa pond as a navigation aid. Under prodding from Chow, he also admitted it marked one of Hilo's houses of prostitution.

"I visited every one of them -- professionally," he said.

Before the tsunami of 1946, plantation workers came to town on the sugar train. After the tsunami destroyed the railroad, they came in buses.

But some were becoming affluent. They pooled their money and together bought "partnership cars."

Chow's life changed suddenly in 1963. A driver ran a red light and crashed into his patrol car, ripping the kneecap from one leg.

Chow became an insurance adjuster until his retirement in 1982, then returned to work managing the vacant Kress building after his mother's brother, former U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong, bought it in 1990.

Fong's investment was a limited success. The only major tenant it attracted was a movie theater complex.

But it was a success for Chow, enabling him to meet and help people.

"My biggest asset is being nice to people," he said. "It's free to be nice to somebody else. You can say, "Hello.' It's free. You can say, "Thank you.' It's free."

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