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Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Isle historian, teacher
Irma Tam Soong
dies at 88


By Janine Tully

Noted local historian Irma Tam Soong, known for documenting the history of the Chinese in Hawaii, died last week of pulmonary illness at the Arcadia Retirement Residence. She was 88.

Raised in Chinatown, Soong knew nearly every merchant in the area, often speaking to them in Cantonese, a language she learned from her parents.

"I know Chinatown, I lived here as a small child," she was once quoted as saying. "My grandfather owned a prosperous grocery store."

Her sister, Pina Lee, remembers Soong as a very bright child who loved to read and later write poetry as a young woman. She was also a mother figure to her five siblings.

"She was like a mother to us all," said Lee. "She was also very spiritual and intelligent."

A distant relative of Chinese leader Sun Yat Sen, Soong devoted a large part of her life writing her experiences during World War II in China during the Japanese occupation. The biographical book titled "Chinese-American Refugee, a World War II Memoir," was published in 1984 and recounts a remarkable story. It begins with she being caught in Hong Kong with her 9-month-old son on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the difficulties encountered in reaching her husband's village, bordering Japanese-held territory. Her husband, whom she later divorced, was a photographer for Chiang Kai-Shek's Central News Agency at the time.

Soong's only son, Dr. Colin Soong, a physician in Carson City, Nev., remembers his mother as a vivacious, fun-loving woman who enjoyed eating healthy. "We would go to the farmers' market in Makiki and get soybeans and sweet potatoes for lunch," said Colin.

But on Sundays she'd have no qualms about indulging in chocolate ice cream, he said. "She loved chocolate, and would say, 'That'll take care of my calories.' "

Colin remembers his mother also being a "great" storyteller who enjoyed recounting the story about her flight from Hong Kong with him as a baby.

Proceeds of her war memoir went to Mills College, where she received her master's degree in English, to the Community Church of Honolulu and the Hawaii Chinese History Center, of which she was founder and executive director.

Soong retired from teaching English at Kaimuki High School in 1970, the same year the Hawaii Chinese History Foundation was established. "She did a lot of her most passionate activities her retirement," he said.

In 1989, Soong co-authored with Wei-tun Lin "Five Hsing Chung Hui Men of Valor," a history of the revolutionary society founded in Hawaii by Sun. The book was printed as part of the 200th anniversary commemoration of the arrival of Chinese in Hawaii.

In 1990, her article "Dr. Sun Yat Sen's Christian Schooling in Hawaii" appeared in the Hawaii Journal of History.

Soong taught English at Hwa Nan Girls College in Foochow, Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and Kaimuki High School.

She is survived by a son, Dr. Colin Soong and his wife Nancy; grandchildren Tamara and Andrew; sisters Mrs. Pina Lee, Mrs. Fannie Ching, Mrs. J.C. Lee; and brothers James S.T. Tam and Edward S.T. Tam.

Memorial service will be held today at 4 p.m. in the Arcadia Retirement Chapel.

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