Hawaii ex-pats
raise funds to build
a reverse brain-drain

A Chinese guy, a Japanese guy and a Korean guy walk into a bar. What is this, the beginning of a joke? No, but the trio's beginnings may send some mainland students to college in the islands.

The well-lubricated get-together by Hawaii ex-pats Eric Tao, Kurt Osaki and Rodney Park at a Japantown sushi bar in San Francisco led to the formation of the nonprofit Hawaii Chamber of Commerce of Northern California in 1999.

The chamber is planning its inaugural "Five Star Aloha" gala to honor the area's trailblazers from Hawaii.

Honorees this year are Vernon Chang, founder of a Polynesian cultural society, organizer of an annual Aloha Festival and co-host of a weekly Hawaiian music radio show; Saichi Kawahara, founder of the Kapalakiko newsletter and leader of a Hawaiian band by the same name; and Patrick Makuakane, founder and director of award-winning Na Lei Hulu i ka Wekiu, known for innovative choreography, said Tao, chamber president and principal of AGI Capital Group Inc.

Tao says efforts like theirs helped knit Hawaii-connected folks together, paving the way for the Hawaii chamber and similar organizations, hence the desire to honor them.

Tickets for the Feb. 22 event at the California Academy of Science start at $100; a portion of the proceeds will fund a scholarship for Bay-area students wishing to attend college in Hawaii.

One of the event sponsors is Hukilau, a plate lunch bar and grill established in San Francisco by Tao, Osaki and fellow ex-pat Al Omoto in April 2001. The first location in a Japantown sushi bar was quickly outgrown. It reopened in its own space last year on Masonic Avenue with capacity for about 60 people for lunch, dinner and a late night spot to hang out local-style.

Hukilau expanded to San Jose Jan. 25 with room for 130; area dentist and chamber co-founder Park joined the partnership and oversees the operation.

"We had an average wait of one and a half hours over the weekend. We were blown away," Tao said.

The grand opening was not advertised but was publicized through the e-mailer and word of mouth. "It is such a tight community that we really didn't have to do anything," Tao said.

Hukilau San Jose is about 50 miles, or an hour's drive, from the San Francisco location.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin.
Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle,
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached

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