Ruth Lee, center, flanked by, from left, daughter Hazel Wong, granddaughters Brenda Han and Geraldine Fairbank, and great-great granddaughter Kiara Johnson, has lived in both privilege and hardship during her 102 years in Korea and Hawaii.

Halmuni's journey

A child who moved to Hawaii
a century ago is now the proud
great-grandmother of Miss Waikiki

by Betty Shimabukuro

This story begins in Korea, with a father's death. It winds across the miles and through the years to a quiet, suburban home in Aiea, where Ruth Lee rests calmly in her wheelchair, saying little, living mostly within herself. She is 102 years old -- her family and her church believe she is the oldest Korean woman in Hawaii.


At the turn of the last century, she was Cho Kyung Sil, a favored child in a privileged home. The Cho family lived comfortably, with servants to do the chores. The women treated themselves to silk dresses, precious-metal hairpins, jade jewelry.

But when Kyung Sil's father died, her mother was left with three small children and no support. She made the difficult decision to move the family to Hawaii, where an older daughter had already settled with her husband.

And so the Cho family reached these shores, changed and grew. At one point the family's history became intertwined with that of Syngman Rhee, who would go on to become the first president of the Republic of Korea.

From Kyung Sil, who now goes by the English name of Ruth, the family stretches through five generations, with the names of Wong and Fairbank woven into the tapestry.

Her daughter, granddaughters and their children call her "Halmuni," Korean for grandmother, and that's how we'll refer to her to keep the many names in this story straight.

A decorative metal disc bears the childhood photographs of Ruby Pyen and Hazel Pyen, taken around 1924.

It's obvious, with so many years involved, that lifestyles have undergone quantum changes, but consider the contrasts anyway: Halmuni arrived in Hawaii in 1912 at age 12, demure and tradition-bound. This year, her great-granddaughter, Jennifer Fairbank, is a beauty queen, preparing to compete for the Miss Hawaii crown as Miss Waikiki.

Halmuni doesn't say much these days, so it remains for the other women of her family to tell her story. Granddaughter Geraldine Fairbank, in particular, has taken the history to heart. Interwoven in this tale are excerpts from an essay she wrote three years ago that won first place in a University of Hawaii Korean Studies contest.

"(Halmuni) grew into a woman of few words, mild mannerisms and even temperament, shaped by previous generations dutifully bound to filial obedience and honor of family and elders. But her seemingly admirable qualities ill prepared her for the relentless challenges that trapped her in a cycle of disappointments, one after another."

Jennifer Fairbank, great-granddaughter of Ruth Lee, is making a bid for Miss Hawaii. By contrast, her great grandmother was raised to be "demure and tradition-bound" in 1912.

The Cho family arrived in Hawaii to share a home with Halmuni's oldest sister and her husband, a contract plantation worker. There was none of the luxury of their Korean home. When Halmuni was 15 or 16, her brother-in-law arranged her marriage to Pyen Yong Sok, an ambitious young man who provided well for his family. They had three daughters.

"Land was purchased and a home built new and spacious, set up high on School Street. ... Finer things could be afforded, silks and fine jewelry ... even a housekeeper. ... Often boxes of food and expensive products were sent from Korea by her husband's older brother. Sundays the family in their finery rode to the Korean Christian Church on School Street in my grandfather's shiny black Star touring automobile."

The School Street house was green, daughter Hazel Wong remembers, with three bedrooms and a porch. They had a dog named Sasi, and they went to Likelike School.

Then, another chapter in that "cycle of disappointments." Halmuni's husband entered a business partnership with several friends, among them Syngman Rhee, who lived in Hawaii from 1913 to 1940, during his expatriate campaign for Korean independence.

The men opted to run a charcoal factory in Mountain View on the Big Island, which required the investment of all the family's assets and the sale of the comfortable green house.

They lived in close contact with Rhee. Wong remembers seeing him blowing on his fingertips. "We were curious when we were small ... why did he do that? I heard through my parents that he was tortured when he was in Korea." The torture involved inserting slivers of incense in his fingertips and lighting the slivers.

"Life on the Big Island took on a different shade of hardship. ... Close friends and family were reachable only by boat. Cold rainy weather was ever persistent and added to the gloom and misery everyone felt. ...

"Rain or shine, each day (my grandfather) would trudge along the long, winding trail that often was muddy and slippery, disappearing into the mountainside to sweat and labor in the stifling hot and smoky underground charcoal mine. Cutting and chopping, then hauling large, heavy logs for the making of charcoal was physically backbreaking work, which eventually took its toll. The first sign of his ailment was the perpetual fatigue and the heaviness he felt in his chest; later it was the constant uncontrollable coughing with traces of blood."

Another father dead.

"Even if he was sick, he was still working and working. That is how he got tuberculosis," Wong remembers.

Again, a mother and young children left with no support. The children went to live with Halmuni's mother, who had moved to Maui. Halmuni stayed on the Big Island, at first to settle her husband's affairs, later to work as a seamstress in Hilo.

Ruth Lee, affectionately called Halmuni by her family, shows off a photograph of herself and daughters Ruby and Hazel, taken more than 70 years ago. "Halmuni" means "grandmother" in Korean.

The separation did not end for two years, until finally all of the extended Cho clan reunited in Honolulu.

Halmuni worked in a tailor shop on Ford Island, sewing military trousers. She eventually remarried, becoming Ruth Lee, and took on new work at the Dole cannery.

It was never a luxurious existence, but the family planted deep roots on Oahu. Halmuni's three daughters all married, had their own children, and the generations eventually stretched to five: 11 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren, the youngest being 6-year-old Kiara Fairbank.

The daughters and many of their children still live nearby, in the Pearl City and Aiea areas. Hazel Wong, the eldest, and her daughters, Geraldine Fairbank and Brenda Han, now share Halmuni's care.

Halmuni's second husband died 17 years ago, and when her youngest sister, Alice, died last year, she became the last of her generation.

"Old age has been kind to Halmuni. Her face has remained gentle, although finely etched with a net of wrinkles. Cataracts have clouded her vision, and even though her memories have faded, her spirit is still undaunted and her mind is sound. Despite a life filled with hardships and disappointments, she will tell you she has had a full life."

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --