The State of Aloha

While most of us are familiar with the ongoing relationship between Native Hawaiians and the white sailors, missionaries and later the sugar barons, the story of Chinese immigrants to Hawaii is sometimes overlooked.

The Chinese were among the first nonindigenous settlers to the islands. Some of the sailors in 1778 who accompanied Capt. James Cook were Chinese. By 1790, a group of Chinese men settled in the islands and were living under the reign of Kamehameha the Great. They married Hawaiian women. Their children were some of the first interracial families in the islands.

As capitalism took hold in the nineteenth century, Chinese merchants, farmers and settlers continued to immigrate. Many of the settlers came from the Pearl River Delta, not far from cities like Hong Kong and Macau, near the ocean and further upriver at the city of Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton).

On Maui, many settled in Keokea and the highlands above Kihei and Makena. They worked this corner of Haleakala growing vegetables and selling their produce at Makena landing, which would be shipped to feed the laborers in California working on railroads and in mines. You can still find traces of this vibrant community.

In nearby Ulupalakua, there is a well-manicured park that is peaceful and quiet. The meandering concrete path winds its way under a rarely-seen-on-Maui paifang, a Chinese-style archway, and statues of grinning lions, plaques, and a statue of a pleasant-looking man in a suit and tie, who spent time in the islands before returning to the country of his birth.

It is no understatement to call Dr. Sun Yat-sen the revolutionary founder of modern China or, as he’s also known, the Father of the Nation. Portraits of an earnest and avuncular man from the early 20th century are still displayed in parades in Beijing. He is also one of the only non-Communist leaders enjoying such limelight in the People’s Republic of China.

So how did he end up in Hawaii? For that we can thank his enterprising brother, Sun Mei. Sun Mei came to the islands as a penniless teenager. After a successful venture growing rice in Ewa, he moved to Kahului as a grocer and labor broker, bringing over Chinese plantation workers for the sugar industry. Then he acquired land in the Kamaole area and took up ranching.

Sun Mei’s success attracted others in his family. Sun Yat-sen was thirteen when he left China and headed to Honolulu. He was educated at Iolani for middle school. At his graduation ceremony in 1882, he was personally congratulated by King David Kalakaua. That year he continued his education at Punahou. Tuition was funded by his brother, Sun Mei.

The western-style education had a profound effect on the future leader. Sun Yat-sen’s Hawaiian education helped shape his belief in Chinese nationalism. His politics got him in plenty of trouble there and his attempts to establish a more modern government failed and lead to exile. That’s when he would return to the islands and visit his brother. He was a welcomed guest of Keokea’s Chinese community.

Not far from Sun Yat-sen park are the two green structures. The Henry Fong Store houses a small art gallery and a generations-old Ching’s store selling everything from gasoline to snacks and groceries. The green building next door is Grandma’s Coffee House. The Fong family continues to serve the community into this century.

The St. John’s Episcopal Church is another testament to the Chinese in Keokea. The farmers and laborers, well aware that the predominant faith of the islands was Christianity, hired a trained Christian minister from China to educate their children and broaden horizons. In 1900, the Rev. Shim Yin Chin came to Keokea. With lumber and materials hauled up from Makena, St. John’s Church was founded in 1907.

Then there’s the Kwock Hing Society Building, an ornate two-story wooden structure in Kula. It is still lovingly preserved. The bright red colors and lanterns on the porch stand out among the houses and tall trees. Further down the road is an old Chinese cemetery, the final resting place for the pioneering settlers.

This was the community thriving on Maui when Sun Yat-sen returned for the last time in 1910. He often referred to the Chinese community in Hawaii as his “revolutionary base” outside of China. After his last visit, he lead an uprising in 1911 that paved the way to a modern nation.

The people in Keokea have not forgotten their past. This year the Rotary Club of Maui will be celebrating the Year of the Ox in Keokea. In honor of their heritage, residents and descendants of the Chinese settlers in Kula will gather for a socially distanced planting of sandalwood trees, lion dance and 10,000 firecrackers at the Kwock Hing Society Building.

All are welcome. For more information, you can visit rotaryclubofmaui.org.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”


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