Chinese Pioneers: Maui, Molokai, Lanai-Slice of Life, Hawaiian Style Series

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Over 150 persons expressed veneration last Sunday afternoon in
Kaimuki’s Kilauea Recreation Center. Even two large, fierce lions
initially were cowed lions (sic)–because of the majesty of the
occasion. Beating drums spurred them to perform jauntily as
ceremonial Chinese lions should.

Center of attention was Ken Yee who, with his late wife Nancy
Yee, the Hawaii Chinese History Center, and 65 families,
moving stories of “Chinese Pioneer Families of Maui, Molokai, and


This 400-plus-page book, 25 years in the making,
encompasses 220 years of comprehensive personal and island
that never seems to wander.

“arthur rath chinese pioneers 1 centered”

The recounting begins with a nineteenth century exodus to Hawaii
mainly from villages in the Pearl River Delta, the region now
known as Guangdong. Family stories are organized by regions,
e.g., West Maui, Lahaina, Wailuku. This structure and masterful
editing reinforces impressions of just what life “was like” in
each region; you gain a feel for each community as well as the
people. It is so sensitively done that you gain insight on
personalities. For example:

“Papa’s dry goods store was located in the hub of Maui business.
The Caucasian influence in business was strong and pervasive for
Papa and he developed an intense interest in the Wall Street
Market Exchange. He invested heavily in stocks of companies
listed on the exchange. He became increasingly Westernized in
appearance. As a debonair young businessman, he dressed well in
American-tailored suits, sported a Panama hat, and drove a Ford
touring car.

This, however, did not affect his profound belief
in the Taoist philosophy, Confucianism and the significance of
Chinese traditions and customs. He accessorized his outfit with
a jade tie pin and a heavy 24-carat gold chain with two carved
jades in his lapel–typical Chinese symbols for double assurance
of good health and prosperity. He taught his family that symbols
confer the virtues of good omens and represent the whole of
Chinese philosophy, an essential part of Chinese culture.”

Participants in the joyful afternoon book launch included, as
Emcee, Puanani Kini Woo, Hawaii Chinese History Center; Dorothy
Mau, President Associated Chinese University Women; Ginny Young,
President-elect United Chinese Society of Hawaii.

Published by the Hawaii Chinese History Center, this book is the
fourth in a series of publications telling the oral histories of
early Chinese immigrants to Hawaii. It is distributed by the
University of Hawaii Press (which also did the production)–Lee
Motteler, from the Big Island, who did copy editing, and Carol
Abe, marketing, were present at the launch.

“arthur rath chinese pioneers 3 centered”

The audience was thrilled by a costumed ensemble who provided the
renown Chinese art of drumming and percussion performance.
Musicians performed on powerful thunder drums, all could feel the
intense sound. The two dancing lions focused on Ken Yee and his
daughter Sylvia Yee. The Yees tantalized the lions– holding
Li See offerings hanging from sticks–seemingly close, then
snatching them out of reach until the dancing was over.

A cased exhibit honored Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the first president of
the Republic of China. It illustrated, as the new book explains,
some of the influence Chinese in Hawaii had on the political
and history of modern China. Dr. Sun Yat Sen graduated from
Episcopal Boys School in 1882 and was issued a Territory of
Hawaii Birth Certificate.

If, as Gov. Lingle suggests, China represents new economic
opportunities for Hawaii’s lagging economy, more of us need to
know about those who came here more than two centuries ago.
Readers of this landmark book will realize how profound Chinese
influence became!

I tagged along because of one of my own ancestors is mentioned in
the book. It states: “The first sugar mill on Maui was built in
1828 by Hungtai, a partnership of Ahung and Atai.”

Great-Great Grandfather Ahung, a “tong see,” or sugar maker,
sold white sugar made at his mill in his store, “Hungtai” on the
corner of Fort and Merchant Streets. He also had a restaurant
hotel, that served as a community meeting center, there.

I’ve written elsewhere about how a dense crowd–including his bar
friends and a band–followed Atai’s body–my ancestor’s partner–
to the Protestant Cemetery where he was buried. The band
cheerfully performed on the pipe, cornet, and drum while Atai’s
many houris (girl friends) wailed. Atai’s Chinese countrymen had
their own musical group, they sang and played Chinese opera

The drumming I heard at the Kilauea Recreation Center caused me
to reflect on such music:

‘Ee-e-e, yih! Bong!’

‘Clat-a-clat-a-clat and a Bong!’

‘Slamming on a gong,’

‘Beating with a stick,’

‘In a shrill falsetto,’

‘Like the scratch of a pin,’

‘Scraping on a cat-gut nerve.’

‘Ee-e-e–yih! Bong!’

Did you know Chinese opera is among the world’s oldest dramatic
art forms?

Now that the Governor has traveled for us, I’m going to sensitize
my Occidental ears and eyes to the Chinese “Sound of Music” and
will join other locals in welcoming Chinese tourists to help
Hawaii’s economic resuscitation.

That’s what folks in the Yee’s new book were doing over 200 years
ago. Read all about it and become amazed.

‘J. Arthur Rath, III is a Hawaii-based writer, reach him at’

Photo caption: Ken Yee, oral history compiler and editor.

Photo caption: Ken Yee, daughter Sylvia Yee and a “Good Luck”
Lion during a ceremonial book launch about some of “Hawaii’s
Chinese Pioneer Families.”