Colleen Hanabusa on Her Life in Waianae

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Waianae Sugar Plantation started in 1878 with 20 local Hawaiians and a few Chinese laborers. Six years later it was the islands’ largest settlement outside of Honolulu.Its sugar mill, one of the finest in the kingdom, employed 500 Japanese. Two of them, the Murodas, were Colleen Hanabusa’s maternal great-grandparents.

Great-grandfather Muroda worked in the cane fields and gained fluency in Hawaiian, becoming an unofficial village wise man because he could communicate and pass on advice from his wife. She also worked in the fields, and was Waianae’s midwife.


Because midwives knew something about healing, their counsel was sought in old-time Hawaiian community life. While Mrs. Muroda had two children of her own, she maintained an interest in the children she helped bring into the world, including her six grandchildren. Connections of all types mattered. It was easy to be regarded as “ohana,” part of the family.

Colleen’s maternal grandfather Muroda, the plantation’s carpenter, built wooden flues—the vital lifelines that carried water from Makaha Valley down into the arid plains.

The Hanabusa side of Colleen’s family has shown a flair for entrepreneurship. Her paternal great grandfather Hanabusa made and sold tofu, and her grandfather fished from his boat, selling his catch to the plantation store. The love of fishing passed down the generations, becoming the source of a shared bond between Colleen and her father, Isao.

Colleen started fishing as soon as she was able to hold a pole. “My dad was prone to sea sickness so he and I fished from the shoreline while grandpa went beyond the reef,” she said. They caught mamo, papiopio, nenue, and menpachi. On moonlit nights they fished off the reefs for aweoweo and weke.

A nenue’s sharp teeth can cut a line, so father and daughter Hanabusa used wire leader when fishing for them. Colleen recalls that they were ready for other gifts of the sea as well. “As we tramped in the water we’d sometimes see tasty namako—sea cucumber; the Hawaiian name is loli. We’d quickly peel off their brownish exterior and apply lemon juice so they wouldn’t shrivel. We came prepared for those encounters.”

Her mother, June, once worked as a butcher’s assistant, so she knew about cuts of meat. “She bought wonderful things,” Colleen said. “Gourmet cuts, actually. But they were inexpensive because many people didn’t know about them. And she appreciated the value of bones; we never lacked for good stock and good soup. Grandma tried to make sure dark German rye bread was available at soup time.”

Isao Hanabusa worked for Gaspro before World War II started. Owned by the Renton Family, it was a large local company, suppliers of acetylene, oxygen, and other gases. Isao was classified as “essential” to the war effort because Gaspro supplied gases for airplanes. “Dad remained close to the wonderful people in the company. At age 87 they still had him working with the board of directors.”

After the war, Isao achieved his dream of owning a service station in Waianae. He built a home from a series of little cottages behind Hanabusa Gas Station, and he and June worked around the clock to serve customers; eventually they added auto parts to their offerings. Five year-old Colleen now had two little brothers so her maternal grandparents said “come live with us,” since they were in the same area.

All throughout history grandparents have raised children while parents supplied the basic needs for survival. Hawaiians call it “hanai,” to raise, sustain, and nourish another’s child. Some sociologists believe that children raised by grandparents tend to be more understanding and grateful than other children.

Colleen’s contemporaries, Linda and Nola Nahulu, earlier described growing up in Wai‘anae: attending Japanese language school at the end of the public school day, participating in community activities, enjoying the friendly cheer of neighbors. It was similar for Colleen.

“While in grammar school, I learned to enjoy reading mysteries and historical novels,” she said. “But what I really loved was zipping around the village on little metal roller skates. There were no sidewalks so we skated on the raised asphalt highway. I liked to go fast, that meant I fell down a lot. I would pick embedded bits of asphalt from my knees. You don’t mind a little blood if you’re having fun.”

While in the eighth grade she told her parents she wanted to attend a private school, maybe even an all-girls school. She took the entrance exam for St. Andrews Priory and the scrappy kid from Wai‘anae did just fine even though, it turned out, she was suffering a painful case of mumps at the time. In the days before freeways, going to and from school was a long trip into town, but she had a family support system to get her there and back.

At the Priory, in the crisp atmosphere of a proper Episcopal girls school, the sweet-but-tough little Buddhist from the country flourished. She became student body president, and was known as one of the brains.

Honolulu Weekly publisher Laurie Carlson was quoted as saying about her classmate, “If the Priory ever produced a tita, it was Colleen.”

“Tita” is Hawaiian slang with a number of different meanings and connotations. In Colleen’s case, it meant she was a catalyst for action—unafraid to be heard and to shake thinks up when something needed to get done.

With a family history running four generations deep and touching three different centuries, Colleen Hanabusa didn’t just grow up in Wai‘anae.

Since she was a child, her parents have reminded her, “Waianae has been good to our family. People there respect you. You are part of them, you understand them, and you belong to them.”

Arthur Rath is a Hawaii author who lives in Aiea on Oahu. Reach him at

Growing Up in Hawaii is a series focusing on childhood memories in the islands. Submit stories and photos to – children are invited to submit stories and photos to the “Still Growing Up in Hawaii” series at the same email address.