Leslie Wilcox talks with internationally renowned ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro. Jake started playing the ukulele at age four and later found local success as part of music trio Pure Heart. Jake talks about pushing the limits of a four-stringed instrument, discovering the viral YouTube video that catapulted his solo career and settling into a new phase in his life: fatherhood.
I guess I’ve always had this vision from the time I was a kid. I would watch rock bands, people like Van Halen, or guitar players like Yngwie Malmsteen. And you’d see these guys, they’re playing their instruments, and they’re like running all across the stage, and jumping into the audience, stage-diving, and just yelling and screaming. And I always thought to myself, Why can’t an ukulele concert be like that?
From a young age, he has pushed the boundaries of this tine, four-stringed instrument. Ukulele master, Jake Shimabukuro, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In his relatively young career, Jake Shimabukuro has already redefined the ukulele as a musical instrument. His unique blend of traditional Hawaiian music, jazz, classical, funk, and rock has captivated audiences worldwide. He’s performed on national television programs like Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and even for Queen Elizabeth II of England. His star burns brighter than ever with sold out concerts and a number one album. But how did the humble boy from Kaimuki become an international sensation?
Well, tell me about your family.
Both my parents, they’re really great people. I mean, they were excellent role models, I think, for both, my —
You described both of them as easygoing, carefree.
Yeah; very easygoing, very carefree. Especially my mom. My mom is very carefree. My parents, they divorced when I was quite young, so it was just my younger brother and myself.
I usually don’t think of single moms with two kids as carefree.
Yeah; no. My mom, she’s, I think, a very special person. ‘Cause she had a very hard life growing up. She really did whatever she had to do. I mean, made every sacrifice she could, to make sure that my brother and I got the things that we needed or wanted, and …
Did she work more than one job?
Yeah; she worked several jobs, and a lot of the work that she did was late at night. She’d work in the bars, too, for extra money. And so, sometimes, she wouldn’t come home ‘til after 2:00 a.m.
So, you’d come home from school, nobody would be home, and then she wouldn’t be home until your were sleeping.
Yeah. So, it was just me and my brother. But she’d always have food for us waiting for us in the icebox. Whenever we would come home, we’d open up the fridge and we’d see like, shoyu chicken, or she’d make her curry or something.
And your brother, how much younger is he?
He’s five years, five years younger.
Bruce is five years younger?
And I take it you were close. You had each other for company in the afternoons and evenings.
Yeah; we were best friends. But of course, growing up because I was the older brother, I always made sure that he ate, and would do his homework and go to sleep.
And he accepted that?
Yeah, we just did whatever we had to do to help each other out, because I think that’s how our family always operated. It was like, we always just understood that we were a team and we all had to do our part.
Even when you’re away, you’re still a team.
Yeah; no, exactly.
What about your dad? How did the dynamic work when your parents split up, and you lived with your mom? How did that work out with your dad?
I think both my parents had a difficult time with it. But I think they both knew that it was for the best. And there were times when we’d stay with our mom, and then there were times when we’d stay with our dad, and it was always pleasant. It didn’t matter who we were with. And the thing that I always respected about both of my parents is that, now looking back, is that they never, ever, even after the divorce, even when they were separated, they never said anything bad about the other person.
Jake Shimabukuro studied under several ukulele instructors over the years, but his very first teacher was his mom, Carol. At the age of four, he started playing traditional Hawaiian music with his mother’s Kamaka ukulele, and later began lessons at Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios. Jake says that playing the ukulele also helped him cope with his parents’ divorce.
My first ukulele teacher after my mom was a girl named Tami Akiyama. She’s now Tami Omuro. But she was an instructor for Roy Sakuma’s ukulele school, and I think I studied with her for about five or six years. And she always made music fun for me, and she made me want to go home and play, and practice. Not necessarily try to … she wouldn’t put any pressure on me, to learn something. But she always inspired me and encouraged me to just play all the time.
And you played for hours sometimes, right?
Just hours, and hours.
I loved it. I remember just coming home from school, I would rush home from school just so I could play my ukulele. My mom wouldn’t let me take my ukulele to school, because she had a Kamaka, and back then, Kamakas were — I mean, ‘til this day, they’re still — I mean, it’s …
Yeah; exactly. Right. I still have the one that my mom taught me on, the ukulele that she had when she was a teenager.
So, you were conscious you were parted from your ukulele, and you’d rush home.
Yeah, I’d rush home, and take it out, and I’d strum the three chords that I knew. The D7, G7, C chord.
During his high school years, Jake Shimabukuro described himself as a shy person, and not the outgoing performer that he is today. Instead of performing as a solo act, he would often seek out musical groups to perform with in the Annual Brown Bags to Stardom talent competition.
I didn’t think that I’d have a future, playing the ukulele. So, early on, when I would perform and play with people, I would always accompany singers. I would find people who could sing, and I would play with them. So, even throughout my high school years, I always found other musicians and I would gravitate toward musicians that were amazing singers, or were songwriters, and I would learn from them. I would try to figure out how I can accompany them, or what I can do to contribute to the song.
And you liked the idea of ensemble and team. You didn’t see yourself as a solo act.
Oh, yeah. I was deathly afraid to go up on stage by myself and just perform. Probably, it wasn’t until maybe … was it my junior? Wait. Sophomore. Okay; anyway, my junior year, I entered. And what I did was, I was gonna play a song, and I got so flustered, ‘cause I was so nervous, and I just completely blanked out. And there I was, standing on stage, and everyone’s just quiet and watching. And I’m like, Oh, what am I gonna do? So without thinking, I started just strumming, and I started singing La Bamba.
And everyone just started yelling and screaming, and laughing. Whatever, right? And I just started having fun with it.
And it was the idea of La Bamba being such an odd thing to play on an ukulele.
Yeah; exactly. Right? And they were like, What is he doing?
And all my friends were just like, What is he doing?
‘Cause I’m a horrible singer. And I just started playing and singing. And then, Lanai Boy, I94 was sponsoring the Brown Bags to Stardom.
Okay; so he was the host radio guy.
So, Lanai Boy was hosting. And I remember, he was looking at me from the side, ‘cause you only have three minutes to perform. And he was kinda looking at me and trying to give me the cue; Hey, you gotta cut. And I looked at him, and I was like, No, I’m just gonna keep playing.
And I kept playing. And then, he came up on stage with his microphone, and I’m still playing. ‘Cause I think it was after minutes already, and he was just like, Okay, that’s great, you know, give it up.
But the crowd was loving it.
And everyone was just laughing, dying laughing, because I didn’t want to get off the stage. And I started playing, and I kept going, and kept going. And then, he started walking toward me, right? And then, I started kinda moving away from him. [CHUCKLE] And everyone was just dying. But he still remembers that, you know. Lanai Boy still remembers that, and that’s probably the day I realized that I enjoy performing on stage for people.
There was that chemistry with the audience.
And you just went with it.
I just went with it.
Jake Shimabukuro first gained popularity in 1998 as a member of the local band, Pure Heart. The trio was made up of Lopaka Colon on percussion, and Jon Yamasato on vocals and guitar. Their first of two albums won four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards and was named one of the top fifty Hawaiian albums of all time by Honolulu Magazine.
And we were just out of high school, so we were having a great time. I mean, we started out playing at coffee shops, and we would do birthday parties, graduation parties. We did a lot of graduation parties.
And why the name Pure Heart?
It was a name that Jon dad … we were driving in the car one day, and we were just thinking of names, and I think we were throwing words around, and we thought, Oh, yeah, like, ‘cause the music’s from the heart. But we’re so young and innocent, so we’re pure. And then we thought, Oh, Pure Heart. And it just stuck.
And it was a different sound, wasn’t it? Did you try for a different sound, or was that just reflecting who you all were?
No; well, I think we all had different influences. For me, and I think for Jon too, we were really into bands like Kapena and Peter Moon, and Kaau Krater Boys, and guys like the Sons of Hawaii, going back, and Hui Ohana. Those were the people that we listened to a lot.
As a member of Pure Heart, Jake Shimabukuro’s early recordings were mainly covers of previously recorded songs. After the breakup of Pure Heart and Jake’s second band Colon, he branched out into a solo career and began to develop his identity.
A dear friend of mine, Tracey Terada, who later became my producer for a lot of my early recordings with a band called Pure Heart, and a band called Colon, and then my first three solo records, he is an amazing ukulele player, and he was my teacher for many years. I guess he was kind of the last formal instructor that I had. But I learned so much from him, just about the instrument, how to develop style in your playing. Not just about how to play, but how to develop your own voice, your own signature, your own method, and how to cultivate that and really build.
That’s when you’re also developing as a person, too. So, that must have been an interesting subject, developing your own identity.
You know the expression, music is the universal language. And I remember thinking to myself, I think that statement falls a little short. I mean, I used to tell people that I think that music is the language of the universe, and I think everyone is born with the ability to speak that language. Because music is really just the language of human emotion.
Outside of Hawaii, the ukulele is often regarded as a toy or a diminutive instrument. Many perceive the ukulele to be capable of playing only traditional Hawaiian music. When Jake Shimabukuro performs, he pushes the limits of what defines the ukulele by showing off a wide range of musical forms from jazz to funk, to classical music, folk, and rock. Jake receives standing ovations from audiences who are thrilled to hear his dynamic and unique style of music.
I saw you performing in Washington, DC to kind of a jaded group of entertainment executives, and they were told that this ukulele master from Hawaii was coming out. And I saw them kinda look at their watches like, Okay, and after that, we have lunch. And then, you came out, and you just killed, you killed them. And I think they were on their feet, clapping well before you were ready to finish. I mean, you just blew them away.
Do you like doing that? I mean, there was not a big buildup before you came on, and an ukulele is an unprepossessing looking instrument. Right? You must see that a lot.
Yeah; I always joke with people and I tell them, One of the best things about being a touring ukulele player is that audiences all over the world have such low expectations. And I think that I jokingly say that, but it is true. It’s so true. When you see someone come out with an ukulele, you don’t expect a lot of music to come out of that instrument. Especially when, there’s no singing involved, there’s no other backing instruments, it’s just four strings and two octaves. And I think people’s expectations of the kinda music that comes out of the ukulele, most people, especially outside of Hawaii, will think of Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Through the Tulips. But you don’t expect to hear a lot of melody or pop tunes, or rock tunes.
You think you know what you’re gonna hear.
But then, when you play, we don’t know what we’re gonna hear.
Which is kinda nice, because it has the same effect as going to a magic show, in a lot of ways. Right? You’re there, and he comes out, and like, What’s he gonna do? What? What’s he doing? And then all of a sudden, all these birds come flying out of his jacket or something, right? [CHUCKLE] But I think that element of surprise is so powerful in any art form.
What are some of the ways you bring complexity and range to music using an ukulele?
The one thing that I think I do different from other ukulele players is, the energy that I like to play with. I guess I’ve always had this vision from the time I was a kid. I would watch rock bands, people like Van Halen, or guitar players like Yngwie Malmsteen. And you’d see these guys, they’re playing their instruments, and they’re like running all across the stage, and jumping into the audience, stage-diving, and just yelling and screaming. And I always thought to myself, Why can’t an ukulele concert be like that? I mean, after an ukulele performance, I just want to be drenched, like I just wrestled a bear. So I try to incorporate — it’s basically like all these little things. You want to take a little bit of everything and really showcase it on the instrument. Dynamics, I think, is probably one of the most powerful aspects of music. And the ukulele has an extremely wide dynamic range.
Like for example, if you think of the trumpet. A trumpet is a pretty loud instrument, right, and people think, Oh, yeah, you know, you can play really, really loud. But if you think about it, on the trumpet, you can’t play really soft. Before you can even get a tone, you need to play at a certain volume, right? So, if this is zero and this is ten, the trumpet’s dynamic range may be from here to here. Right? But the ukulele can’t play nearly as loud as a trumpet. But, you can play so much softer than a trumpet. I mean, like most string instruments, even a guitar, you can bring it down to nothing.
Jake Shimabukuro’s blossoming solo career took him to Japan and across the U.S. mainland. A chance appearance on a small New York television show and the rise of the Internet video service You Tube helped launch Jake’s career to new heights.
There’s a local television show in New York called Ukulele Disco, and they feature all these different ukulele players. So, since I was in town, I guess somehow, they knew of me, so they contacted me and they said, Hey, you want to be on our show? I said, Yeah, sure, right. So, he took me to Central Park, and I sat on this rock, and he just had a little handheld video camera. And he asked me a few questions, and I played a song. And it just so happened I was working on an arrangement of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, so I played that, and it aired on TV. And it’s just a small local station in New York. And then, I came back home to Hawaii. So, this was about seven years ago. And about six or seven years ago, You Tube had just started out. So, I was back home in Hawaii and just minding my own business. A few months later, I get some emails and calls from friends, ‘cause lot of my friends were on the mainland and they were going to school, and all that. So they called me up and they said, Hey, people have been sending me this video of you performing, you know, playing in Central Park. So I was like, What are you talking about? So they forwarded the email to me, and there was this link, and I clicked on, and there I was. I thought, Hey, that’s the thing I did for that Ukulele Disco show. I was like, How did it get on this site? In a matter of weeks, millions, and millions, and millions of views. Millions, and millions, and millions of downloads, and I couldn’t believe it. I started getting calls from other bands and artists, and venues, people saying like, Hey, we want you to come play at our venue, or we want you to come open for our band, or record with us on our next record. And it was just incredible. I mean, since that video hit, I’ve been able to collaborate with people like Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, John Hiatt, Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler. In fact, couple years ago, I went with Bette Midler to England, and we performed for Queen Elizabeth. I mean, it all just stemmed from this You Tube.
Even with all of his success and international popularity, Jake Shimabukuro remains humble and grounded. To Jake, his family is the most important part of his life. He remains close with both of his parents and his younger brother Bruce, who is also an accomplished ukulele performer and instructor. A few months before this conversation took place in 2013, Jake and his wife Kelly had their first child.
You got married and had a baby, but how did your relationship with your now wife start?
Oh, gosh. Yeah. I know; I can’t believe I’m married, have a baby. It’s awesome.
And a great career.
It’s really incredible. I met my wife … it was actually my stepsister Lisa who set me up on a blind date with her. We scheduled a … I don’t know if it was a lunch or a dinner. But right around that time she was in a residency program, ‘cause she’s an OBGYN. And the day that we were supposed to go out, I got sick. So, I called her and I had to cancel our plans. I said, Oh, yeah, you mind if we do this another time? So she said, Oh, yeah, sure, just call.
Did you reschedule on the spot?
Well we didn’t set any date, but I basically just said that, Oh, yeah, maybe when I’m feeling better we can try to schedule something again. So she said, Okay. So [CHUCKLE] right around that time, I started touring, and I got really busy, and she was in the residency program. So, three years later —
Three years later.
I called her up out of the blue and I said, Oh, hey, it’s Jake.
[CHUCKLE] I’m feeling better now.
Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I was wondering if you wanted to go out again. She was very sweet, and I think she kinda laughed about it. But she was like, Yeah, sure, sure, we can get together and you know, go out. And so, I took her out for Thai food, and we went a little place called Chiang Mai on King Street.
Kinda near where you grew up, right?
Yeah. And we had a three-hour dinner that night.
First sight attraction, or …
Or did it grow?
I mean, as soon as she walked through the door, I … I mean, I don’t know if she believes it or not, but I knew that this was the girl I want to marry.
Yeah. I knew from that first date. And now, we have healthy baby boy. He’s about five months.
What’s his name?
Chase. And he’s just the greatest joy of our lives. I mean, he’s just amazing, the cutest thing. But of course, every parent thinks that of their child, I’m sure.
What are you most grateful for in your life?
Oh … the thing I’m most grateful for is just my family. And that extends to, of course, my parents, grandparents, and just my uncles and aunties. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I mean, every stage in my life, and even in my career, I’ve always, always had just good, solid people to guide me, and to help me and support me. And so, I’m most grateful for that.
Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro continues to push the boundaries of music with his dexterous and dynamic performances. His unique talent has taken the four-stringed, two-octave instrument far beyond Hawaii’s shores. When we spoke in 2013, Jake was on a break from a thirty-plus-city tour across Japan and the U.S. mainland. In 2012, he released a new album, Grand Ukulele, in which he teamed up with legendary producer Alan Parsons, best known for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Jake says that teaming up with The Alan Parsons was an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up. Mahalo to Jake Shimabukuro for sharing his story with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
It has the same effect as going to a magic show, in a lot of ways. Right? You’re there, and he comes out, and like, What’s he gonna do? What? What’s he doing? And then all of a sudden, all these birds come flying out of his jacket or something, right? [CHUCKLE] But I think that element of surprise is so powerful in any art form.
Leslie Wilcox talks with fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly Andy South. In the first of two episodes, Ari talks about growing up in Waianae, Oahu, discovering fashion as a career choice and landing a spot on the fashion competition show, Project Runway. As Andy, he maintained keen focus on school projects and clothing design, with questions about gender identity lingering on the backburner. In 2012, Andy changed his name to Ari and now identifies as a transgendered female.
In the second of two episodes, fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong (formerly Andy South) talks about her transition to becoming a transgendered female through hormone replacement therapy. Ari elaborates on the challenges her transition has presented and the insight it has given her, both personally and professionally.
My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. Ariyaphon means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.
Which definition did you pick?
The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.
Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southipong, former the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ariyaphon Southiphong is one of Hawaii’s most recognized young fashion designers. Name doesn’t ring a bell? You may know her better as Andy South. In 2010, Andy South was a top-three finalist on Lifetime Television’s fashion reality show, Project Runway. In 2012, a year before our conversation, Andy changed his name to Ari and began his transition to becoming a female. A child of Laotian immigrants, Ari, then Andy, grew up far from the glamour of fashion and television. Born in Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Andy lived with his parents, his sister, half-sister, and two half-brothers. Andy’s parents had a tumultuous marriage. By the time Andy reached the third grade, his parents had split, his mother remarried, and the family moved to the other side of Oahu, to Waianae.
And what prompted the move to Waianae?
What kind of farming?
Catfish farming. Catfish, and sunfish which is —
It’s a fancy word for tilapia. But yeah, so freshwater sunfish, freshwater Chinese catfish. When we first started, we actually did an above-ground tank in our back yard in Kailua, and it leaked into the neighbor’s yard. It was a huge ordeal with us running into a lot of issues. It was also our test period, right, of trying to farm raise fish and see if it would be viable for us to actually do it as a business. We eventually moved out to Waianae, and I lived there most of my life, actually.
What brought your parents to Hawaii?
A better future, quintessential immigrant parents. But more so in my mom’s case, it was specifically … she had actually come here with her first husband, who is the father to my three eldest siblings, who are half siblings for me. But they came as college students, and it was also to escape Communism. My mother, youngest of five girls, daughter to a governor. So, when the whole government was overturned, they were actually warned to leave the country, or they would have eventually been killed if they were ever caught. So, that was their reason for leaving.
Is there an exciting escape story?
No. [CHUCKLE] College. [CHUCKLE] So, they didn’t have any —
Yeah; college visas. And at the time, they were actually coming back and forth to Hawaii for college at the University of Hawaii. And it just so happened that things with the government weren’t going well, and so, eventually, Mom based herself here and slowly, everybody was sent over, starting with the kids. So, all of my twenty-plus cousins have gone through my mom’s household, when they were in their teens going to high school, starting college. And then, their parents made their way over.
So, your mom was a privileged daughter of a governor, to struggling catfish farmer in Waianae.
Yeah; basically. My mom would talk a lot about her growing up in Laos, and a lot of things that she … I guess, throughout our lives, growing up as farmers, she would reminisce sometimes about the easier times when life wasn’t so hard, basically.
She had somebody tending to her all the time.
Exactly; yeah. But I love when people reminisce. I love old stories. I love speaking to older people. I just think that life is so interesting in the way that the stories are all different, and then you realize it’s how they have come out of situations, or how they turn situations o benefit from, and to turn them into blessings, as opposed to letting it kill them.
So, you’ve always kind of been attuned to coping skills?
Yes; I think so.
M-hm. And I learned that all from my mom. And my mom still is the hero that I have, which I think a lot of people can say that their mother is their hero, or their father is their hero. I think for every child, it’s very deep for different reasons. And for me, it’s because I’ve watched my mom be the strong woman that she is, and I’ve seen her in her weak moments. You know. But even in that, she had shown such great strength by not letting it show.
Growing up as the boy known then as Andy Southiphong, Andy found his mother’s lesson of resilience to be a valuable and recurring one, as childhood teasing led to bigger questions.
Do you remember some of the early things that you had to use resilience to overcome when you were a kid?
[CHUCKLE] A lot of teasing.
About what? What kind of teasing? Regular kind?
Yeah, well, a lot of regular teasing, which is kids being kids. I obviously wasn’t the popular kid growing up. I wasn’t athletic. I was actually a lot heavier when I was a child, so I was teased a lot for, one, my weight, for me being just naturally effeminate as a boy.
Did that bother you?
It did, but I never let it get me down. Because I think I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors throughout my life, and they’ve been my teachers, a lot of my instructors.
What did the teachers say, or how did they let you know everything’s okay?
I guess it was the positive feedback that I was getting from them for my work, and for me being a good student. For them constantly telling me, You’re gonna go far. And even in elementary, that matters so much to the development of a child. Because had they not been that positive with me — and I don’t think they ever knew that I would get teased or that it bothered. I was never bullied, per se. I never was picked on, but you have other students in your class of how many really rowdy boys, and you don’t fit in with the boys. And then, if you play with the girls, that’s more reason for you to get teased, right?
Did you try to sound less effeminate?
Growing up, I did, throughout high school. It started to matter more as I grew older, and as I reached high school. Because that, I guess, is … you start to really decide who you are.
Or it’s decided for you?
Yeah; it’s decided for you based on the opinions of your peers. And I tried to; I took a weightlifting class as an elective. But I don’t think I’m the correct person to go to weightlifting.
And did you talk roughly? [CHUCKLE]
[CHUCKLE] I’m pretty sure. There were a lot of moments that I tried to. Locker room situations were awkward, because a lot of people just gathered and assumed that I was gay, and they would voice that. And so, from early on, that’s when I was like, Okay, maybe I am.
Did you know you were gay?
I did. Well, I knew that I wasn’t straight. That’s the thing. And the closest thing that I knew of to what I really am was being gay.
But you didn’t think that quite hit it?
No; never. And that’s the thing, and maybe that was the reason. That was probably the reason why I never fully accepted it. I didn’t come out to my mom ‘til I was twenty-one. Among my gay friends, my other gay male friends, I never felt like I … I still didn’t fit in. Something internally just wasn’t right. After high school, in college, I actually met more gay friends. Going out to the clubs more, meeting more of the community, that I started to meet transgender women and transgender men, drag queens or cross-dressers, that I started to realize that there’s much more to the community, than just being gay or straight, or bisexual or gay or straight. And it started to open my eyes, because then I started to get to know them. I started to get to know people for who they are. That’s never something that I allowed myself to do before, because I was so focused on school, focused on my career. And that’s how I am. When I was in college, everything was school-school-school. I was sewing all the time, I was doing extra projects, ‘cause that was my focus. And it could have been a distraction.
That’s what I was gonna ask you.
Do you think you did that as an escape from questions about identity, which are central to any young person. It’s who are you? What am I evolving into?
Who will I be, who am I now?
Well, ‘cause I knew that I had a talent that was received positively. So, I think that’s why I was always drawing, I was always creating. In high school, I always loved the big projects, the projects that every other kid hated. I loved building. We had to build these huge insects at one point, we had to make cell models. And I loved it. I spent all my money, all my allowance at craft supply stores. And on the weekends and on the school breaks, I would stay home and watch Home and Garden Television, and all these craft shows that I loved, and I started dabbling in quilting. And my mom taught me needlepoint when I was very young, so that’s where I got a lot of my initial sewing skills from. But that was my way of putting my best forward, because I knew that that was something that was very positive in me.
And were you consciously thinking, there’s other things I have to pursue, but I just can’t get to that right now?
I don’t know what it is, but something’s up with me.
Yeah; always. That’s always been in the back of my mind.
The former man known as Andy Southiphong set aside questions about identity and instead focused on finding a career that would play to his creative strength. During his senior year at Waianae High School, Andy fell in love with a career option he had not previously considered.
All those career days, and nobody mentioned fashion?
No; not at all, not in Waianae. And it wasn’t until I went to a State college fair at the Blaisdell that I found a connection with it being creative and seeing what you create being taken to a commercial sense, and being sold and being worn, and actually being utilized every day. For art to have a purpose; that was really, really interesting to me. To see something that you create become something functional in the real world. And so, after that college fair, I decided that I wanted to do fashion. That’s why I say it was serendipitous, because had I not gone to that career fair, I wouldn’t have realized that it was possible.
What were you looking for at the career fair? Did you have something in mind?
At the time, I was in culinary arts. And before that, it was architecture and mechanical drawing, and I had taken classes in both throughout high school as electives. And that’s because I loved being in the home, I loved to cook, I loved to do crafts with my mom. And so, I was trying to find something that was something that I loved. You’re told that you should do …
Build on what you know; right?
Yeah; build on what you know, choose to do something that you love, so that you’re happy.
Not long after that serendipitous discovery, Andy Southiphong branded himself as Andy South and enrolled in the fashion technology program at Honolulu Community College. He gained a reputation for designing edgy couture gowns. Several years after graduating, serendipity found Andy once more.
I think you were only twenty-three when you got yourself on Project Runway.
How did that happen?
I went through an audition process. I had gotten a call while I was at work, and it was the casting agent for Project Runway, who had gotten my number from someone else. And they said that, We called a few people locally in the area, and they all had you at the top of their list to contact to audition. So, they invited me to audition. And even then, it was maybe a week before the deadline, and I was like, I don’t know. I had already looked into the audition process, I looked at the deadlines.
Was it a lot to do? Did you have to make something?
[SIGH] It was a lot of prep. Because you have to submit a portfolio, a digital portfolio, and you have to do a three to five-minute audition video, fill out the application, which I believe was twenty-some-odd pages. A lot. And that was like, written pages. And then, there was another forty of what you had to read for the contract. So, it was a very daunting process that I was just kind of like, Ah — I kinda wrote it off as like, Oh, I’ll try next year. But by them calling me I said, You know, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.
I’ll stay up late a few nights and get it done.
Yeah. So, a lot of things happened just in that instant, because I knew that I listened to what I was supposed to do. I could tell that God was telling me, You need to do this because you’re getting too comfortable. ‘Cause at the time, I was working for another company locally, another fashion brand, but she was more focused on manufacturing and selling. So, not as creative, I was doing a lot of office administration stuff and shipping orders, taking orders, but really learning the business. And that’s really where I learned a lot of what I need to put into practice now.
And by this time, you were out of Honolulu Community College’s fashion program.
M-hm. I was already talking to the owner of the company about taking over. Taking over the company so she can retire, and I would have been set. I would be running another company, but it wouldn’t be the company I’m running now. And so, the fact that I acted on that gut instinct that told me, Okay, you need to do this, you don’t know what’s gonna happen but you need to do it and just be open to the possibilities. And that was me listening what I was supposed to do. The things playing out the way that they did that told me, Okay, you’re about to embark on a really crazy ride and you better free yourself up, and be open to what’s gonna come.
And you acquitted yourself in the way your mom said you should, with strength of character.
Was that hard to do? I mean, it must have been tempting sometimes not to make a snarky comment, as everyone else seemed to do.
Right. That would have been the easy thing to do. But I think I kept in mind that you’re always on camera, you’re always on a microphone, so even if you said something in private, they would ask you about it later.
And it’ll exist on tape forever, or digital records.
Exactly. So, I always kept that in mind, which kept me from overreacting. But I think after I grew out of my childhood tantrums and as I matured, I grew calmer in my thoughts. My friends always told me that I have a really calm demeanor about myself, that even in the thick of stress, in the thick of chaotic situations, I’m able to think logically and to be levelheaded about my reactions. And there are times when I’m running around the studio, crazy, and I’m telling people to do ten things at one time and I’m yelling at people, but most times, I’m actually much more thoughtful about my actions, and that helped me. That and also making sure that I had … many people don’t know this, about how important my faith is to me. And the more I talk about it, I think you hear it, that it plays a huge role in my day-to-day, even though I don’t talk about it and I don’t make it an Evangelistical thing. But I kept my Bible with me, and I prayed every night, and I just wanted to keep myself centered, keep myself grounded, ‘cause I knew that I was entering a place that I wasn’t familiar with. And I didn’t want to be just caught off guard and lose myself, I didn’t want to lose myself in it.
Rather, Andy Southiphong aka Andy South, was finding himself. At the brink of his fashion design success in Hawaii and on Project Runway, Andy was beginning to resolve those questions about his identity, that he had long kept in the back of his mind.
When did you discover transgender living?
Well, my first time doing drag was probably years into going out in the gay scene. And it’s not one of those things that had tormented me my whole life. I just knew that something wasn’t completely there, but it was never pressing on my mind all the time. So, I decided to do drag one year in Portland.
Was that because you’re a fashion-conscious person, or because you thought maybe you’d like to be a woman?
I thought that that was actually my opportunity to see if that was something inside of me that needed to come out. And along the lines of being a drag queen and being a performer, you’ve got a huge gray area of being a transvestite or a cross-dresser, which is a man who dresses up in women’s clothing, and then, transsexuals and transgender people.
And there are some people who really don’t know. They’re somewhere in between.
And there’s every different level in between being a cross-dresser and a transgender individual. So, I think that’s why a lot of the confusion comes up with people in the public just not knowing a lot, or not knowing enough. So, a lot of times, being transgender gets mixed with being a cross-dresser, and you know, you’re gay.
It’s a big category.
Right; yeah. Because a cross-dresser technically usually consider himself gay, because they still like men, they like being a man, but they like dressing up as women just to perform for fun. So, I’ve been asked many times, So are you gay? And I don’t consider myself gay. But it kinda just opens up the topic of conversation for all this gray area that can get very exhausting. And there’s a lot of different levels, but I don’t think that we shouldn’t talk about it, because every person is different. And it really should be as the person identifies himself is what they are. Because gender, sexual orientation are completely different; completely different things.
Talk about that, ‘cause I don’t understand that.
Gender and sexual orientation are different. And I think it gets mixed up, because your gender is often called your birth sex or your sex. Right?
Meaning physically, what you have. And sexual orientation is whether you are homosexual and you like being a male who likes other men, or a female who likes other women. But gender identity has nothing to do with sex.
I see what you mean.
It has nothing to do with sexual lust, it has nothing to do with the taboo of a man having sex with what most people will call a tranny, which I find very offensive. I’ll joke around with my other sisters about it. When I talk to my sisters and referring to myself, I like to keep things light. And so, sometimes I’ll refer to myself as Trandy. [CHUCKLE] ‘Cause I’m Andy, and I’m transsexual. But even my family has had to learn a lot about, I don’t consider myself gay, I consider myself a woman who was born a male. Because I’m not attracted to other gay men. I thought I was when I was trying to live as a gay male. But I see myself with a straight man, I see myself having a real family, living as a woman, being completely that female role in society.
And yet, you’ve chosen not to have surgery. You’re doing hormones, right?
Is there a longer term plan?
There’s a longer term plan, and the first steps are to get onto your hormone replacement therapy. Because it takes time, and you have to equal it to a girl going through puberty for the first time.
So, as you’re building a business, you’re going through this transition. And that affects even what your name is.
You could have kept your name.
What made you decide not to? It’s the Andy South brand
And your name is?
My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. And throughout the initial steps of my transition, I just wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that I wanted my mom to be as much a part of my life as she wants to be. Every mother wants to be a part of their child’s life.
Why did she choose that name? Does it mean something?
Yeah. Ariyaphon has the meaning in Sanskrit, which is the Buddhist language. She went to the temple to ask for two names; one of them being Ariyaphon. And the meaning of it, depending on the spelling, either means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.
Which definition did you pick?
The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.
And so, this is a personal brand. So, you have to make that distinction between, this is me, and this is me. So, essentially, your transgenderism becomes a conversation in your business.
It’s the first thing out there, if you’re the spokesperson.
M-hm. It does. The true test was, I had done this after we had started working with Neiman Marcus, which is really great for a brand, being associated with a high end retailer like that.
Was that a factor for them, the fact that you’d chosen to go transgender?
No. I actually met with them about my second collection that they were purchasing, and I had gone as female. And at the time, I wearing a wig, and I was dressing in women’s clothing. But of course, in the beginning, I was very androgynous and maybe a little bit more detectable as not being a genetic female. And I conducted the first part of the meeting with just them, just their buyer and me, that’s it. And then, midway through, we got to catch up a little bit more, and then I told them, and I said also, I mean, I’m sure you guys know this by now by coming here, that I am now living my life as a woman and I have chosen to transition and act upon what makes me happy. I just wanted to make sure that the lines of communication were open. The main thing that I told them was, If you have any questions or concerns, or anything about what I’m going through, ask me. Don’t feel that you can’t ask me because we’re professional or we have a professional relationship. I want you folks to be open with me, and I want you to know that me doing this is not gonna affect my business. But this is my personal journey that I’m deciding to take.
What was the reaction?
They were supportive. And along with everybody, everybody was supportive. Because it goes back to what my mom first told me when I had come out to her as gay. It makes so much sense, because when you allow your professionalism, when you allow your character to speak before you do, there’s no denying that you’re one that should be respected. I think that was the main thing, that was my mom’s main concern with me living the living the life that I choose to live.
What a groundbreaking conversation you had with Neiman Marcus. How often do those conversations take place?
Probably not often, because you don’t hear a lot about transgender business owners or transgender women who are in the process of making that transition as they conduct business.
Usually, it’s before or after.
A lot of people would handle it a lot differently than you did. Because, you chose to just say, Here’s the deal.
Yeah. And I decided that because quite honestly, I knew that I wasn’t happy internally. And I guess what I always value above everything else is that I’m living a life that I feel fulfilled, and that I feel happy. Because if I’m not happy with the life that I’m living, there’s no way that I can do good for other people.
Ariyaphon Southiphong currently operates her clothing line, still branded Andy South, out of her workshop in Honolulu’s Chinatown. In a future episode of Long Story Short, we’ll talk more with Ari about her life as a transgender woman. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
I love fashion very much, but it’s not the only thing that I love. What I love most is actually creating opportunity. Seeing something good being done for the world, thinking that I’m gonna leave the world a better place that what it was is why I live every day. And I’m given the opportunity by having a company, by forming my company, by having the drive that I have, having the courage that I have to do it, make the choices that I’ve made, and to continue living my life, as well as living my life in a good way, and creating a lot of great things for the community and for society, and specifically with creating jobs, creating opportunity for young talent that’s coming out of Hawaii.
Part 2: A Life Redesigned
I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature.
Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Honolulu fashion designer Andy South first gained national recognition in Season 8 of Lifetime Television’s reality competition show, Project Runway. In 2012, Andy announced that he was now a she, a transgendered female. Her mother renamed her Ariyaphon Southiphong, or Ari for short. Her clothing line continues to operate under the Andy South name. As of our conversation in 2013, Ari has not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery. Ari has been on hormone replacement therapy, biweekly injections of testosterone blockers and estrogen, which she plans to take for the rest of her life. When Ari, who had already built the Andy South brand, first told her mother about wanting to start hormone therapy, her mother had her concerns, based on a previous transition attempt.
Her first question was like, Why would you want to do this? Because she had gone through my first transition, which was right before Project Runway, and I stopped right before.
Were you not sure you wanted to?
I wasn’t sure.
Yeah. I wasn’t sure about my first transition, because it was so quick. My body took to the hormones so quickly, the changes were coming on too fast. And I felt like I had made the decision based on pressure, or encouragement from people who didn’t really know me as well as I, thought that that person or that influence should be coming from. And so, I took a step back and I actually had a lot of resentment toward being transgender. I didn’t go out anymore, I had stopped talking to a lot of people. Because had to deal with my own internal conflict of, What did you just do to your body? A lot of things caused me to hate myself.
That’s what you were feeling like right before you went on the TV show?
‘Cause you were still centered.
Yeah. That’s what I was feeling right before going on the TV show. But that first transition and then off of it, I took it as, well, it was probably a lesson learned. And then, when it came up again, this was after I came back from Project Runway, and a lot of great things were happening, again that same feeling of something is missing. I had already gotten a glimpse of who Ari was. Who I was as a female.
Did it come to you as a visual? ‘Cause you’re a visual person.
M-hm; it did.
You saw yourself as a woman?
Yeah, I started to see her more often. I saw myself as a woman much more often, because I had that first glimpse of my first, few months on transition. In the beginning, I used to always talk about the Andy South woman, and she was always on the show. A lot of people will recall and they all became fans of that warrior woman that I was designing for. I guess what I realized was that the imaginary person I was designing for was me.
So, that imaginary Andy South woman who was a warrior. Because I felt like I had to fight for whatever it is that I wanted to do. And especially at that stage, it was such a breaking moment of my career that I think a lot of the reason why my designs came out as very hard and very defensive was because I felt like I was constantly fighting. I was constantly competing to remain in the game. And then when I came home after that initial collection — I mean, the back story to my collections are always very extensive. Because it’s about the woman and what she’s going through. And after that first collection, at the end of my first fashion show actually, the last model came out with this huge costume that was ripped away. It was about a girl going through the seasons, transitioning through winter, and then at the end breaking into the first glimmer of spring with the ice melting away and her hard exterior melting away. The next collection was extremely feminine. But I think that they made sense with the Andy South brand completely, because even though it looked like light and dark, the story was like a next chapter to this girl, where a lot of it was silk hand-dyed ombre, beautiful colors, like the water. Because I imagined this girl now coming out of this melted snow, out of this debris, like everything was frozen over and that she was coming out of this muddy, murky water, renewed and was finding a new femininity in herself. And that was in the same collection that I decided to make my transition.
This time, Ariyaphon Southiphong was confident about transitioning to a female body. But that didn’t make the journey an easy one.
Do you spend any time saying, Why me?
Many times. Yeah; many times. I constantly ask, Why was I born this way? And after college, I actually transitioned from Buddhist, ‘cause I grew up Buddhist with my parents, and I became a Christian. But I understand a lot of the Buddhist teachings that my mom taught us. I constantly pray, and I constantly have conversations with God on a regular basis. And then, when I was dealing with the reality of my transition, and quite often the struggles. And a lot of people see me now, and they see me received very well in the general public. There’s a lot of things that I deal with internally that aren’t so … glamorous, they’re not positive, a lot of things that I question about myself.
Self doubts, you mean?
Self doubts; yeah. All the time. Because society is always telling you one thing, even though in your gut that you need to do the other. And especially in the beginning, I constantly prayed about, Is this right? That was my main prayer.
Did you have a mentor or counselor?
I mean, I did talk to my doctor about it, who diagnosed me with gender dysphoria, which allowed me to start my transition.
So, you have to say you’re mentally ill in order to begin something that you say is going to heal you.
Yeah. Because in the medical world, that’s the way it’s treated. You treat gender dysphoria by allowing yourself to live in the form, and attain that physical being that you identify with for your mental sake. Which when you think about it, it’s so … [SIGH] … it’s almost pitiful, when you think about it, of someone having to succumb to admitting to that, and admitting to them suffering from mental illness in order to be happy. Because I don’t think it’s a mental illness. I think that it’s just the life that I was born into. This is life. And my main conflict with God in the beginning was, like the main question was, Is this right?
Did you say, God, you know, You know I’m not your son, I’m your daughter?
Right. Yeah; exactly. I used to always ask, actually; I don’t ask anymore, because I know that for whatever the circumstances and whatever He has in front of me and before me, this is the path that He’s determined for me, and the journey that He’s already laid out, because He knows that I can handle it.
There are a lot of segments of the Christian church, and there are some elements which would say, Come on, that’s not right.
I know you’ve heard it, and what do you do say?
I think that everyone’s walk with God is different. And especially with being a Christian, there are so many different variations, I would say. Some being a little bit more by the Bible, being closer to Catholicism. But for me, religion has always been kind of not a big question, but I’ve always been one to ask questions. And the reason why I think I’m such a strong Christian is because I found Christianity and I found God on my own. I wasn’t brought up forced to go to church. I wasn’t brought up forced to do anything religious. But I knew He was calling me. A lot of thing that happened in my childhood and my life, just aside from me being transgender, have already told me that He has been calling me back to Him, to know Him, to live my life in a way that will affect the world in a really great way. In the beginning, I used to always ask, like, Well, am I really supposed to live this life? My fear was that I was doing something wrong. My fear was that I was being selfish and acting upon my own want to be a woman. Going back to people telling me it’s a choice. People telling me that this is a decision you make, you’re not born this way. But for me to live as a straight male does not make sense. For me, it doesn’t make sense.
And for you to live as a gay male doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t. It doesn’t anymore. Because I mean, the first thing people ask with the hormone replacement therapy is, Well, how do you change, how do your thoughts change? And for me, I just make more sense internally. My thoughts make sense, things seem more balanced.
With balanced thoughts and a decidedly female perspective, Ari Southiphong says she has a greater understanding of how to design clothes for women.
My idea of designing for women has changed, because now I’m wearing the clothing. Of course, my body is different from, your genetic female body that you have to fit, but the same things apply as far as you know, wanting to cover certain things, or wanting to wear a bra, which in college, I never really cared about. Well, the girl can go bra-less, I don’t care. Being a man designing for a woman, I didn’t have that innate sense of fashion being completely functional. You know, I always wanted, the really fashion-forward pieces, and I always designed for the very fashion-forward woman.
This should expand your market, shouldn’t it?
M-hm; exactly. I mean, as the business grows, in our first two collections, I learned a lot about our clientele, real women who bought our clothing. And I think it’s very common for students and for young designers to design for a very petite frame, for a very thin model. But the majority of my clients and my customers are older women who are not, size zero to a four. And so my design sensibility has changed according to, one, my personal transition and now being so connected with the brand, that I am the brand, but also, on the business side, designing to maintain my customer and give my customers what they want.
Would you do men’s clothes?
I have started. And that’s something I started to do before my transition for myself to wear. But I recently started to do some menswear pieces, and starting with the basics. Because I think with the women’s wear, I’ve gotten a very good grasp on the fit and the styles that I love to design and my customers love, but with the menswear, I guess I’m more focused on the fit. So, I’m doing a lot of basics, a lot of basic button-downs, cargo shorts, just to get the fit right. Because for a brand, that’s the most important thing, is that the product fits the customer.
I always look at, say, Vogue, and there’s some hideous looking dress on the runway, and they say, Metallics are in. And you think, Who would ever wear that? So then, your job is to convert that into something people would want to wear, using the theme or the color, or the something.
Exactly. The magazines will list the trends. So that’s why I always say the magazines really the ones who run the show. Because whatever they say, whatever magazines say are the trends are what the consumer will look for.
And then, you adapt that sense of a trend. Because you know, so many things aren’t wearable.
Right. Well, ‘cause fashion is a creative industry. You run the gamut from being commercial, commercially and retail-conscious of running a company, and making sales, and making things affordable. And then, there’s the extreme creative side of it, with haute couture, and handmade garments that are much more like art pieces.
Where do you see yourself?
When I first started, I saw myself doing a lot more couture, because I love the creativity of it. And I still do. And I would love to do couture gowns all day, every day, and I would love to go to France and study under a real couture house. But the reality is, to run a business, that’s not gonna be possible. I have to form a brand that’s much more wearable. And actually, I prefer to design things and manufacture them, and create them for people who love them and actually wear them. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing one of your pieces in the street.
So, is your ideal customer somebody like you, or is it somebody else?
I think my ideal customer is someone who’s like me in the sense that they’re risk takers, that they know who they are. And that’s what I base the Andy South brand off of. ‘Cause my logo is —
And that’s your life struggle.
Being who you are.
Ari Southiphong, the former Andy South, is self-assured about who she is. But she’s also well aware of the challenges that transgender dating presents, especially someone who’s in the public eye.
If the future is a husband and a family, how does that get accomplished?
Finding the right person. It’s gonna take a really, really amazing man to be that person, to know himself well enough to know that falling in love with me, or being attracted to me isn’t being attracted to a man. And I’ve met some really great couples with some of my sisters who are who are now sex-changed. They’re post-op. But a lot of times, the ones that have a really strong relationship are the ones that first started dating not knowing that she was born a man, and they built a relationship just exactly like a straight couple. And then later down the line, she has to tell them, because she can’t hold the secret in. When they meet the family, then it gets complicated, so it has to come out.
Yeah; but I would think that that would put you at risk for a blown-up relationship, or even violence.
Because you didn’t tell.
Yeah; exactly. So, you never know how someone’s gonna react. And not that it’s a matter of deceit and trying to trick someone into thinking you’re a genetic female, and tricking them into fall in love with you. I see it more as because of the society we live in, to have it at the forefront complicates a lot of things with people. And letting it come out over time, I think allows the person to get to know the person for the real reasons. Get to know their character. And whether they fall in love, they fall in love with that person’s personality, their strengths, their humor their beauty from within, before they completely shut the door on the fact that this person is transgender, even post-op sex change.
So, a lot of it is context.
A lot of it is context. And the reason why girls are working the streets, and they’re becoming creatures of the night is what I would say —
Which really puts them in position for violence.
Yeah. The girls who have to work the streets at night, they put themselves in a lot of danger.
Now, why do they have to work the streets at night?
Employment opportunities for transgender individuals, especially mid-transition or very early on when they’re still very androgynous, they’re very difficult to find, and it’s very difficult with the current laws. One thing that I hear from many young girls is when they get a job, if they show them their ID card with their gender on it, then they’re required to use the male restroom, or the gender marker that’s on, say, their driver’s license.
Because they’ve basically told them, I’m male. But for someone who’s living their life as a woman, that’s difficult. And that’s like kicking them when they’re down making them go into use the male restroom, for people to see that they are male. You know, that they are transgender. No matter how passable they may be on the outside with their features, the fact that it’s lingering, that’s the risk we take for living this life. And a lot of transgender deaths and murders go unaccounted or unspoken about, uninvestigated. They get swept under the rug, because it’s … sad to say that it’s just not a priority. Being transgender heightens that risk of someone trying to pick a fight with you, especially men who see you as a man and see you as a freak. So, the danger level of living a public life as transgender, it’s very high especially if you’re in the wrong place. But thankfully, I’m in Hawaii.
Have you ruled in or ruled out surgery?
I haven’t ruled out surgery at all. And ideally, if I could get everything done and be perfectly healthy, and live a full, great life, long …
Surgery is a risk, I guess. I mean surgery is a risk, and that’s a big one.
Surgery is a huge risk, and I know that my life purpose is more than just making the complete transition to being completely physically female. Because like I said, gender is internal before it is physical. When I first transitioned, it was very young of me to think that I wanted to do everything as soon as possible. I wanted to do everything quickly, so I can get on with my life and I can live my life. But as I transition, I learned to really, really love myself for the first time. And even before that, loving myself as gay male and accepting myself, it’s not the same when you finally accept yourself for who you are. And whether or not the surgery and the final—you know, ‘cause that’s like a final step to achieving the closest possible likeness of living as a genetic woman, right now, it’s not that important to me, because what’s important is my career.
Ari Southiphong, formerly Andy South, is also passionate about advocating for the transgendered community. Her openness about her transition comes from a strong desire to educate.
So, the T in LGBT stands for, what?
So, not transsexual, it’s transgender.
Transgender and transsexual are pretty much the same.
But I’ve read, speaking of looking things up. I read that you don’t have to have hormonal treatment or surgery to identify as transgender.
You don’t. You don’t have to have any procedures done, you don’t have to be on hormones to identify yourself as transgender. Like I said, gender is internal before it is physical.
And you know, there all these categories where you could get stuck on side streets, instead of seeing the big street picture. Like, transvestite.
Where does that fit in?
Transvestite is a gay male — or not even, it doesn’t have to be a gay male. It could be a straight male, as well, that cross-dresses.
So, people have to learn what transgender is, because we have all these labels. We use names we don’t even know what we’re talking about.
Exactly. That’s what I always encourage people to learn. Not only for the sake of me being able to share with them, but also for them to be knowledgeable, and for them to not look a fool either. That’s probably really embarrassing when you’re talking to somebody who does know what they’re talking about, and you’re using terms in the wrong context and in the wrong form. And it’s disrespectful as well.
I think there are very few people having conversations like this. You know, you’re open, you’re explaining something to me that I don’t know very much about. What would you say to people who really don’t have a clue about what being transgender means, and they’d like to know, and they don’t know how to talk to people about it?
You can research. A lot of what I did before my transition was actually research online, mainly because I needed to find out for myself, kind of unclouded by the opinion of the person sharing with me what being transgender is. But then also talking to people who are. Talk to them, because chances are, you might even know somebody who is, and you may just not know. Like, talk to them regularly now.
But how do you bring it up? I mean, what if they’re not?
Well, I mean, don’t just go and ask any random person, like, Oh, so are you transgender? You’ve gotta be really sensitive about it.
Good way to start a conversation.
Yeah. You’ve got to be sensitive about the form that you speak about it. But I think if you know somebody who is, I think asking about it is much more of a welcome thing than people might think.
Than tiptoeing around it.
Than tiptoeing; yeah. It’s much easier. I have a much greater sense of relief when people ask me about it, because I like that people are interested in knowing what it is that I’m going through. And the fact that they’re open to learning, that’s the first step to educating more people, and it’s the first step to transgender individuals becoming more a part of society. I mean, we’re steps behind the gay community, because there are a lot of things that don’t protect us, because a lot of our issues aren’t brought up and aren’t dealt with. They’re just not discussed enough to determine things and laws to be in place that are appropriate for us, but also appropriate for the rest of the community as well.
But on the other hand, I think people are reticent, because it’s so personal. And yet, it’s central to you.
Right. And I think in my case, I’m very open about it, because I realize that my life is in the public eye, that I can’t disappear and come back as a woman and expect to have the same life. So, that’s kind of the cross I bear. Alongside of the business purpose that I serve and the career that I’m building and the opportunities it offers, I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature. And I really want people to realize that, yeah, I am transgender, and I run a business. Because you don’t see that often. This life can seem difficult, being transgender, and it is. This isn’t a life that I would wish on anyone, because it’s not easy.
Because that’s front and center, everybody reacts to that first; right?
And even among very well-meaning people, and I think so many people are well-meaning, you hear all the pronoun confusion.
He, she, he she.
And my mom does that too. She still sometimes slips and calls me, he. But I understand that she raised me as a son for twenty-five years, and so for me to expect her and my family and friends to automatically change overnight, that’s selfish on my part. Me allowing myself to live my life is not selfish. It’s the right thing for me.
With confidence, Ari Southiphong is looking ahead, and her Andy South business is the priority. Her high end clothing brand is seeing growth. She’s forging ahead in the challenging fashion industry, while navigating new dimensions in her personal life. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
It’s much greater than just tolerating. You tolerate your crappy neighbor, you tolerate your husband’s snoring. But to really be accepted in a community, I think, is just such an uplifting feeling that probably I’m most thankful for, is for the support that I’ve been getting from fans and from community members who have thanked me for taking a stand, and for honestly just being me.
Sister Joan of Arc Souza is the principal of St. Francis school in Manoa. Souza graduated from St. Francis when it was an all-girls school, but during tenure as principal she turned the school co-ed and has made numerous innovations, such as a band program; cinematography classes; a four-year American Sign Language Program; and a pre-school.
There’s a small, Catholic school in Manoa — right behind UH — that used to offer classes for girls in grades 6 thru 12. But a progressive, new principal came in and changed all that. Under her direction, the school began admitting boys, added a preschool and increased its offering of extracurricular activities. Who is this progressive principal? She’s a graduate of the school. And a nun. A devout and dedicated, yet witty and candid nun — who we’ll meet next.
Sister Joan of Arc Souza calls St. Francis School, “the best kept secret in Manoa.” But those who know her might say she’s one of the best-kept secrets as well. Since 1991, she’s guided the school through major changes with innovative leadership.
I can’t let a moment go by without asking you about your name. When I heard your name twenty years ago, I thought, Wow, that is a name.
Sister Joan of Arc Souza.
M-hm. When you enter the community, you have choices; at least back when I did it. And you had to choose a name of a saint; and there was just something fascinating about Joan of Arc. She was a leader of men; she stood up to bishops. And in the end, she gave her life for her beliefs, for her faith, for her church. So she’s just a remarkable saint, and I fell in love with her, and chose that name.
First thing I thought was, she was burned at the stake.
True. [chuckle] Oh, yes.
And later, she was vindicated, but it was—
Yeah; she was a martyr. There was no reason to burn her at the stake. What she said was true, what she did was true; she was faithful to her uh, her calling. But she was a brave woman. She would not relinquish; she stood up to those who would do her harm.
Now, you said you—one of the appeals was she was a leader of men.
Do you mean men and women, or—
Men. She led the armies to put the right king back on the throne, with uh, France.
And she fought the English. She was actually—she dressed as a male in order to lead the men.
But you’ve mostly been involved with girls’ schools until—
–became a co-ed school.
Yeah. Well, actually, St. Francis is the only school I’ve been involved with. All of the rest of my religious life, I worked in parish ministry, youth ministry, co-ed situations, churches, parishes. It wasn’t until I came home in ‘73 to teach that I ended up at St. Francis, teaching in a girls’ school.
Have you wanted to lead men?
[chuckle] I do. [chuckle]
[chuckle] Still do?
I still do.
Are you considered in the liberal vein of sisters?
Yup. Oh, definitely; definitely. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being liberal, I’m probably a twelve or thirteen.
And how did you get that way?
[SIGH] I guess I always figured it’s easier to get [chuckle] I’m gonna say this in public? Yeah. It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. So if you think something is right, do it. And if it turns out that it didn’t come out as you thought, well then you say you’re sorry, and you move on.
But that’s your criteria; if you think it’s right.
Oh, yes; if you think it’s right. You gotta think it’s right in your heart. You’ve got to.
And are you considered a maverick?
I don’t know. I have never asked people what they think. I guess there are some people who would say, Yes, look at what she did, she brought boys onto our campus, she opened up an elementary school, she opened up a preschool. I guess there are some people who would say that; yeah.
It’s nice to talk with you to see how human you are, because you know, we think of sisters and nuns as sort of unapproachable people, I think, those of us who don’t have direct experience.
M-hm. I wasn’t born a nun. [chuckle] I grew up. I did things. I got in trouble, I fooled around, I had fun. I climbed trees, I played with toy guns; I did all those things. So you know, and as I say to the girls, I went to this school; very little you can do that I haven’t been there, done that.
Do you think your decision to enter the community was a call from God?
I do. I think God calls us. He calls—God calls us to religious life, God calls us to married life. God also calls to single state, and some people are called to neither one.
How do you know it’s God calling?
I guess it’s the same way, how do you know that guy you’re gonna marry is the right one. You know. You know, that’s what it — that’s where you’re gonna be the happiest.
As Sister Joan of Arc Souza says, she wasn’t born a nun. But she was raised in a small, religious family in Pauoa Valley. And when she attended St. Francis, it was still a convent school for girls. Of course, times have changed; and the school has changed. But Sister Joan has remained true.
[chuckle] Tell me how you started life. Where were you born, and what was your early life like?
I was born in well, Kapiolani Hospital, right here down the street. Grew up in Pauoa Valley, Blessed Sacrament Church.
Very Catholic family.
Very Catholic family, very much Catholic. Went to Sacred Hearts Convent School on Nuuanu, when they had the lower campus or the convent—the grade school on Nuuanu; went there for school. And from there, went to St. Francis.
You—you went—uh, you were part of a religious family, but did you ever see yourself becoming a sister?
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a sister.
Did somebody put that in your head, or why do you think that came to you?
I don’t know. Just—as far as I can go in my memory, I talked about becoming a sister.
But no sister had said, You ought to think about it.
No; no. I kept asking them questions about their life and the style, and what would it take to become a sister. I don’t remember any sister in my very early days.
As I grew up, there was the Sacred Heart sister, Sister Damien Terrez, who encouraged me. But she was my eighth grade teacher, and at that point, I was already very interested in joining.
Were any of your contemporaries interested?
There might have been a few. Most of them thought I was a little, you know crazy.
[chuckle] Well, what were you like when you were a kid?
Tomboy. Loved to play with—I got along better with the guys than I did with the girls, for the most part. After school, I would hang out with my cousins, and we’d do lawns and they’d mow, and I’d rake, and I just got along with them quite well. Played at the park during summer fun. I remember when the days where they had summer fun at Booth Park in Pauoa. And they divided all the girls on one side, the boys on one side, because the girls were going to take sewing classes and all of this kind of stuff, and I vehemently objected. So I ended up over on the boys’ side, and we made coconut lamps and kukui nut ties, and those kinds of things. [INDISTINCT]
Did you pray as a child when you didn’t—when you weren’t asked to pray, I mean?
[chuckle] Oh, yes; I prayed a lot. I did; I did. Privately, quietly; I never really wore my faith on my sleeve. I went to church regularly, and kept in conversation with God, with becoming a sister. At one point, I decided maybe not. Maybe there’s something else out there, as I started to get older and—
What was that other thing that could be out there?
I think it’s called boys.
[chuckle] Did you date?
Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Through high school; went out. There were some significant uh, guys in my life. There was a Vincent, there was a Benny that I still remember and pray for them on a regular basis and hope—
Were they surprised when you became a nun?
I think both were very disappointed when I told them that I really was going. I had to find out; I had to know for sure.
Was that hard for you to make the choice between? I mean, it can’t be easy to commit yourself—
–to such servitude and celibacy.
Uh-huh. I think the difficulty or the realization of the difficulty wasn’t until after I got there. Growing up on the island the only place I’d ever been was Kauai, to visit family. Never been anywhere out of the state. So there was a level of excitement getting on a plane, going to New York. And you know, this was back in the 60s, now. So it—all of that excitement. Then getting to Syracuse, New York and seeing fall for the first time, and never having experienced fall weather; and the winter and cold. And I think that’s when the realization set in to, Do I really want to do this, do I really want to live in subzero climate, in another culture, and I missed my poi and fish, and [chuckle] and all of those kinds of things. And I think that’s when I really sets in.
Did you miss boys?
No. Once I went, once I got there, I realized you know, that there was something here that I would never find in— in a married life. But the separation from family was difficult. That was hard.
At that point, you probably saw your contemporaries buying new clothes, cars, nightclub scene. Any regrets?
Not for that kind of thing. What I started to see as a young sister, especially in New York, working with youth ministry, young families and children, and you know, the biological clock running out, do I—you know, this it. It’s make or break time.
Especially in a Portuguese family.
Portuguese families historically were big, loud, fun. [chuckle]
Loud, fun; yes, I have untold number of cousins. I think there are like forty or fifty of us in my generation; I don’t know. Um … -So there were always people around, always children around.
So there came that time when you said, Boy, I’m never gonna—
I’m never gonna have—
–if I continue this way, I’m never gonna have a baby.
That’s right; that’s right. So that would have been another significant time where you have to say, Okay, do you really want to do this?
Did you feel like you could get out at any time, or there was a point of no return?
When you become a sister, the first thing you do is, you take temporary vows after three years. So you can leave at any time. And then we renew the temporary vows for another two years, before you made final vows. And even after final vows, if you really want to leave, you can.
You saw some of your classmates leave, I imagine.
Oh, we entered with—I think there were thirty-four when we entered; there are seven of us left.
You were a member of the rock and roll generation who didn’t rock and roll.
[chuckle] That got into the sanctuary, then.
Uh-huh. Yeah. And we brought our music with us. We turned the convent—I think when we entered, things changed. Prior to our day coming in, if the novice mistress, as she was called, said, This is what you do, they— they did it. My group said, Why? [chuckle] And we questioned.
You graduated from high school in ‘61, so you were—
–right there in the 60s.
In the 60s, when Vatican II was starting, and all this of this; so yeah, m-hm.
So you’re in New York, and your resolve remains strong.
And uh, and what kind of choices did you have with your life within the sisterhood?
Well, in the community that I entered, you either became a teacher or you became a nurse. And so they spoke to us; they talked to us, and I said, Well, forget nursing. I see blood, I and I pass out. I said, No way; no way. And I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to teach first grade, and I wanted to teach math. Those are the two things I wanted to do. Neither of which did I do.
As in, I suppose, many life situations, the general superior at the time came and said, We need you to teach religion for one year; are you willing?
Just one year?
One year; are you willing? I said, Sure. Catholic school graduate and all that formal education. I said, I can do that for one year. So went out to the convent, and what we did was we traveled from parish to parish to parish. And the children would be released from the public school, and we would teach them religion. And what I found was, so many children had this concept that, you know, God was an ogre, God was up there with His baseball bat and if you stepped out of line, choom, you were gonna get it. So I decided to change that concept. That we don’t have the God of the Old Testament, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. We have the God of the New Testament, a loving God, a forgiving God, a God who welcomes you back. And I loved it. I loved turning them and reaching out, with teenagers the young ones. So I think I stayed in it seven, eight, nine years, teaching religions to public school children, children who had no Catholic school experience. Just working with them.
But there was a yearning among some for faith, something to believe in.
Yes. Yes; very much so, with the children. I just loved it. It was first communions and confirmations, and challenging that, too—I remember the one lesson that I would give them all the time. I’d say, You read all these nice things in the Bible, that Jesus said. But how many of you are aware that he said, Love me or hate me, I shall vomit you from my mouth? And the kids would look at me like, What? I said, Yeah. You can’t sit on the fence with that; make a choice. One way or the other; make a choice. And try to get them, of course, to make good choices.
Those were different days. What kind of habit did you wear in those days?
The long black dress, white underneath, a big black veil that came over this way, and you couldn’t see ‘cause it stuck out like this. So it was difficult when youwere teaching in those days, too, you had you know, fifty students in a room that—
How were you supposed to used peripheral vision—
–to see who was acting up?
Well, you learned how. And—
–you almost learned to have eyes behind your head. You knew.
Today, you’re here in a red blazer.
Things have changed.
We’ve come a long way.
When did you stop wearing a habit?
I think in the 70s, we started to let little things go. We didn’t have to wear the big hard veil; we could just wear the driver’s veil. And then the dress shortened, the color changed, it became an A-line. We went through stages.
So now you’re in a red blazer.
I’m a red blazer. It’s my favorite color.
The students at St. Francis know that when I’m wearing red, I’m in a good mood.
You know, speaking of kids seeing God as an ogre, as you described; aren’t they afraid of you?
I don’t think so.
No; we walk down the hail, you’ll hear, Hi, sister, hello. In fact, when the new students come in, I tell them, I want to be greeted. When you see me in the hall, I want to see a smile on your face. Our mission statement is, Quality Catholic education in the spirit of joy. And if you’re not in a joyful mood, then you need to go to confession, ‘cause that’s the only thing that should put you in a bad mood is if you’re in sin. And they look at me; and I say, If you’re not a Catholic, ask a Catholic what that means. [chuckle]
I heard you’re tough.
Well you have to be consistent. If you’re dealing with teenagers, you have to be consistent. So…
Sister Joan of Arc Souza loves sports. So it’s no wonder she enjoys cheering for the school’s basketball team and the Pac-5 football team (with St. Francis students on it).
Other innovations Sister Joan brought to the campus: a band program, cinematography classes and a four-year American Sign Language program — along with co-ed classes and a preschool — which she says are necessary for the school’s survival, which was in jeopardy when she arrived in 1991.
They said, Well, it’s like this; Go there, turn it around, or we’re going to close it. So I said, Well, they’re not gonna close my alma mater, not on my time, anyway. So that was eighteen years ago; I came back, and turned it around, and St. Francis is flourishing.
How did you turn it around?
The first thing I did was look at the curriculum. And we had to improve the curriculum. So we concentrated on that. Then we looked at the athletic program, we looked at all the other things that go into making a school. And little by little, we made changes.
Even though it must have been hard to afford. I mean, you had such a small student body. How do you afford making those changes?
Well, some of it wasn’t all that difficult. It was simply teaching what needed to be taught, and making some very simple changes. There were some people there who had very light schedules, because they only wanted to teach the brightest of the bright; and some people who were doing all the work, in a sense. And we made some changes that way. We had to do some cutting; there were some very painful decisions that had to be made, to try to bring it back in line. And advertising; first thing I did was increase the budget for advertising. Because I think when I came home, we were one of the best kept secrets in Manoa. Everybody knew about the hospital, but nobody knew about, oh, they’ve got a school named St. Francis.
What year was this?
When I came home, ‘91 as principal.
As we talk in 2008, what’s your enrollment?
Right now, we’re just under four hundred.
And we see some male faces at the school—
Yes. The school looked into the possibility of moving leeward; and we did about a five-year research, and finally came up with the understanding that it was just financially not feasible for us to move. Along the lines when we were doing that, I had parents saying to me, It would be great if we could drop all of our children off, one place. Because at that time, we were six through twelve, girls only. We had a preschool; we had started a preschool, so we did have that. So I went to the board and said, If we’re not moving, we’re surrounded by schools that are K to 12; if we’re going to survive, we need to do something to put St. Francis back on the map. So it was a twofold decision. Open up an elementary and go co-ed. So I think we shocked the community a little bit after eighty-two years, but you know, we served something that was necessary for eighty-two years. We’re in the 21st century; we need to move on.
What is the case for girls only education?
The girls learn cooperatively; they want everybody to succeed. They reach out and they help everybody. Boys tend to be more competitive, and you know, they want to learn that way.
Do you think that’s hardwired?
It sure seems like it [chuckle] for them. Although you have some that cross over. So these are the girls who do well with the boys. And my case that I’m going to be making is, I think there are some boys perhaps that we should hand select to put on the other side. Because I see them working in groups, I see them working well, and they thrive. So why not?
Actually, one of the number one skills for the 21st century student is said to be collaborative leadership—
Teamwork; right. And they have to learn to do that. They have to learn to be cooperative, to work together. And for some of them, it’s a natural instinct, and for some of them, it’s a difficult lesson to learn.
Boys are always the minority at St. Francis, at least—
They will be for a while. Yeah; I think so.
What kind of experience is that for them?
Oh, I think they’re having a wonderful time. They have got a ratio of three or four girls to each boy in the seventh and eighth grade, so they think they’ve got it made in the shade.
[chuckle] And you’re also expanding athletics as well.
Yes. In fact, we’ve had for the first time this past season boys playing Pac-5 football. So that was a first in our history.
You’re an athletic fan, you’re a—
–football person, aren’t you?
Oh, yes; oh, yes. I follow the UH, and…
I hear that you have tailgate parties at school.
At school. We have the projectors, we have all of that, because it’s all part of the classroom. And we set it up whenever there’s a game, and it’s potluck. Staff come, they bring their family, they bring their friends, and we just have a wonderful time watching the game. I’m sure anybody in the area can hear us cheering and moaning, as the case might be.
Education is a tough business. I mean, there’s so many family problems and economic problems, and there’s a lot of competition in Hawaii for students. What do you think is gonna be important to St. Francis’ survival and to thrive in as well?
Well, I think we offer a quality education. Our students get into pretty much the same colleges as all of the other private schools for the most part.
And St. Francis doesn’t cost as much either, does it?
No. We work very hard to keep the tuition down. Now, we do have some outside sources of income. We have a parking lot on our property. If you know anything about parking in Manoa; and we border the UH. So once the law was passed where students all had to do the drivers ed and—or be eighteen, the parking lot went empty. Most parents said, You’re waiting ‘til you’re eighteen. So what I did was, decided to rent it to UH students. So that’s income for the school. The school also hosts Leahi Swim School. We have other people on the property who rent classrooms for educational purposes. We have a halau who uses our facilities. I’ve tried to look into different ways of making money for the school, without dipping into the parents’ pockets all the time. And then we have our Ohana Fair at the end of the year that’s become quite popular.
At the end of the day, you’re done being an educator, but you’re never off duty as a nun.
What’s that like?
Well, you go home, and you have other responsibilities, and you interact with—I live with twenty-three other women.
Right there on the property. The convent is right in the middle of the eleven-acre property. So I walk to school. I walk to work, and I walk home every day. It’s a two-minute walk.
And do you have the corner bedroom?
Because you’re the—
No, I have a bedroom that’s the same as everybody else’s. To have a job like yours is to be—I would imagine you just have to be dedicated to problem solving, because that’s what greets you every day.
Is that exciting for you, or does that get to be a drag?
Sometimes it gets you down. Sometimes you go home and you say, you know, God, why am I doing this. And then you go back to school the next day, and some child comes up to you, or passes you in the hall and says, Hi, Sister. And you say, That’s why I’m here; that’s why I’m here.
Do you think you’ve made a profound difference in any one student’s life, or more than one?
I would hope so. I think that’s something most of us in this kind of business—you won’t know. You won’t know until you’re in the afterlife and you get to look back. Yeah.
Maybe they won’t know what it means to them until later—
Yeah. And then, you know, I’ve had a few come back and say, You made a difference, you know, what you taught me, or—when they remember you, you know you touched something.
One of the nice things about this program is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. We’ve met highly-accomplished folks like senators and award-winning recording artists. And we’ve met unsung heroes — teachers — whose work influences others to achieve their goals.
Mahalo to Sister Joan of Arc Souza for being an innovative leader and educator — at her school and in our community— and for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
Now, as we speak, Halloween has just passed; we’re approaching Thanksgiving. Did you participate in Halloween in any way? –
Oh, we did. We had the children from the elementary school and the preschool come up and trick or treat. And as I walked in the night before, my secretary said, Make sure you wear your red jacket. Oh, okay. So when I walked in, she handed me this set of horns.
Beautiful red horns. So they have pictures of it. And I put it on, and went out, and—
Mihana Souza grew up in the great old tradition of Hawaiian music-making. Whether it’s a dressy evening party or a lazy afternoon in the backyard, she always knows there’s going to be music and her family will be singing, strumming, dancing, laughing.
Mihana was born into a family of gifted musicians. Her mother, Aunty Irmgard Farden Aluli, was a Hawaiian treasure who composed hundreds of songs, and recorded and performed with her family quartet: Puamana.
Aloha no, and mahalo for joining me for this Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Joining us next is a singer and musician who grew up in the great old tradition of Hawaiian music-making. Whether it’s a dressy evening party or a lazy afternoon in the backyard, she always knows there’s going to be music and her family will be singing, strumming, dancing, laughing. Let’s sit down and talk with Mihana Souza next.
Mihana Souza was born into a family of gifted musicians. Her mother, Aunty Irmgard Farden Aluli, was a Hawaiian treasure who composed hundreds of songs, and recorded and performed with her family quartet: Puamana.
((Musical performance: Puamana))
Family and music are so important to Mihana Souza. She begins our conversation with a family chant.
[CHANT] That is our family chant of greeting, of welcome, and of aloha. And it says, Our welcome rises like the scent of a flower, gently touching you, friends, and all of us who gather, who have come from near and far, whether you’re here in spirit, or you are here. From the very beginning, a very generous spirit blossomed here, and it reaches out to touch all of us, and to bring us close as we say aloha e. Thank you for having me; aloha e. Thank you for letting me come to share my family; aloha e. We are glad to be here to share aloha; aloha that is akahai, kindness; lokahi, unity; ‘olu‘olu, gracious sharing; ha‘aha‘a, humility; and finally, ahonui, patience and perseverance. And it is this aloha that we bring, this aloha that we share, and it is this aloha that we hope to become. Aloha e; aloha e; aloha e. And with that chant, my whole family [chuckle], from the beginning of time, come and join me. So I feel very, very happy to be here. Thank you.
So your mom is with you right now?
Yeah; and all of her sisters and brothers, my aunties and uncles. And every time I do that chant, I actually feel them. They’re all happy. You know, and it’s funny, because I know that they’re in Heaven. But sometimes you wonder, this isn’t Heaven, we’re so happy to be here. This is a paradise. And I used to always think, if I died and woke up and I ended up in Kailua, I would think that I was in Heaven. So we’re in a heavenly spot.
Do you say that —
So they are here.
I know you’ve lived a life where you’ve had to go through hardship, and you’ve had some tough things happen; but you still say we’re so blessed and lucky to be here, and this is wonderful?
Indeed. No matter where you go, when you come back, to see the weather, to be with the people, and to know that this is really sort of a gentle land, and it is a paradise, and we are so lucky to be here. And whenever I come home, it’s like, oh, it’s true; this is paradise.
Speaking of home, “Puamana,” would you tell us about that?
Puamana is our family home. And it was the home of my mother and her twelve brothers and sisters. And it was a home that she moved into when she was four, in what used to be a little plantation town of Lahaina. Her father was the luna at the Pioneer Mill. And they moved into this home that he built; it was on the seashore in Lahaina. They moved from Mala Wharf. And she always tells the story; it was a two-story home, and she actually will tell us how it was built. Anyway, they lived many, many happy years there. They were a Hawaiian-German family, raised very lovingly with a very good education, with lots of love, lots of discipline. Because, of course, it was in — 1911 is when my mother was born. And their father was part of a music group, and it was a lodge that he belonged to, so they heard men singing all the Hawaiian songs. And they sang in all the choirs, and they would go into the town and all the women would be dancing hula. So it was a very special time. And we were always with the cousins, and we were very close. And Puamana was their home; they named it Puamana, and it was after one of the young chiefs who come from Lahaina. My grandfather found his name on the stone wall, and that’s how they named the home, Puamana, after this prince, they believe. But Puamana actually means flower power; so I really, really logged onto that one.
Because I’m from the 60s, and flower power was really happening. So to hear that Pua is the flower, and mana is the spiritual strength. And my mother used to always liken it to their family. The parents being the — I guess the stamen, and the petals being all the children. And that made up their family. And then when I was about in my early 30s, my mother, who was sixty-five at the time, formed a family singing group called Puamana. And that was my mother, my sister Aima, my cousin Luana, and me. So then Puamana not only became our home, but became the name of our family musical group.
((Musical performance: Puamana))
How did you come to be the one who played the bass?
You know, I, being a young mother, and trying to find a way to help with income, I started to make head leis and flower bouquets for friends who were getting married. And I remember I would strap my daughter onto my back, and we would go up, and we would pick all the laua‘e in the mountains. Well, one time, it got too hard, and I went to my mother and I said, What do I have to do to sing? And she said, Well, go get yourself a bass. So I called my cousin Kekua, and he happened to have two basses; so he said, Come, I’m gonna give you this bass.
Did you know how to play a bass?
I didn’t know how to play the bass.
And I took the bass back to my mother that night. She taught me how to play that night, in forty-five minutes. And that next weekend, we started to sing; it was me, my older sister Neau, and my mother. And we haven’t had a free weekend since. [chuckle] So, yay!
Now you, you’re the alto. When did you know you were an alto?
I can remember when I was four; my mother would gather us in the kitchen — we used to live in Punchbowl, at my father’s family home. They had a big, sprawling house right on Kamamalu Avenue, which is about three blocks up from Royal School by where the Pacific Club is.
And I remember the kitchen. My mother used to call my sister and I in, and she would teach us harmony from the time we were little. Because they would often have visitors come — my father was a lawyer. So they would have dinner, and we had to be the entertainment. So I was an alto from the time I was four.
‘Cause my sister would sing high, and then I would sing alto. And then when I got to be in grade school, of course, we sang in all the Catholic choirs at church.
And then when I was in high school, I sang with Shigeru Hotoki, with the Kailua High School Madrigals. And I
was a —
Oh, you went all over the world, I bet.
Yes; all over. I love Shigeru. And I was an alto. And in fact, I never really knew I could sing lead. I always was surrounded by these beautiful, high voices; Luana, my cousin, and Aima. Oh; these fantastic high voices. And I was always sad, because I couldn’t ever sing high. And so I’ve taken lessons, like from Neva, because I always wanted to sing high. And I could never do it. And I didn’t know that all you had to do to sing lead was to change the key, until I started to play the guitar. [chuckle] Which was about eight years ago, after my mother passed away. And so we felt that since my mother is in Heaven, I would play the guitar, and my sister would play bass. So I taught Aima how to play the bass, the same way my mother taught me, literally in forty-five minutes; it was really great.
And then I started to play the guitar. And so now, we are a trio.
Now, I know Puamana has always sung harmoniously. Have things always been harmonious within the group?
Always. Always. Number one, we have the example of my mother.
Was she always right?
Always. [chuckle] And I’ll tell you why she was right; because she always came from a place of humble kindness. She was always very, very thoughtful of who she was with. She was always very, very gracious. And she was always very kind.
Boy, that’s a hard act to live up to, isn’t it?
Yeah; it was really hard, except when you see it in action. Because when you see it in action, you realize that that is truly a wonderful way to live your life, to live a life of kindness. I mean, I always wanted it quickly, I wanted it now; until I saw the way my mother did it. She was just so nice. [chuckle] And she was never confrontational. But she was very gracious, and you could tell that she loved her homeland, and she loved the people here. She loved what she was doing. And she was a historian in her own way. Because her music would be an account of what was going on in her time.
And what an amazing thing happened when you recorded a song she wrote in the 40s.
[chuckle] Just to tell you a little bit about that story. My mother has written over three hundred Hawaiian songs. And I remember as a young child growing up, there were always these parties. Boy, they really knew how to celebrate. They would have these parties all the time, great parties. The women would always come up in mu‘umu‘us, and they were those silky muus with the frills, you know, and they’d always have potluck. And always, I remember they would then gather in the back yard, and they would sing, and they would dance, and in the wee hours of the morning, then the men would come and sing. And my father always loved my mother’s — he would call them her Haole songs, because they were songs that she would write in English. And she has about seven of them. And one of them was called Rust On the Moon. So always at the end of these parties, they would sing all of these old songs, and they were the Haole songs. And when I put out my first album with the help of my mother, I remember promising my father that if I ever put out any albums — that’s really dating, ‘cause I speak in terms of albums [chuckle] that I would bring to the public my mother’s Haole songs, the ones that we loved so much. And one of them was Rust On the Moon. That was one of my favorites.
((Musical performance: Mihana Souza))
Mihana Souza recorded that favorite song of her mom’s, Rust on the Moon, and made it the title song of her first album. It was named Na Hoku Hanohano Jazz Album of the Year, in 2003. Mihana’s second release, One Little Dream, blends contemporary and world music, showcasing her diverse interests. Speaking of diversity, ever met anyone else named Mihana in Hawaii? I never have. So I asked her about her name.
My name really isn’t Hawaiian. And I was always very upset, because as a young child, all my aunties would come and they’d say, You know, your name, something’s wrong with your name. It just doesn’t mean anything, so it’s really not a good name for you. These are all my Hawaiian aunties, right? So when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, Auntie Napua – she was really something. [chuckle] And she’d say, You better come and get your name straightened out too. [chuckle] So I finally went to her; I went to class with her, and I was with her several times. And one day, I asked her if she could finish my name. Because I knew, from her telling me, that your name has to have a beginning. It’s sort of like it’s just a middle, and it’s missing a beginning, and it’s missing an end. And so therefore, she told me, Whatever you start, you’re not gonna finish, and you’re gonna have these great expectations, and you’re just — I mean, it was sort of really, a bad thing. [chuckle] And I sat there; I said, Well, can you finish it for me? So within one or two months, I was with her one afternoon and we were having a class. She would teach Hawaiian. Sure enough, the lights went out on us, it got dark, this wind came through the room, and she bellowed out, Your name is Ka‘imihanano‘eau. And she fell to the ground, and she cried, and we had to take into the room. And I felt very blessed, and she came and she says, You know, you’re really lucky because your ancestors gave me a name for you, and that’s how it comes. And it means, The one who searches for wisdom.
M-m; very nice.
Well, what about Mihana?
And so I was really, really happy, and I went along my merry way, and I really, really experienced an inner change. I mean, I really felt whole. And I went to my brother, who was going through some hardships at the time, and I said, Noah — he’s my twin brother. You have to go get your name really, really finished, because I’ll tell you; we’ve been sort of doing things half-okole around here. And it’s because of our name. [chuckle] It’s not really us. This is the 60s; it was a really, really turbulent and very, very interesting time for us. And we really embraced it to its fullest extent. So of course, he went and had his name changed too. And so I was very, very happy. Well, then my Auntie Peggy Kai, who is on my father’s side, she was doing an in-depth study of the family. And she came to visit me. She said, [GASP] I have some good news for you. She said, Your name is Chinese; it’s from your five aunties who were known as the Five Flowers from China, and they were all in Hilo, and it was Mee Han, Ah An, Ah Oy, Ah Lai and one more that I can’t remember right now. And she said, And so your name isn’t even Hawaiian, it’s Chinese. [LAUGHTER]
And you didn’t know that.
I was sitting there going, Now you tell me. She says, And it really has a good meaning; it means beautiful, gracious, refined. And it means, Trying to get better all the time. You know. And I went, Wow! So that I finally realized that it is Chinese derived; Mee Han. So I’m very happy.
[chuckle] Now —
And then, come to find out, that’s not really my first name. My first name is really Irmgard.
And then, come to find out, I really wasn’t born June 21st, I was born June 22nd. I mean, then I was wondering why I was confused all these years.
So after I found this out, I just feel very blessed. I have Mee Han, Ka‘imihanano‘eau, and Irmgard.
Are you making sure you pass along the knowledge as you go along?
Well, you know, when we were young, my mother would have classes, and all the cousins would come to learn her music. And I know that when my children were young, I would force them in the summertime to come; and it would be silly; Okay, we’re gonna play the ukulele. I mean, it was silly, but it was my best way that I could pass on what I have. And now, I started this maybe four years ago, anytime anybody wants to learn Puamana, Wednesdays from four to five is time to teach Puamana. And I have a time set aside, and that’s Wednesdays from five to six, where they learn the hula. And then all my children play music, and then anybody who wants us to come and sing for them, we carry on our singing and our sharing our music, as Puamana, and we’re really, really glad to do that. First of all, we are able to sing and share traditional Hawaiian music, in the manner that it was given to us. In other words, when we started to sing with Mom, you dressed up, you had your leis on, you loved what you did. And it’s three-part harmony, it’s the Hawaiian harmony, and we loved doing that. That’s one thing we really, really loved doing. It’s our great pleasure for play for people. And, at the same time, know that we can help to support our families, because that’s our way of making money. So to do that is really nice, because my daughter plays music with us, and my sons play music, and when we do gather, you can feel this great youthful zest and energy, which is really, really neat. And they, in turn, can feel the traditional sweetness that we bring. And so that is continuing. And I’m happy to say that that continues on throughout our whole family.
((Musical performance: Puamana))
You spoke about a youthful zest in your house. You’ve always had, for so long, decades, you’ve had a baby in your house; different babies.
I have five children. And we had a child every five years. So for twenty-five years, we had a baby in the house. And this year, I finally graduated my last child from high school.
— It’s like a whole ‘nother life now. I’m very, very excited.
Well, how’s your life going to change?
I think that now, rather than having great children, I have great adults. And we all share as adults; it’s really, really wonderful. They are smart, and they’re starting their own families, and they have a love for this place, and that I have, and we just get to join in the journey as adults. It’s really quite lovely. And I sort of feel like I’m nineteen again, but this time, I have brains.
And I sort of can — you know, my mother put out her first CD, she was eighty-five. And she was an example to me that you’re never too old to do whatever you want to do. So I sort of want to really write good songs, really share wonderful music. And who knows? And my mother being the example to start a music group at sixty-five — I’m not even sixty-five yet.
You know, your —
Your first solo album got terrific reviews.
Oh; it’s a lovely —
But I think a comment was made by one of your reviewers that, you know, she’s got so much to give —
— but she probably hasn’t decided which way it’s gonna go.
Well, I was raised with good music. And I say good music, because it was great Hawaiian music. We had the aunties at the piano, and the uncles at the bass, and I was raised with great rock and roll; we had the Beatles. I was raised with really wonderful — I didn’t know that there were different kinds of music; I just thought it was all good.
And I sang in the opera with Mr. Otoki, I sang madrigal. So I have a part in me that just loves music. So people come and they’ll go, Boy, you can really sing jazz. And I’ll sit there and I go, Well, I’m not really sure what it is, but I just know that I love it. One thing that I’m really excited about; I’m learning Hawaiian. Because people come and they’ll say, Well, why aren’t you doing a Hawaiian album? And I’m sitting there going, Because I’m only dreaming in English. But I’m learning Hawaiian because I want to dream in Hawaiian. And I’m thinking, just for now, that I have many cousins who speak Hawaiian, and many good friends who speak Hawaiian. My mother’s mentor, and one of her collaborators, was Mary Kawena Pukui. My mother didn’t speak Hawaiian. So I feel, until I can speak Hawaiian, I can go to these people who really know the language and ask them to help me. And until then, I have these songs — I mean, I told my father that I would bring out all of Mommy’s songs. She wrote twelve Haole songs that we just love, that the public hasn’t heard, that are so beautiful. So the first was Rust On the Moon; the second was One Little Dream of You, and it was written for my father. When he was away at war, they were newlyweds; as a young bride missing him.
She wrote to him these words. And when he read them, he wrote the last two verses back to her. And it’s so appropriate now, because so many of our loved ones are away. So that’s the second album. And the third album will be called Take My Heart With You. I mean, because she has all these, so I have to do at least twelve albums.
Or CDs. [chuckle] ‘Cause I told my mom, as well as my dad, that I really want people to not only love her Hawaiian songs so much, but to know that there are these beautiful Haole songs that she’s done. And I love, love, love sharing her music.
Irmgard Mihana Ka‘imihanano‘eau Souza loves music. She loves her family. And, lucky for us, she loves sharing stories. Mahalo piha to Mihana and to you for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Until next time, a hui hou kakou.
My family, for instance, we gather. And as cousins, we always gathered. And because my mother always sang, and all her friends always sang, they always had kanikapila. And I remember, when I had my own family, I went to my mother and I said, You know, the one thing that I really, really hope is, I really hope that I can have friends like you. And one day, I was sitting in the back yard, you know, just playing my guitar. And about an hour later, my cousin joined me, and he’d brought his guitar. And they were just passing by. And by the end of the night, there were about twenty people there, and we were dancing and singing under the moonlight. And I called my mother up, and I said, [GASP] We’re singing in the back yard —just like you used to do. And it just really, really pleased me.
Leslie Wilcox talks story with Waianae High School alumnus Candy Suiso, who returned to the school as a Spanish teacher and then helped to create the nationally acclaimed student media center – Searider Productions. Candy talks about how the language of visual storytelling gave voice to a community in need.
When I left, I remember graduating from Waianae High School, thinking, I want to get the heck out of here, and I never, ever want to come back. I never want to come back. I remember that—thinking that way. But you know, you leave a place that you really love, and when you come back—every year, I would come back, it just felt better and better. And I knew I wanted to come back. When I realized that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to teach, I knew I wanted to be at Waianae High School.
There’s a movement taking place on Oahu’s leeward coast. You may have seen a part of it without realizing you were seeing part of a movement that’s bringing in jobs in place of drugs, hope in place of homelessness, and a culture of doing the right thing. And where would you have seen this? On television!
Public service announcements, TV commercials, student news videos and music videos are some of the kinds of work of the multi-talented, award-winning high school students from Waianae High School’s Searider Productions.
They’re part of a movement that’s encouraging, educating, enabling young people to learn life and workforce skills and give back to their community. A movement led, guided, nurtured by a graduate of Waianae High who returned to the community to live and work. This educator learned to find resources in and mostly OUTside the public school system to grow the largest and most successful high school multi-media production program in Hawaii. We’ll sit down to chat with Candy Suiso – next.
Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Today’s Long Story Short features Candy Suiso, a graduate of Waianae High School who’s been teaching there for more than 20 years. Her mother taught at Makaha Elementary for 30 years.
What Candy and a team of teachers have done at Waianae High is pretty simple. While teaching students to use different mediums of communication (print, audio, video and web), they’re also teaching them to communicate – ask questions, seek different perspectives, present a story.
The teachers at Waianae have simply given students the tools they need to succeed, the skills they need to know, and the belief that they can achieve. And boy have they.
I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to give back to the community that was very good to me. I really felt that that’s where I was the most needed. It felt right. I wanted to be in—I wanted to be home. I wanted to be in the community that raised me. And it was the right thing to do. I just felt that that was the right thing to do, and it was the right decision, when I look back.
Much of what you’ve done at Waianae High School wasn’t done really within the system. You had to find ways to equip yourself and your students with grants. You had to become a grant writer—
–to get the proper equipment, the space.
M-hm. There’s—within the DOE, there’s so many limitations, and there’s only so much money to go around. And part of our success is, I believe, we’ve learned to work around the system and been very successful in going—like you said, going after a lot of grants. A lot of support, pulling together partners, pulling together people that believe in you; that’s been our success. We had to prove ourself, you know, like you said, the right people at the right time started to notice these students, and started to give. And—
These were big grant makers.
Kellogg Foundation. I mean—
–you were getting—
Yeah, and the—m-hm.
–hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money.
We were—yeah, we were able to secure couple HUD grants, federal government grant—from the federal government. We received another federal—the Native Hawaiian Education Act, another federal U.S. DOE grant, and recently, W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant. Back to back; but prior to that, it was the little grants that we were able to get. Little donations from people like the, you know, Ko Olina Charities, HMSA, who’ve been very generous, the Campbell—James Campbell Company. Just people who really saw these kids’ potential, and gave.
Because they were doing things with nothing. When we first started, we started in a classroom with no air conditioning, with very little equipment.
And by the way, heat isn’t just bad for people, it’s bad for—
It’s so bad.
We would pack fifty kids, forty kids in a classroom, and it was hot, and no air conditioning. But you know, those kids never grumbled; they never grumbled, because they didn’t have an air conditioned room or top of the line equipment like a lot of other schools did. Instead, they just started to create projects. And they did some pretty good projects, and people started to notice. That’s what happened, is people started to notice.
How did they know they could do that? What got them started?
You just—you give ‘em the tools. You, as educators you know, the team of educators, there was enough people out there that said, You can do it, of course you can do it. You know, make a video; here; here’s the camera, here’s your tool, here’s how you do it.
The essence of video production, as I look at it, is storytelling.
What kind of experience do you think your students had in storytelling?
They are born with a gift to tell a story. I really believe their success is because they are born with the gift to create. They—the kids out in Waianae, I really believe, are the most creative, loving, storytellers because—they don’t grow up with a lot. I really believe that; they don’t grow up with a lot, so they entertain themselves by playing the ukulele, sitting around, talking story, they draw, they doodle, they sing. And it carries over. When they come to us, they just—they’re so strong and their heartfelt creativity carries over with this tool. All of a sudden, we have these expensive toys now that we give them, and we say, Go create. And they—
–just take to it.
It was amazing
–you didn’t have the star pupils of Waianae High School. Some of your kids were doing really poorly in other—
–classes, they were reporting to school from their homes on the beach in tents.
M-hm. We have the homeless, we have kids whose parents have been in jail, they are abused. They come to us, we know they’re—a lot of dysfunction. So much. And you know, that’s my world; I grew up there, and I know that world. And they come to us, and we give them hope. For a lot of these kids, it’s their security; we’re their family, we give—we teach them a tool, and they become successful at it. And they see something that they create, and for their self esteem, it’s wow, I did that. You know, it gives them hope. And they realize, I have just learned something that I can do for life. And a lot of these kids’ lives have been turned around. They would have dropped out, I really believe. And they’ll tell us that too. If it wasn’t for this class, I would have dropped out, or I didn’t know I was gonna go to college, or I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And now, so many of our kids are college graduates.
They’re being recruited by—
They’re being recruited.
–television stations, and advertising—
I remember when your Seariders first started doing public service announcements for various clients. You—
You invited the business community to hire the kids and said, We’ll see what we can come up with you. I just remember, as a professional television person at that time, how the students’ work had so much more depth than what you would normally see in a PSA or public service announcement, because the kids knew that world, as you mentioned.
When it was about crystal meth, they—
–brought a reality to it that—
–nobody had brought before.
these kids know what it’s like to live in houses, in homes where there’s crystal meth, or they have to be in a car with someone who’s been drinking.
They know how it hurts.
They know it hurt. And it was their stories. If you look at any of those PSAs, those are their stories. They knew. That was either them, or that was someone that they knew, and they were able to come up with the idea from the heart, from real life. And I think that’s what makes their work so powerful; it’s real stories. They tell their stories, whether it’s a news story, a public service announcement, a commercial, they’re just telling their story.
You know, John Allen, who is the teacher now, I hear him say this all the time; you know, no matter what piece you do, you, you have to hit the emotion. If you can make someone laugh, you can make someone cry, you’ve done your job. And that’s what you want to do as videographers, as filmmakers. Whatever your piece is, you want to—who’s your subject, who’s your audience, and what’s your purpose. And they do a good job.
Knowing the audience and the purpose for every video they produce, students at Searider Productions have received rave reviews and numerous awards, including Robert F. Kennedy Foundation journalism honors and a prestigious national high school Emmy. By the way, it’s NOT in an Emmy category for students from a low-income, minority, geographically isolated community. It’s an Emmy open to the richest and poorest schools across the country. Waianae outdistanced everybody else.
A national high school Emmy, they got a free trip to New York to share it with some of the top journalists in the country. And what was so unique about that is, they showed it on these big screens, and it was a paddling story. And it showcased Pokai Bay in Waianae, our ocean, our mountains, the story of paddling, how it’s not just a sport, it’s a way of life for us out in Waianae. And Katy Hoppe, the student who won, got up there and spoke, said how proud she felt to be able to share the culture of Hawaii at a national level. Just to share what we do, and to share their work. And it was a very chicken skin moment. I cried; I sat there, and I cried.
It was such a proud moment.
Candy Suiso, multimedia teacher at Waianae High School, is clearly very proud of her students’ accomplishments. Historically, the school has turned in pretty dismal scores in standardized testing. It’s excelling in its team-based multi-media program.
Searider Productions is housed in its own building on-campus with 15 edit stations and HD cameras, still cameras, and computers for students to work on the school newspaper, yearbook, video news and video productions. Two bold statements posted on the walls at SP read: Lead, Follow, Or Get Out Of The Way and If Can Can, If No Can, No Can.
Tell me about, If can, can.
If can, can; if no can, no can. Because you know, there’s nothing worse, we feel, than saying you’re gonna do something, and not do it, and not follow through. And we tell these kids, if you’re gonna do something, if you’re gonna say you’re gonna do something, hold yourself to it, and do it, follow through and do it. Because really, there’s nothing worse than not completing something that you’ve committed to. And if we could teach them now in school, it will carry over in life, in a job, in a marriage, in a relationship.
And when you work in teams, you know other people are counting on you.
Yes; ‘cause it’s teamwork, and the good thing about our program is, every project that these kids do is a team effort. And we always think, if you have—when you leave our program, if you have learned nothing about video production, about creating a webpage, about a page layout in a newspaper, we hope you’ve really learned the importance of teamwork, cooperation—
And getting things done on time?
It’s meeting deadlines, respect, respect for self, respect for other people, respect for property.
So if you’re gonna say you’re gonna do something, you better do it, because if you don’t, you’re dropping the ball for your teammates.
But if no can, no can.
If no can, no can. And if you can’t do it, it’s okay; say you can’t do it.
But just don’t say you’re gonna do something, if you can’t do it. ‘Cause you let everybody down. So if can, can; if no can, no can. And it’s been out mantra, and the kids—they get it, the kids get it.
So sounds like you don’t care if your students become these video producers extraordinaire; it’s whatever they want to do in life, and this is just a tool to help them get there.
To teach them. You know, my mother would always say, You do what you want to. You know, what’s gonna make you happy; and whatever you do, you do it the best that you can. If you’re gonna cook, if you’re gonna be a teacher, if you’re gonna be a lawyer. Well, no matter what it is you’re gonna do, you do the best job you can possibly—you know, possibly do. And for our kids, they might not be the videographers and the Spielbergs, and whatever. We want them to know—we want them to be the best at whatever they choose to be. And be honest, contributing citizens to our community. To come back, to give back, and just to do what’s right in life. Do what’s right, even when no one’s watching. You know, do what’s right.
What’s the impact of Lead, follow, or get out of the way?
[chuckle] Well, you be a leader; we want to also promote leadership and be a leader, and lead; or follow. If ovementyou’re not gonna take the lead, then do what you’re told to do, or follow what needs to be done.
And in this world, you know, if you’re negative, and if you don’t like what’s going on, and if you’re gonna whine and complain, then get out of the way. Because we have so much work to do and if you’re not gonna move with us, get out of the way.
With Candy Suiso guiding them, young people on Oahu’s leeward coast are moving forward, together as a team. And, through Ms. Suiso’s guidance, there are also opportunities for young people to return to the Waianae coast to work and live. Here’s a sampling of the work of Waianae High School graduates at the for-profit social enterprise Makaha Studios located in the old Cornet Building
That’s where they’re based, in the old Cornet building. And it’s, you know, people are, Whoa, that’s kinda shady over there, because you have a lot of the homeless that’ll hang out there, or the—oh, a lot of illegal activity going on, and it’s kinda scary sometimes to be there. But they’re not afraid. That’s where their office is, they’re making the most of it. It’s their start, it’s their humble beginning; they’re gonna grow, and they’re gonna flourish. I really believe that, and they believe that.
They want to give back; they want to grow that company. They want to stay in the community, which is good, we’re finding out. Because there are no jobs out in Waianae. Really, if you look at it, it’s a rural community, you have to drive out to work, and so this studio now is creating a lot of good jobs for these students that are coming out of Searider Productions.
Seems to me that something is happening on the Waianae Coast. It’s the can-do that you—
–that’s on your wall; if can, can.
If no can, no can. But we call it a movement. There’s just—it’s really—it’s this generation of, I would say, the twenty to the thirty-year-olds I want to talk about. They get it. They are a generation, I feel—we can feel very hopeful that they want to give back. They are not—at least the ones that we’re working with in our community, they’re not so wrapped up in making big bucks, and they want to go and get educated, whether it’s a trade school, whether it’s through work, or through college. And they want to come back into the community, and they want to turn the community around so that people will no longer look at Waianae and say, Oh, it’s bad, they have the drugs, they have the pregnancy, their scores are low. They want to do some positive things, and make some real positive changes for the community.
And it’s all being done from within.
With reaching out to national grantors.
Yes. Yes; and national grantors are seeing what we’re doing, and
And we’re very thankful for that, that we have these national or local foundations and philanthropists that are saying, these—wow, this community is really trying to help themselves, and we want to help them. And we know that money will dry out, and we—in fact, we want to get to the point where we don’t have to ask anymore, that we can be sustainable, and not—and create jobs enough where we can stop depending on grants. That’s what we want for the future of our community.
Where do you think this movement will take the Waianae Coast?
I hope eventually it will take them out of poverty. It might take decades, but this is certainly a start. You have a group of young adults that are really making a difference, because they have come back to the Waianae Coast, and they are giving back, and they believe in themselves, and they’re believing in the students that are under them, and they’re trying very hard to prove to the rest of the world that we’re just as good as everybody else if you just give us a chance.
Candy Suiso… raised in Waianae… returned to Waianae to live and work. Like her mother, for 30 years a teacher at Makaha Elementary, Candy Suiso is an educator.
Your mom was a legendary teacher on the—
–Waianae Coast, right?
Oh, she—thirty-one years of her life, she dedicated her life to teaching out there. And really, that was her life. She impacted a community and thirty years, just taught at Makaha Elementary School. She went there, and she never left. Um, I remember the principal would always throw all of these hardcore kids and say, Okay, Mrs. Smith, you’re the one that’s gonna take these kids. And she would turn them around. She would just—she was mean, but she was very strict, and she was very fair, and she loved them all. And she did; she turned a lot of lives around.
What kept her going?
What kept her going is just seeing the results, seeing these kids turn around. You know, working out there in Waianae, there’s a lot of dysfunction. There’s not a whole lot. We have a bad reputation out there. And she would take kids and really give them hope. She would let them know, You can do anything you want. She would tell them that, and she would really make them believe that, you know, you can do anything that you want. And they would believe; and sure enough, they would. So many of them would turn their lives around. She believed in them, and I think that is why they believed in themselves. She really instilled in them, You can do, you can do and you can be anything you want. You just have to believe in yourself.
Did you ever see her at a moment where she just didn’t have that hope, and she was miserable about—
–something that had happened?
Oh, yeah. She went through—she was very, you know, she—my mother, she literally raised four of us. She was My mother and father divorced when I was nine, my older sister was eleven; and I had a younger brother who was, I think, five; and then my other brother was three. And she just—her whole life was shattered. Um, moved us to Kauai, had my grandparents take care of us. I can’t do this; she moved to Makaha and just literally really had to get her life back together. And a year later, we moved back, and she remarried. And it was a—there was a lot of dysfunction. I don’t know what the word to say, but there was—she married an alcoholic, and there was a lot of abuse. He didn’t really work much, and she carried, she struggled. She would live paycheck to paycheck. And there was a lot of times I know it was hard. It was really hard. She couldn’t provide, I think, the way that she would want to for us. But she’d always say, you know, but she would always have a roof over our heads, we would always have clothes on our body, we’d always have—we had each other. And—
What about food?
We always had food on the table; always. My mother was the queen of Spam.
She knew how to cook Spam, she knew how to cook corned beef hash. She knew how to make ends meet. You know, we always knew at the end of the month when the times were hard, a little harder, we’d have the bean soup and we’d have the ham hocks. And we hated it, but actually, it’s something that we really love eating now.
We cook it, and it’s good memories. It used to be bad memories, but there was always food on the table, and clothes on our back, and a roof over our head. And she kept us together.
She raised four of us, and it—you know, living out in Waianae, it would have been easy for any of us to either go the other way. But we all turned out really …
It must have been hard for her. She was the authority at the school—
–and somebody who was seen as having her life all together.
But then to go home and really have to—
–scrounge and work and scheme to keep things together for your family.
I don’t know how she did it. When I look back now, I think, I don’t know how you did it. And you know, my sister and I talk about this all the time. It’s—she—to get away from what was going on at home. A lot of times it was pretty—it was nasty; it was pretty bad a lot of times. And she would just block it out and work. You know, I think that was a lot of how she would run away from what was happening at home her home life, with her husband. And she would just work. She would just involve herself with work, and keep busy. And my sister and I talk about this all the time. We have so much of her in us.
Because you work all the time.
Because we work all the time, or we keep busy when we want to avoid something or we want to—we just work. And so many times, we think things that used to bother us, the things that she would say, or maybe some of the things that she would do, it would just drive us nuts. And now, I hear myself say things that she would say, and you know, I find myself doing things that she would do, and I think, Oh, my gosh, I have become my mother. And it used to bother me, but now, it’s a good thing. You know, it’s a really good thing.
You were lucky that your mom lived long enough to see what you’ve accomplished on the Waianae Coast. What did she say to you?
She was always proud of me. She was just always proud of me. She was—she didn’t say much, but I always knew. Um —I think she was most proud, because she saw that, you know, part of her lived through me and continues. But she was always—I mean, she just always would tell me how proud she was of what I’m doing and the work that I chose. And that sometimes teaching is not a very prestige job, and you will not make a lot of money. It will not make you very rich with things and with money, but it will make you very rich with people. And she was right. You know, she was right.
Life is all about people, about relationships, about making a difference in people’s lives, in giving and giving back.
When you give, you give from the heart.
And you don’t expect—
And you don’t expect—
–anything in return. You give because you want to, not because you want or expect anything in return. And you give from the heart when you give.
Educator Candy Suiso… raised in Waianae… returned to Waianae to live and work. She knows about students’ pain and tough times, because she too has first-hand experience.
I met you a long time ago in one of your Seariders’ first triumphs. Do you remember?
I remember. That was our very first national recognition, and it was the first time we were ever on TV.
And you must have caught it, because you contacted us and you put us on your early morning show. And we remember getting up early in the morning, leaving Waianae at four o’clock in the morning. I thought, Oh, my god, there’s Leslie Wilcox.
Kelvin Taketa talks story about growing up in Aina Haina in the 1960’s; and his journey from law school, to the Nature Conservancy, to his current life as President & CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation. Kelvin also talks about the mentors that inspired him along the way and the life-changing epiphany he had when he realized his role in society is to be the link between subcultures that don’t normally interact with one another.
But I was sitting on the lawn right between two buildings at the end of the day. And I don’t know why; I guess I wasn’t playing sports then. I was reading or something. And I was just thinking, and I just said, I’m done with this, I’m done trying to be this for this group of people, or be this for that group of people, I’m just gonna … I’m gonna be me. And me is …
—this. And that was it.
A self-described underachiever in his school days, Kelvin Taketa grew up to become a top leader in Hawaii’s non-profit community … with power to influence the direction of millions of charitable dollars from donors to the people, places and programs that need the money most. Who he is and how he got there—next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in High Definition.
Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, I catch up with my classmate from Aina Haina Elementary School, Kelvin Taketa. Now, CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation. Here’s our sixth-grade class, back in the days when Hawaii kids could still go to school barefoot. This is me, still getting over the fact that girls were not allowed to be JPOs. I remember Kelvin as a kolohe kid who was often up to something. He was the seemingly innocent one, the inconspicuous ringleader of mischief. Kelvin says that family, teachers, mentors and just plain luck helped him find his way—and ultimately his position in Hawaii’s non-profit world.
I was lucky. I grew up, really, as a statehood baby. We became a state the year I started kindergarten. And so going to Aina Haina School for those six years, seven years, was a great experience. It was still a small town. You could still go out and catch fish. You knew everybody in the neighborhood. We all rode our bikes to school. And so I think it’s a different world today, than it was for us. Don’t you feel like we really did kinda grow up in a golden era? I tell people all the time that I feel like, so incredibly blessed to have grown up when we did in Hawaii. It just seems like, it was an easier time, that life wasn’t that complicated, the lessons you learned in life were so … it was just—you could get your hands around it. It wasn’t as complex. So I always think that we were just really blessed to be born in that time.
And the future always seemed bright?
We lived in the era where Hawaii was growing, and the future was bright. And I remember when we were in elementary school, learning about the economy here, and I remember looking at the pie chart, and it was, agriculture was a huge part of the economy, and tourism was a smaller part of the economy. And now, it’s the other way around. And the thing I know of the Hawaii of then that really worries me about now is that I felt that Hawaii was a community of the middle class. I don’t remember the kind of poverty or wealth that we see now in East Honolulu or—
—in any part of it.
—middle class was more than enough.
Oh, yeah. I mean, that was the norm, right? And that was good enough for everybody. Nobody really thought about it any other way. But it just seems that that era of growing up in Hawaii was a period of a lot of middle class people with a lot of bright futures in front of them for their children.
Kelvin Taketa says his parents and grandparents taught him the connections between hard work and independence and taking risks. His mother’s father immigrated from Japan and became an entrepreneur … starting a trucking business that grew into a highway construction company. The family also ran a cattle ranch in Maunawili Valley.
I grew up in a family business learning to drive vehicles before you could get your license, and chasing cows around. It was a really great experience for me. At the time, I didn’t think so. I really wanted to be bumming around with my friends, doing whatever they were doing. But as you look back now—you learn some really great lessons. My grandfather was this person who, the one thing I learned from him was, the way that he treated people. I remember when we would finish a job, a big highway construction job, and we’d have a big luau to celebrate. And I always remember how wonderful it was that there would be, the governor or the mayor of the city would be at this thing, along with the guys who were driving the bulldozers and the trucks, and everything else. And I remember watching my grandfather, who treated everybody the same. And I just thought that that was the gift that he gave me, was the fact that in every person, there’s this great story, and there are so many wonderful people that, for me, school was too limiting in a certain kind of way, because I was really anxious to get outside.
And you have that gift as an adult and as a leader. You seem to be able to get along with anybody. And I’m talking about people who have extremely uber wealthy lifestyles. It’s like they’re your pals, and so is the guy on the corner selling papers.
Well, I got that from my grandfather. I mean, he’s the one that taught me that. And I think it’s not—it’s really … it’s sort of a function of just really believing in people, and the story that people have. It’s what you’ve done in your life as a journalist. Everyone has a narrative about their journey. And they’re all interesting to me … that’s the thing. It’s not as if there’s many boring stories out there.
While Kelvin Taketa learned by example from his grandfather, he also received some less subtle lessons from teachers and school administrators … who tried to steer him in the right direction starting as early as grade school.
Mrs. Nicholson told me in sixth grade; she said, You know, the way you’re going, you’ll either go to college, or you’ll go to jail. [CHUCKLE]
I can see why she’d say that.
Yeah; she said that to me. And I thought, Wow, that’s kind of interesting, I wonder where that’s coming from. [CHUCKLE]
But she was a very emphatic woman.
Yeah, she was. She had—
That’s pretty heavy to be told when you’re in elementary school.
Yeah. Well, it was at the end of sixth grade, and I think that was her way of saying I had promise. Right? [CHUCKLE]
Yeah; and you’ll have to make the choice.
‘Cause you could—
It’s kinda like the Robert—
You could be good at either one.
—Frost poem about the two roads. And I think that was kind of her way of sort of saying to me, two roads.
Use your talent for good, and not evil.
Yeah. But I was lucky. I always found the teachers who saw the rascal side of it, and said, Okay, we’re gonna help him, ‘cause otherwise, he’s gonna get in big trouble. And they kinda put me—okay, come to my study hall and sit right next to me, because if you don’t, then you’re not gonna pay attention.
And you recognized it in yourself, too, right?
You could tip.
The first fork in the road came in seventh grade … and at that time Kelvin Taketa was not allowed to choose his path. While he wanted to follow his friends to public middle school, his parents sent him to Punahou School.
I didn’t really understand the cachet of Punahou the way that I think people sort of look at it now, with Obama having gone there, and—
—other kinds of things. I just knew I was going to the rich private school, and I didn’t know whether I fit.
Here’s the way I thought of it, Leslie, is I was lucky to go to school with people who were tremendous achievers all around me, right? Great musicians, great artists, great athletes, great … really, really brilliant people. And it was important to kinda know that there were a lot of people in the world that were smarter than me. I mean, I didn’t see that as a problem, I saw that as really a great thing, to kinda understand that at the end of the day, you’re gonna find your way to something, and it’s not gonna be—in my case, it wasn’t gonna be ‘cause I was the smartest kid. It was gonna be because of something else. So, you know that it was a great education.
Did you see a role for yourself back then in pulling people together? Because that’s what you do, in many ways now.
Yeah. That was me then, too. I mean, I was the guy that bounced from hanging out with really smart kids, where I was really the dumbest kid in the group. [CHUCKLE] And then hanging out with the guys who were really much better athletes than I was when we played sports together, or hanging around with the guys who were learning to play Bob Dylan songs behind the buildings and stuff like that, and I was the guy who sort of walked around all the groups.
And you still do that today.
That’s my thing. [CHUCKLE] I think. I mean, I stop and think about it. Probably my strength is really …
Yeah. Understanding how to connect all those things. My epiphany, if you will, in high school was a day where—and I still remember the day, where I sort of took a hold of myself and said, Here are the things that I think … are sort of the DNA of me. [CHUCKLE] And that I knew then that I needed to be in environments that were gonna allow me to be that way. That I did not expect myself, or have enough confidence in myself that I was gonna change radically—
So I gotta figure out how I’m gonna be in environments where I can be this person, and still succeed. Right? And it was a liberating thing too, because I decided back then, you’re trying on a lot of clothes. You’re trying to find your identity, right, as a teenager. And I just—that was the day I threw all the clothes away and just—I said, this is it, I’m not gonna worry about it.
Right. It’s not me that’s gonna change; it’s how I operate.
And where I operate.
Right. That was just a huge thing. It was a huge thing. I remember what the lighting was like, where I was sitting, everything when I decided that.
M-hm. And you were at Punahou School?
I was sitting on the lawn. So I chose a college that was a little bit different, because you took one class for a month and did a semester’s work in a month. And you took nine months of nine classes that way. Because I knew that that was a better environment for me. And that was the kind of thing that I had to do.
After graduating from Colorado College, Kelvin Taketa went on to UC Hastings Law School. With law degree in hand, he faced an uncertain future … until an opportunity popped up that would lead him down an unexpected trail.
The idea of joining a private law firm where you practiced law, and after six years you might become a partner, and that was what everybody really kinda wanted to be, or you go and work for a government agency, and you become a deputy attorney general and things like that; they just didn’t seem that exciting to me.
Why did you go to law school in the first place?
Kinda got out of college, and I sort of knew that I needed something more. I also knew that if I didn’t go right away, I would never go back. I originally wanted to just be a teacher; that’s really what I wanted to do. But again, I found that, being in a school situation was a little bit too conforming for me. So law school seemed like a good way of learning things, and an opportunity to maybe have a broader set of options when I got out. And so I got out, and I really didn’t know what I was gonna do. And by luck, a college roommate of mine was working for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado. We were drinking margaritas on Cinco de Mayo in San Francisco in the Mission district, and he told me, Hey, we’re gonna open an office in Hawaii, you should go check it out. And I did. And I got offered a job. And again, this is where I gotta really credit my family, I remember going back and talking to my family about it, and my mother said, Well, you’re young, you’re not married, you don’t have a lot of debt, if you’re ever gonna take a chance on something, go do it now. So I did.
Was it something you knew much about?
I knew nothing about it. I knew nothing about the non-profit sector, I knew nothing. I’d grown up outdoors, I had this great love for the outdoors, and especially outdoors in Hawaii. But here I was, working for an organization that was saying that Hawaii was the endangered species capitol of the world. We had more plants and birds on the verge of extinction than anywhere else on the planet. I knew nothing of that. That’s not what I learned at Aina Haina, it’s not what I learned at Punahou. I didn’t know a thing about it. So, the blessing for me was to not only go to an organization that, really celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of the people that worked there, but I got to go to school. I got to go to school on some of the greatest scientists in the world that were working on these issues, and I got to ask all the questions I never got to ask, and I got my classroom where the rainforest of Haleakala instead of—looking at film strips in a classroom in high school or college. And so it was an incredible education for me. But it was never planned. I was just an extraordinarily lucky guy to kinda be at the right place, with the right organization, and that was a great, great thing for me.
And I think I recall you saying once that it was like a rocket ship that—
Yeah, it really was.
Because so many things happened.
It was a time not just in Hawaii, but I think nationally when a lot of the environmental movement was first getting traction. There had been some incredible environmentalists in the 60s and 70s, but it really was in the 80s that a lot of the growth happened to the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, Green Peace. All of that really exploded in that era. It was the Baby Boomers coming of age who really cared about those kinds of issues. And so it really was a rocket ship, and I was just lucky to be a part of that. And I was surrounded by these incredible people who were very, very bright, risk-taking people who understood how to develop strategy and make these things work. And I really learned a lot.
You’ve said that you had—in your career, you’ve had a lot of help from colleagues and board members who assisted you, quote, more than you deserved.
Yeah. I’m not trying to be modest about this, but—
That’s what I was wondering.
Is that false modesty?
No. I think every person in their lives deserves somebody who helps them more than they deserve.
I think that, you see it in a teacher, coach, choir director, ballet teacher; it doesn’t really matter. I was really lucky to have mentors. For example, board members when I started here in Hawaii with The Nature Conservancy, who—I was a twenty-six-year-old local kid, and these guys were the heads of the business community in Hawaii. Herb Cornuelle, Sam Cooke, Frank Manaut, were all these people. And they for whatever reason, they cared about the environment, but they also took a very personal interest in helping me be successful. And I never forgot that. And I try, in my career, to do the same thing. But … I look back on the amount of time they gave me, and the kind of advice they gave me about a lot of things, not just about our organization at that time, The Nature Conservancy. It was really profound, and it had a lasting impact on the way I thought of the world, the way I raised my children.
Even when it came to raising a family, Kelvin Taketa took a less conventional path. He and his wife Janice adopted 2 children from 2 different countries.
My daughter, who’s fourteen, we adopted from Cambodia when she was eighteen months old. Her life and she are in pretty good shape. My son, who’s twenty-four, we adopted from Thailand. He was abandoned when he was an infant, and he knocked around different orphanages for three and a half years before we adopted him. He had a deck of cards by then that really have dictated a lot of things about his life, and a lot of the struggles that he’s gone through. At the same time, he’s one of the kindest, most—there are just qualities in him that are just really quite remarkable. So for us, it’s just been a really great thing.
Yeah, you always wonder at what level children, even when they’re adopted as babies, have a sense of somebody not wanting them, or feeling denied.
Yeah. When we first got Kanoa, and he came to Hawaii, so he was almost four at the time. So the first night that he came I had to leave Thailand before Kanoa was officially adopted, so he flew home with Janice on the plane, and came back to Hawaii. And when he got here, I will tell you, I was flipping out. Because I was really getting cold feet, frankly. It wasn’t about whether I wanted to adopt; I just was having cold feet, I didn’t know whether I could truly love him the way I would love my own genetic child. Right? That’s the fear that was coursing through my veins and in my head when he came. We took him home, we spent the evening playing with him, and we brought him to bed with us. And that night, he was lying in bed with us, and he climbed up and he fell asleep on my chest. And by the morning when I woke up, it was gone. It was just gone. And it was like—
Your heart? [CHUCKLE]
Yeah; it was like he knew what to do. I didn’t know what do; he knew what to do, right? But I never looked back from that moment forward. It was never was an issue again. I remember Herb Cornuelle being the person who told me that he thought, in his own career—and he was clearly one of the great business we’ve had in this community who mentored so many people. But I remember him telling me when I was adopting Kanoa, our first child, that he said, You think that you want to be there when they’re young, but really, they’ll take you any time they can get you when they’re young; but you need to be there when they’re teenagers, because you need to be there at the moment that they need you, ‘cause the moment will be gone and you’ll never get it back.
And that stuck in my brain, so that when Kanoa reached a certain age, I realized in my own career that I couldn’t travel the amount I was traveling, because I really believed what Herb said was right.
You switched jobs … you decided you needed to be home with your family more, so you took the job as, the second in history, president and CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation, a long established organization, which you proceeded to turn inside out.
Yup. It was really clear that the Foundation had gotten to a size where people were really looking to us for leadership. That it wasn’t just sufficient enough for us to be a grant maker, but at that point, we were being looked to help people understand the dynamics around what was happening in the non-profit sector, its relationship to government, its relationship to the philanthropic world, and to also help people figure out how they can make a difference. The whole idea was to get very clear about the fact that what we were trying to do was to build an ecosystem of really outstanding organizations, and being completely sector agnostic, whether it was the environment, health or human services, culture and arts. All—we need all of those things. It’s not a question of or, it’s a question of and.
Right? But our money could do the biggest job, and make the biggest difference if we could focus on building those high performing organizations. So that was another part of the change in our strategy.
That is a big change, and I think it’s brilliant. Did you come up with that?
Well, we did; we all did. I mean, the board did. We had really great staff involvement. I reached out to a bunch of nonprofit executives and foundation leaders that I had known in a previous life, and we invited them to help us think through what we were gonna do. And that’s how we got there.
In 2008, the economy tanked, and we saw layoffs all over the place. But they say the economy is getting a little better; what’s gonna happen in the nonprofit sector? Already, we’ve seen some nonprofits close; we’ve seen some decimated in terms of staffing.
I think we’re gonna see a decade of disruption and innovation. We’re in 2010, there’s a glimmer of hope out there. But I think the saddest thing of all is if we sort of believe that what we can do is go back to 2007, before the recession, and assume that we can simply—it’s about a recovery, right, in the non-profit sector, the way the economy is recovering. I think this is about a reinvention or a reset.
This philosophy on the recession and recovery fits with Kelvin Taketa’s lifelong practice of looking at circumstances as opportunities.
The interesting part has been, just the zigs and zags of how it ends up. And being lucky enough to be offered opportunities, but being willing to take those opportunities when they came up.
And has failure played a part?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. [CHUCKLE] There have been things I’ve done in my career, not particularly a certain job let’s say, but certain things I’ve done in which, were spectacular failures. They probably teach you more than the other things do.
Did they close doors, or open them?
I never felt like they closed doors; I felt like they opened them. I felt like those things were the things that teach you …
Where to zig, and zag.
Where to zig and zag. I kinda look at these things that have happened, you know, going from Aina Haina to Punahou, to college, law school, and then to The Nature Conservancy, and on to the Community Foundation. And I can’t figure it out. There’s no real narrative that sort of describes that in a deliberate sort of way. Right? It was all a journey. And it still is this journey, right? I talk to a lot of young people who, have a desire for a career like yours or mine, and I have so little guidance to give them, because none of this was deliberate.
But maybe that’s the lesson; it’s not a straight line to whatever you think you want to do in high school or college.
Yeah. I think it’s keeping your eyes and ears open to the opportunity, and understanding yourself well enough to know the kind of place that will allow—that will allow you to be … to use your strengths. I think at the end of the day, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s job is to really make a difference in people’s lives in Hawaii, and to prove that philanthropy, that people who have really thoughtful ideas about how they’re gonna give money away, to be a catalyst to make that stuff happens, that really can happen. I really believe that the thing that distinguishes us as a species is the fact that in every human’s life, there’s a desire for greater meaning. And that greater meaning is almost always about something beyond themselves.
It’s expressed by family, it’s expressed by community, it’s expressed by … creative expression, and things like that, but there’s something driving us for that. I think philanthropy is part of that solution. It’s when you can take money that you’ve worked really hard to save, really hard to earn, and you can make a difference in someone’s life. The biggest beneficiary of that is the person who gave. So that’s our job. That’s what we’re here to do, is to really show people, unlock for people the benefit of that, the significance that comes with that.
Kelvin Taketa’s winding road took him from rascal student at Aina Haina Elementary to CEO of a leading statewide charitable institution—the Hawaii Community Foundation, where his reach is wide and deep. His story offers inspiration for every kid who feels he doesn’t fit the “most likely to succeed” mold, or who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. Maybe more important—it offers motivation for all of the teachers and would-be mentors to see the potential in every young person and to nurture it. Mahalo to Kelvin Taketa for sharing his “Long Story Short” … and mahalo to you … for joining us. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.
Being parents [CHUCKLE] the great humbling experience of life, right? But I think being a parent made me more empathetic. I think being a parent made me, frankly, a better manager of people. Because you learn [CHUCKLE] that you just can’t get your way all the time. It doesn’t work that way.
On this episode of LONG STORY SHORT, Hawaiian cultural expert Ramsay Taum recalls the day when the venerable Richard “Papa” Lyman told him: “You’re not Hawaiian yet.” Ramsay accepted the challenge to learn what it means to be Native Hawaiian. It’s a journey that continues today.
Papa Lyman, he actually challenged me one day. He goes, You’re not Hawaiian yet. At twenty – one, twenty – two years old, I said, Of course, I’m Hawaiian. But he really challenged me, saying that, You were really trained and educated in the Western context, and the content you understand is from that as well, so you haven’t really become Hawaiian yet.
After receiving this challenge, Ramsay Taum moved from Oahu to Hawaii Island. He spent the next six years there working at nights, while spending time with Hawaiian elders during the day. By the time he moved back to Oahu, he felt that he had finally become Hawaiian. Ramsay Taum, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ramsay Taum of Honolulu is the founder and president of the Life Enhancement Institute of the Pacific. His mission is to include Native Hawaiian cultural values and principles in community planning, whether it’s in designing space, or consulting with business and nonprofit leaders. Although Ramsay Taum attended Kamehameha Schools, that’s not where he learned his culture.
I graduated Kamehameha in 1978 after thirteen years there, and then went to the United States Air Force Academy. Transferred to the University of Southern California in 1981, and I graduated in ’81 with a Bachelor of Science in public administration, and some urban planning.
Well, with all the ROTC and Air Force, it sounds pretty Western.
It was. And even coming out of Kamehameha Schools, I think we can recall that there really wasn’t much of an emphasis on the cultural pieces. In fact, while I was at the Academy, I started taking Chinese, Mandarin, because they required a second language. And at the time, Hawaiian wasn’t considered a second language. So, even when I was at Kamehameha, I didn’t pursue Hawaiian language, unfortunately, like our students can now.
It was such a different campus then.
It was a very different campus. There was a very different emphasis. The whole cultural thing was a very different part of the world.
It was more, your Hawaiian culture is here for you to enjoy, but here, partake of this Western stuff.
Yeah. I kinda joke about it now. I tell people, I don’t leave my life to go do my culture thing and come back to it. But at one point, it was kind of like that. I’m gonna go do my culture thing, and then I’ll come back to life tomorrow. Culture really isn’t like that; culture is alive. And so, I’m glad and happy to see that our students are now being able to experience the culture in a more realistic way. I mean, living the culture and not just having it be a part of something you do as an extracurricular activity.
Was it important to your parents for you to go to Kamehameha? Tell me about your parents.
My parents; I mean, I couldn’t have better friends, let alone mentors and guides. My father was a Kamehameha graduate, and he actually [CHUCKLE] got himself into the school when he was much younger. And so, when I got to Kamehameha, many of his teachers that he had were still there. And so, that was a legacy I got to experience when I was at Kamehameha.
Was it hard to get into Kamehameha then?
They wanted to see how we played. Then they had us painting and doing creative things, and they talked to us about different stories. And I remember doing a painting and playing with other things. From what I understood later on, that was a big part of the experience, was the whole notion of social interaction.
That’s what I’ve heard.
Yeah. How to really engage people. Because if you can do that, they can provide you with the content if you engage with them.
You could do that as a kindergartener. Isn’t that how you make your living now?
That’s so true. At one time, I thought I’d be a professional friend.
You know; gonna be a professional friend.
Facebook probably will have that position soon.
You played a lot of sports.
I did. I was very fortunate. I’d actually have to say there probably wasn’t a day that I wasn’t involved in some physical activity since the time I started schooling.
Were you really competitive in sports?
I think I was.
You wanted to win?
At all costs?
I think so. Deep down inside, I think there was part of me that just really wanted to succeed in that way, one, to to make my parents proud, but also just this drive, this competitive edge, because it was good, it was great to feel that you could achieve that accomplishment. I’m not sure I’m that competitive these days, though. I think it shifted some; some spiritual thing happened. I’m probably not as competitive as I was then.
Or maybe you want two sides to win.
Yeah; I guess that’s it. It’s more about the win – win, rather than the win – lose type of thing. I guess that came with time.
After Ramsay Taum returned home from college, he went to work at Kamehameha Schools. There were two people in particular whom he credits for starting him on the path to becoming Hawaiian: Papa Richard Lyman, who was then a trustee of Kamehameha Schools, and Auntie Pilahi Paki, a spiritual leader whose life was the embodiment of aloha.
When Papa Lyman talked with you, he called you Boy. That doesn’t give you a sense of identity, does it?
It was funny, because I’d get a phone call from him every now and then. He’d go, Boy, pick me up.
I said, Oh, here we go. So, I’d go down and pick him up, and take him on errands, and we’d go to lunch. Spending time with him was probably the highlight, simply because we would go to places that a young man of my age probably would never go to.
Well, at the time, going to the Pacific Club. I mean, he’d say, Pick me up. We’d go around, drive this thing, and we’d go have lunch at the Pacific Club. And I remember he had this special table that he would always sit at. And it was strategic. I chuckle now when I think back that it was this strategic location for him. Because as we sat there, everyone passing by would greet him; Mr. Senator, Mr. Trustee. I’m this wet behind the ear kid going, Wow, this is pretty impressive. Like this place, this man. But in that short period during that time, he would then start with the mentoring. He’d ask questions, talk, see that person there, this condition. We’d talk about these issues. Because as these people came up, so would these issues. And so, it was kind of like his classroom, and I was the student being, taught at the time. So, it was quite interesting. He would call me in the middle of the day, and he’d ask me a question. What is this thing, the tamarind? Find out. And he’d hang up.
And he knew the answer.
He knew the answer.
It was the funniest thing, because I’d come to his office with all of my research, ready to report to him, and he’d be sitting behind this newspaper and he’d be looking at me over the top of the newspaper. And I’d be explaining it to him, then he’d put the paper down and he had this twinkle in his eye, and he says, Yeah, that’s what I found out too.
The tamarind was a good example, because I learned so much about Pauahi, I learned so much about the history of her childhood and all those things. And this was in the development of Tamarind Park. And so, they were just looking at that development on Bishop Street, and that’s what that assignment was about. But it was more than Tamarind Park; it was about this other stuff. Understanding that it was the place that Pauahi’s piko was planted, and that the tree became part of this, and it was on campus, and it was down at Bishop Museum. So, you had all of these different paths to follow. I look back on those experiences fondly.
You mentioned Auntie Pilahi Paki, who gave us a new appreciation of the term aloha.
Yeah. Well, one day, he actually told me; he goes, Eh, Boy, go call this lady. And I said, Who is she? And he says, You just call her. So, I ended up calling her, and she hung up on me. [CHUCKLE] I don’t want to talk to you; she hung up. Which was also another practice. So, it took several efforts.
What do you mean, another practice? That’s what kupuna would do?
Yeah. You’d call them, and they would … I don’t have time for this. I’m not interested; and they hang up. Again looking back, I acknowledge that now. That is part of that test that you can’t study for. Because clearly, if you’re not interested, you won’t call back.
So, you did call back after you got hung up on?
Oh, yeah. I called back. Nobody wants rejection, and especially when you’re full of yourself, right, at that age. There was a tempering going on. And Pilahi was good at it. I had heard different stories, and I checked with different people and they said, Oh, yeah, that lady, she’s a kahuna, you know, this, this and that. And there was more than just respect in the community. In fact, I was with her on several occasions, and she’d walk into a room, and I think everyone sat a little taller or stood a little straighter when she walked into the room.
Was that because of who she was at that time, or what they knew about her from before? What would cause that?
I think so; I think the stature and the fact that she had already established herself as this woman of spiritual, cultural means. She was acknowledged already in the circle. But also, she was Paki; she’s considered one of the last of the Paki line. So, she was of royal ancestry. So, I think that definitely had something to do with it. But more so, there were those who still didn’t understand the notion of kahuna. What is a kahuna? And I asked her; I said, Auntie, you kahuna? She goes, They think so. And she’d give me the wink like, Let’s just let ‘em think that. But she was very, I guess, regal in many ways. You’d walk into a room, and like I said, people would stand a little taller. And she held us accountable; she held those around her accountable, but yet with aloha. That’s the one thing that I admired and learned a lot from her, in her physical and her interactions with other people, was that deep sense of aloha. Which has really kind of launched me onto doing the things that I’m doing today.
Thinking and being aloha.
Yeah. When I first approached her, I actually asked her if she would teach me Hawaiian, because I was really keen on wanting to learn olelo Hawaii. [CHUCKLE] And we’re sitting there, and she looks at me and she goes, Mahealani — my Hawaiian name. She goes, Mahealani, if I teach you Hawaiian, can you do your job? And at the time, I was working for Neil Hannahs at Kamehameha, at the Department of Communications and Community Relations. And in my role as public information officer, I was liaison with community, so clearly, the answer was no. I said, If I speak Hawaiian, most of the people won’t understand me. So, she said, Well, then I’ll be doing you a disservice by teaching you Hawaiian. Which was really confusing for me, because I knew her then at that point to be this woman who was an advocate of Hawaiian language. So, she then turned and asked me; she goes, If you ask someone to pass the water in English, will they pass it to you? I said, More than likely. She goes, Yeah. If you ask them to pass it to you in Hawaiian, would they pass it to you? I said, Probably not. She goes, Would you like to learn how to get the water to come to you?
I said, Well, that’d be a trick. She goes, Well, that’s what you use Hawaiian for. So, what she was saying was, if you want to move the elements, you want to move the spirit, if you want to connect with people in a different way, that’s what you learn Hawaiian for. And so, she said, If anything, I would rather teach you how to think in Hawaiian. And what I came to learn later was that in that process of thinking and shifting the way we process the information, it won’t matter what language you’re using; you’ll always be speaking in Hawaiian. She was saying, at some point in time when you go back far enough, we’re all connected, we’re all indigenous to some place, that being Island Earth, if you would. But she was adamant that at some point in time in history, someone had to pick up the paddle, someone pick up the sword, someone picks up the lei. You know. And she says, her relative, who of course, is Kamehameha, had to pick up the spear. It was necessary and important at the time to go to war. But she said, We’ve gone beyond that, we have to get back to aloha. So, she talked about her father and the Paki line, saying that at some point, we have to pick up aloha to balance it out. And that, of course, is the expression that we use today, hooponopono, we have to make things right. And you do that not with the sword in mind, but with aloha in mind. And so, she said, By using your words, that’s gonna be the key, is to know how to use your words, and use your thoughts.
When Ramsay Taum started thinking about leaving his job at Kamehameha Schools, he received an unexpected offer. What happened next took is cultural training in a new direction that involved learning the ancient Hawaiian art of lua, a martial art used for self defense.
So, I know you’ve said that you were raised in Kailua, Maunawili, Oahu.
But you grew up on the Big Island. Explain that.
Well, actually, I got a call one day. It was one of my last days at Kamehameha Schools. I was walking out of the door and got this phone call from a friend of mine, Hiona Granberg. He says, What are you doing? I said, Well, I’m actually walking out of my office. He says, Well, there’s this position, we’re looking for someone that emcees, sings, and dances, and I know you do one or two of those things. And I said, That’s true. So, I thought about it, got on the plane that evening, and several days later was actually retained by the Sheraton Royal Waikoloa, and was mentored by Josephine Flanders in a show at what was then the Royal Waikoloan, the flagship for Sheraton. And there I was for six years, actually doing entertainment, entertainment consultant for the hotel. But it was during that time that I owed someone an hour at night for the shows, I got to spend time doing all these other things. Learning the laaaulapaau from the kupuna that were there, reconnecting to the aina, and new ways of being, new ways of thinking. And that one experience allowed me to do that. And mind you, I was avoiding entertainment like the plague. The joke was, we Kamehameha graduates are either in uniform, police department or the fire department, or entertainers. And that clearly wasn’t on my list of things to do. But I found that it gave me the opportunity to experience Hawaii in a different way.
You were leaving Kamehameha, but had no plans. It sounds like you were completely open.
No; I had actually started my master’s degree in systems management. I was actually pursuing and thinking about going back to law school back in Washington, DC. Papa Lyman and Auntie Pilahi Paki got a hold of me, one on this side and the other on this side, and they started challenging me, knowing that I had a keen interest in serving Hawaii and the people of Hawaii, and our culture. And they both kinda said, Well, how do you do that if you don’t know what that is yet? Again, reinforcing the fact that up to that point in time, my training had really been more in the Western context.
Living on Hawaii Island and working where you did gave you a new sense of being, of how to be. What does that mean?
I like to use the phrase, the difference between being self – centered and being centered in self. Hawaii Island, Moku O Keawe, is a place where the mana is still really strong. And it’s a place where if you believe in the concept of karma, I would see someone say something about someone else, and within short order, it would be said about them. It’s one of those things; be careful what you wish.
This is North Kohala; I have to be careful. [CHUCKLE]
Yeah; exactly. But also dealing with kupuna and elders who were prepared and willing to share. And so, in that sharing, you not only find out about them and it, you find out a lot about yourself. Because as Papa Lyman said, you know, Hey, Boy, if you jump into the ocean, you’re jumping into the food chain. Do you know what end of the food chain you’re on? And frankly, up to that point in time, I got my fish at Tamura’s. So, it wasn’t part of my daily practice as a child to go fishing. And so, in that time I was there, I got reengage that part of who I was, or who I had wanted to become.
As a practitioner, you do body alignment and you do mediation or hooponopono.
That’s correct. And again, a lot of this happened on Hawaii Island, like I told you. If there was a shift, it happened during that period that I was there, and ironically, it was in the search for lua. Because what I didn’t say was that when I went to Auntie Pilahi, I was also looking to connect to lua, the language and history and the stories. She basically said, Ah, that’s pilau, you don’t know that kind stuff.
Because it’s fighting.
Yeah; it’s fighting. But more so because historically, it was a dirty concept. You’re breaking bones, you’re dislocating, it’s about fighting. And so, that wasn’t an area she wanted to delve into. So, she proceeded on this other path. Well, it was shortly thereafter that I moved to Hawaii Island, and while I stayed in communication with her, it was on Hawaii Island that I got to meet Uncle Tommy Solomon, Uncle John Pea, and Uncle Al Grace from Milolii. And I did not express to them my interest, but because of Auntie Pilahi, Papa Lyman, and another kupuna who I fondly refer to as Tutu Kale, but Charles Kenn, he had started sharing the lua with me as well.
Perhaps more so then than now, it was secret. I mean, the practices of lua were secret.
So, why did you want to learn how to break people’s bones, anyway? [CHUCKLE]
[CHUCKLE] I don’t know that I wanted to learn to break people’s bones, but it was part of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance we were all going through. Mind you, this is 1977, 1978. I’d experienced things on the intellectual, academic, social side of social injustice and how to reclaim who we are as Hawaiians. There was this, for me, an internal desire to learn and reconnect to that. Lua as a cultural practice was of interest to me. I’d already been involved in martial arts from family and just a general interest; judo, kung fu, different things. But like the language, I said, What’s our Hawaiian art? Charles Kenn, Tutu Kale, told me, Boy, if you want to do this, you gotta go do this first. So, he gave me a list of tasks. And one of those tasks was to identify five other young Hawaiians, eighteen years or older, who would meet a certain criteria. Meeting the criteria was difficult enough, but finding five other Hawaiians my age who knew anything about or interested in lua was extremely difficult. Everybody was still into Bruce Lee and all that other kinda stuff. So, I failed in that task. So, I went back to him, rather disappointed, but that’s when he said, Okay, well, I guess we have to do it a different way. So, he proceeded to teach me other things to prepare for the day when perhaps five young men would make themselves available. And that really introduced me to the healing arts. So, it was everything from sports medicine to anatomy.
I believe you’ve said that lua was the key. A martial art, a bone – breaking art, was the key to peace.
Yeah. I subscribe to the notion that violence is probably one of the lowest forms of communication. It suggests that we haven’t learned to use our words well, and when we reach a level of frustration or fear or anger that we then turn to that lowest form of communicating. We have to pound it out of you, beat it out of you. So, when you can manage that, and you realize that you can protect yourself as well as others, you then aspire to communicate at a higher level. And that’s what I have found lua has been for me. It’s about creating safe people, safe places. And when a person, a man or a woman, is safe, I think they attract others to them. And when you create a safe person, you create a safe office, a safe home, hopefully you create a safe community. And so, ultimately at some point in time, it is about creating safety. But lua is also, I believe, the opposite side of the coin of hooponopono, which is about making right. The tradition of war and warriors protecting rather than fighting is this notion that we go to war to bring something back into balance. So, I see lua and hooponopono being the same thing, and so, I’ve been able to define it for myself as one of those tools to peace, making things correct. Not fixing bad things, but making things correct.
Ramsay Taum learned from many kupuna while he was on Hawaii Island. After six years, he was ready to return to Honolulu, and start putting his knowledge to use; speaking on Hawaiian values, consulting, and even working with architects to design spaces that create a Hawaiian sense of place.
You’ve crafted an expertise for yourself, a job for yourself that is hard to explain.
Because you’re calling upon all kinds of different parts of your being. Do you have a name for your profession?
[CHUCKLE] Well, I think most people would say consultant. Because, people do consult with me. But it is hooponopono; I really have to say that’s what it is; it’s about making things right, whether it’s through design or whether it’s through its language, strategic planning. Peacemaking; those kinds of things. I like to say life enhancement facilitator. I had a client ask me that multiple years ago, knowing all the different things I did. He goes, What is it that you do? How do you describe that? And as weird as it is, I find myself engaging individuals, communities, businesses, and enhancing whatever it is they’re doing, taking it to the next level; an evolution, if you would.
One of the things I’ve seen you do very well, and I think you may be best known for this, is integrating Native Hawaiian values into Western business practices.
Again, I think that goes back to Pilahi and Auntie Morrnah. Again, all of the kupuna. We can use the term place – based, the place – based approaches. And it’s acknowledging that values are universal. I think we all have values. But the cultural values are those values that take priority in the places they are in; the culture and the place that we happen to be in at the time. And so, I’ve been fortunate to work with companies and people interested in making sure that they’re in alignment with that. And that alignment starts with values, that then leads and guides our behaviors. It all comes back to our beliefs. So, in the conversation of values, we then have a conversation about these other things, which then reveals all kinds of wonderful stuff. And sometimes, that means creating a place, the physical surroundings, the holding environment if you would, that sense of place that then lends itself to the way we behave inside that place.
And that’s your architectural work.
That’s the architectural work. I think that comes back to, again, Pilahi’s message on aloha. It’s that we’re all at the table, and we don’t see the center of the table from one perspective. So if you sit at different parts of the table, you’re still looking at it, but you’re seeing this thing here. And the best way I can explain my experience has been just that. Rather than sitting on one side of the table looking at the world from that perspective, from one kupuna, I got to sit in the middle of the table as they each shared their information. And somewhere in the middle, there’s this commonality which I would then call the culture, and each discipline, each aspect of culture may be slightly different because it requires to be. And yet, there’s something in the middle that ties it all together. And so, having had the fortune of being at the knee or at the ear, or the elbow of these different kupuna gave me a different perspective on who we are as Hawaiians and who we are as people.
Ramsay Taum’s journey continues, not only as a cultural practitioner and consultant, but also as a teacher who is keeping alive the knowledge of the elders that was handed down to him. Mahalo to Ramsay Taum of Honolulu for sharing these stories with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.
What about the Chinese part of you?
Well, it’s interesting, because like I said, when I was at the Air Force Academy, I started learning Mandarin and thus, my name and all that kinda stuff in Chinese. And I just hope that there’s enough time for me to learn all that too. But there’s only so much my head could hold. If I could do something else, I probably would like to learn more of that, to just have an inkling of what our Chinese side of the room can offer.
Cha Thompson runs a large family and a large, family-run business with her husband of 42 years, Jack Thompson. Together, they own and operate Tihati Productions, one of the largest entertainment businesses in the state.
Raised in public housing, Cha tells Leslie Wilcox that she’s most proud of being able to provide an education for her children. Each has attended college. And she herself recently earned a college degree. “You know, we were always hungry, Leslie; we were always hungry,” she recalls. “And so maybe that was it. Maybe I thought, you know, I’m never gonna let that happen to my kids; and it never did.”
How have Cha and Jack succeeded in raising five children of their own and seven more hanai (a Polynesian tradition of adoption)? “We expect for them to give back,” Cha says. “We always say in our family, Much is expected from whom much is given.”
Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. We’re about to get to know a woman who’s comfortable in both designer clothing and puka pants; she’s devoted to her big family and her sizable business; and she’s articulate, eloquent in both standard English and pidgin. Who is she? Cha Thompson. A lifelong learner and high achiever. We’re about to sit down and talk with her.
With her husband Jack, Cha Thompson owns and operates Tihati Productions, a family business in the entertainment industry. She’s also a mother of 12 grown children, some of them hanai (a Polynesian tradition of adoption). She’s proud that each of her kids has attended college and that she herself has recently earned a bachelor’s degree. Proud – because her story begins in a public housing project in Kalihi.
I’m a product of the tenement housing, and it was quite different from today. It was the kind of time where if you ran out of sugar, you could go next door and borrow a cup of sugar, and pay it back when the welfare check came. Yeah.
How many people in your family?
My mother raised eight of us. Four boys and four girls.
And where were you in the mix?
Number three, from the top.
So that means you helped a lot with the other kids?
I did; I did. For us, everything was sharing and caring.
How tight was the finance?
Boy. I’ll tell you what; it’s a miracle, what she did to raise all of us with so little; so little. ‘Cause she was not a professional woman. I used to tease her and say, Mama, you’re a peasant woman. Because she had all of us children, and she never really held a job. So the rest of us did. I mean, we all knew we had to help out; so we went to work.
So as soon as you could, you started earning—
As soon as you could.
I mean, we babysat, we mowed the lawn, we worked in the cannery; that was my first real paycheck kinda job.
What did you spend your free time doing? You went to school, you tried to earn money.
You know, we babysat; I mean, one another. I took care, helped with the younger ones. I remember helping my mother’s kid sister take care of her children. I was all of eleven years old, and you already helped; you helped— that’s why I love children so much, and if you did anything else, you cleaned the house. My mother made sure of that. And my daughters now; I mean, they all have their college degrees. But they would say, Mama would say, if you have any worth—if you’re worth your salt, you had to learn how to clean the toilet, you had to know how to fight. And you had to have a college degree.
What about the advice of your mother to you kids?
You know, my mom, she allowed for her kid sister to help raise me, who’s really one of my most favorite people in the whole, wide world. We call her Puna Dear and she lives in Waimanalo. The importance to them was that we would just be good people; be honest, you know. No shame in being poor; shame in being dishonest. And so that’s kinda the way I grew up.
You didn’t feel shame when you had to wear hand-me-downs and same dress or clothes over and over?
No; and the reason I didn’t was because the two ingredients I got from Kalihi was compassion—I knew we were the underdogs; and humor. Anything that might make us less or make us ashamed, we made fun of. My god, we made fun of each other, a lot; and we laughed a lot, and we laughed loud. And so that was kind of the remedy of, Ah, I no care. You know. And I grew up thinking that; like, I don’t care who was bigger, smarter, richer than I was. I was okay; I was okay.
That helped you a lot, didn’t it?
That sure did. And you learned that from Kalihi. Somebody puts you down, and Ah, you know, I could do something better than they could; I knew I could.
Did you grow up feeling stigmatized by welfare?
I think so; I think so. I didn’t realize it ‘til later, but in the housing, what was important—I don’t know how this is gonna sound, but what was important is, you gotta know how to beef, quite frankly.
You can beef?
You can beef? You’re so—
Yeah, man. [chuckle] At least, I used to a lot. And you know, when you come from a large family, nobody wants to beef with you. ‘Cause in the housing, families fight families. I mean, I know it sounds imbecilic, but we did. I mean, that was—you know.
Did you beef boys too?
Yeah; yeah, yeah. Most of the boys didn’t want to take me on, but I had brothers; big brothers.
And they’d back you up?
Oh, gosh; it was silly. Today, it’s silly. Wasn’t silly then, though. I mean, you know, we did crazy stuff. You fought over things that weren’t important; you know. You call me one stink name or something; it was silly, but—
When you were a song leader, they were known to be the—
The cute ones, thank you.
And the most social. Were you also very social?
I think I was. And I think that was part of standing up, being recognized. Because I think that I saw so many people from the housing being pushed on the side, maybe not being able to express themselves, or knowing, oh, they’re from the other side of the tracks. And so I think I deliberately did that.
Did you grow up with standard English in your house, or not?
And so you learned it in school? TV?
[SIGH] You know, I must have mimicked people, ‘cause I never studied in high school. I was a terrible student. And I think affiliation; I think my travels as a dancer. I think traveling the world allowed me to meet others that spoke differently from me, and I learned well. But the funniest thing is that you never forget; because a couple months ago, uh, four of my girlfriends from Farrington—we graduated together—came over to the house. I hadn’t seen them in a couple—oh, maybe more than a couple years. I hope they see this. And they spent the night— my husband was out of town, and we all slept on the floor in my living room. And I mean, you want to talk about laugh; we got to make fun of one another. Because after you get older, you realize you’re not all that anyway, and so you can talk the truth about which boys you liked and pretended not to like, or who you beefed and who you beat, and how we even had run-ins with one another.
Because we were either hiding something or we didn’t want to be perceived as what you perceive me to be, and—
And it was a wonderful evening. We ended with prayer and hugs. But not before we made terrible fun of one another.
You know, what was the most telling thing you heard about yourself?
That I couldn’t sing.
The nerve. We would do three, four-part harmony, and the one girl, Phyllis Rodrigues, said, Ah, you could never sing. And I said, Shut up.
She said, Yeah, we’d always have to start again, ‘cause you’d follow somebody else’s key next to you. You know.
Was she right?
I think so; I think so.
I think so, I was the bossy one that said, No, no, just sing it that way; sounded great, just keep singing. You know. But the things that we didn’t forget was, we had one of our real leaders; she won shot put one year at Farrington. And it was all about being strong, and so she was our leader; her name was Laverne Biven. We called her Beanie. She passed away; but before she did, before she died of cancer, we went to the hospital, and Phyllis brought out her guitar, and we sang four-part harmony for her. And we sang the song that three of us won at a talent contest one night at Farrington. We sang that again. And I mean, I sobbed, because I thought it was like this was a gift we were giving to her. She was dying, and she still had the sweetest voice of all of us. And that is one of the memories I will hold close to my heart as I get older, and remember that they were good times; very good times.
Cha Thompson is both gracious and grateful as she describes the direction her life has taken.
You have a very successful business; you built your wealth. How do you look back at your days in Kalihi Valley Homes and at Farrington? And have they interfered with relationships? Has your success interfered with relationships?
In the beginning. ‘Cause Kalihi kids think you’re all that, when you have to leave them for a little while. But in the long run, we’ve all come back together. And it might sound tacky to some people, but for me, it was my faith as a Christian that brought me through the real difficult times of being [SIGH] so poor, and wanting to achieve, and not being able to, and feeling less. You know, you just gotta swallow your pride; you were less. You know, we were always hungry, Leslie; we were always hungry, I was always hungry. And so maybe that was it. Maybe I thought, you know, I’m never gonna let that happen to my kids; and it never did.
What do you remember you wanted the most? What was out of your grasp that you couldn’t have, and you always thought, I want to get, when I ever have money, I’m gonna get that one day?
It might have been education. It might have been education, because I went back in my old age. But I think it was education; and it was because I didn’t realize it until I got older—and having a successful company, I was asked to sit on many boards. And they all had magnificent degrees; and I thought, Jeez, you know, wow, there must be something I don’t have; I should go and try to get this. And I finally did. [chuckle]
What was Farrington like? I imagine it was—it’s a lot different today. But what was it like then?
You know, I sent all my kids to private schools; Kamehameha, Punahou, St. Louis. But for Farrington, I was so proud to come from Farrington, because at Farrington, I saw decent, good kids. I saw boys that didn’t wear black jackets, and didn’t have a ton of pomade on their hair, and guys that became like my brothers. They weren’t all into swearing and fighting; they weren’t. And so for me, Farrington was the first steppingstone to being somebody, if you will. Farrington gave me what I thought was class; because fair was fair at Farrington. You studied hard, you learned. Farrington will always be special in my heart. Farrington was the first real dignified place for me.
So, didn’t think of sending your kids to Farrington later, though?
And I didn’t later, because I knew that they would get a jumpstart; more than I did, you know. I made sure they knew that education was important. Nobody told me education was important; it wasn’t to my parents. They weren’t educated; they, they just knew hard work, and that’s what we all did,
In high school, you met your husband—
–to be. How did that happen?
Oh. I thought he was mahu, because he was a gentleman with manners. And I only knew guys that, you know, I knew just tough guys. My brothers are all tough. And—but he was a gentleman; he spoke well, and he tucked his shirt in, and he wore loafers, and I thought this guy—you know. And he tells the story of he thought, Eeuw, what kinda girl has a laugh that loud?
So we really didn’t hit it off, you know.
This was what year at Farrington?
He was a senior, and I was a junior. It was 1964. And I thought, Oh, what kind of Samoan is this? And it turned out where we started having group—we never dated, it was just group people. I mean, you didn’t even hold hands in those days in public; you didn’t hold hands. So we didn’t. We were friends. And his parents were gonna move back to the islands. And I thought—and he told me that, and I thought myself, Well, what’s gonna happen to you? You know, you’re twenty-one now. Are you going back home to where he’s from? He’s from a little atoll in the South Pacific. And he was going back, and I said, Oh well, shouldn’t we be thinking about marriage? [chuckle] Well, that sank me for the rest of my—
–forty-two years of marriage. He told the children I asked him to marry him, and boy, I have to live with that.
[chuckle] Now, you said he was very handsome.
I remember you saying this.
Do you still think he’s handsome?
Absolutely; absolutely. In a month, we will have been married for forty-two years.
And you say you’re different from each other. How are you different, and why does it work?
Oh. I think that that man has far too many meetings; he wants to meet about the last meeting. You know. And he thinks I do things too quickly. I will decide in three hours what takes him three days; or I will do three days what takes him three weeks. And the kids will make fun of us ‘til today—they did a skit at one of our anniversary parties; because they cannot believe there’s any similarity between the two of us. How could we have been happily married all these years? Because we’ll see something, and I will say, This is beautifully black. And he will say, Oh, no, it’s white.
We’re that different. So by the grace of God, we have been happily married for forty-two years.
How does that work? I mean, I don’t get it.
Wonderful; wonderful. I think part of it is because we’re like two ships in the night. And so it kinda was like we’re still really excited about one another; we really are. [chuckle]
He’d better be.
[chuckle] Now, did he start the nickname Cha? Your name is Charlene.
No; no; no. I really believe—and Karen Keawehawai‘i and I were trying to figure out when I became Cha. The kids in the housing never, ever called me Charlene. I don’t think they could say the R; I’m telling you. I was always Chalene.
Okay? So then I think some reporter first said Cha. And so she asked me one day, How the heck you did become Cha? I said, I don’t know, but doesn’t that sound exotic?
Hey; hey, you know, I’ll take it.
Cha was a 19-year-old hula dancer who, with Jack Thompson, built Tihati Productions into one of the largest and longest-running entertainment businesses in Hawai‘i, with Polynesian revues and customized events on O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island.
You were graduating from Farrington.
Then I traveled the world. I was a dancer, you know, for HVB, for whomever.
And that came easily, because people saw you dancing and said, Oh, let’s hire her?
Yeah. I mean, I would latch onto groups. I was with the original Puka Puka Otea group that Elaine Frisbee from Rarotonga ran, and we were the only one in the state to do Polynesian everything. And then when she was leaving, I was her lead dancer, and she simply said, Here; take it and run. And at nineteen; excuse me. I knew nothing about business. And so you know, when I married my husband, I was working in medical records at Queen’s Medical Center, and he was working in reservations at Hawaiian Airlines. And people started calling us. And I’m telling you; it was so successful, because tourism at the time was The Thing, and everybody wanted a show.
What year was that? What general decade?
1969? ’70? And if you said you were from Hawaii, that sold; you almost didn’t have to do anything. And so we started traveling around the world, and when we came home, people wanted shows. We actually had to decide— We gotta get offstage. You cannot be producer, director, business manager, choreographer; which is what we did all—and Oh, God; try do the books. Hello.
You danced; what did your husband do?
He was the emcee. Yeah; and he didn’t—his very first thing to do was he came to Canada when I was with the World’s Fair, and I was a dancer. And he was one of the few Polynesians who could speak English; so when our emcee got sick, he said, Give it to Thompson. And he said, I’m not an entertainer. You know, and in fact, just before we left, he said, I’m part Samoan; surely I can learn the knife dance. I always thought he was too handsome to be a knife dancer; he didn’t look as—
–wild and savagery. But he learned it, and became a knife dancer. A terrible knife dancer in the beginning; can’t hold a candle next to my son, who’s a world titleholder. But that’s how we started. We had to get off stage and get a good attorney, get a great CPA, and we started—we gave up our careers to run the business.
Well, you were singled out to be the one to take over the dancing troupe.
[SIGH] You know, I wondered, because I was always so—shucks, I was always vocal. Always had an opinion. I wonder. And many of the Polynesian girls were more reserved. They didn’t always—I always had the plan; I always had the plan.
And it was a good plan?
It was a good plan. I think survival mode; always in a survival mode, you know. And I think that’s what my children detect. Like, Mom, ho.
You know. I always plan for tomorrow. Now, save, you know, the rainy day is coming, and always dress well.
If you get into an accident [chuckle] make sure you have clean underwear. [chuckle] And you know, the house must be clean; visitors will come, they’ll judge us.
I always felt like I was being judged; always.
Now, you were busy negotiating contracts, and—
–running shows, and running a tight operation. Including shows that went around the world—
–in different places abroad. You were also having children.
Yes. My Puna Dear in Waimanalo helped raise my children. And it was a place where they were always clean and always well fed, and always happy. And I could rest assured that they weren’t missing me the way uh, other children would miss their parents that would have to take trips a lot. Because we’d always be on the phone, and she was like, Don’t worry, Mama be home, Mama be home soon, and whatever. And she was the stabling force, and the reason I could travel the way I did, You know, somehow, I don’t see you handing off most of your business and most of your childcare to other people. I just don’t—[chuckle]
I did; I took care of them. Even though I traveled, a lot of times they would travel with me. And I’m telling you; if I was—my youngest son was about six weeks when I went back on stage. And I had him in a little basket back of the stages in Chicago, or New York, or Washington, DC. I did; I took my children with me. I did.
You gave birth to five.
And then you ended up with seven more, somehow?
Yeah. It’s a Polynesian custom. And when I say hanai, I raised them from three weeks old. I don’t only take the ones that, you know,
Are almost ready to go. [chuckle]
Yeah; almost ready—no, no. That’s why the line between my natural children and my hanai children pales, because they’re all brothers and sisters. They never say, Oh, this is my hanai brother, or this is my hanai sister. They’re brothers and sisters, you know. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because ‘til today, everybody comes home for to‘ona‘i, you know. That’s the Sunday afternoon meal, right after church. Everybody’s there; and everybody’s talking at the same time. And it’s amazing; we all know what everybody’s saying. Sundays are great for us.
Cha Thompson, who’s been recognized as Hawai‘i Mother of the Year, clearly loves her family and her community. Among the many boards on which she has agreed to serve: the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Honolulu Police Commission.
People started taking us seriously when we would sit on business boards or when we contributed in a business fashion. You know. But yeah. I mean, you’re Polynesian; surely, you can’t be too smart. And entertainment, heavens; you must fool around, and you must do drugs. Well, we did neither, and it paid off; paid off for us.
I sense you’re a good negotiator. I’m trying to figure out—
–what your style is.
It’s the Pake blood.
Leslie, it’s the Chinese blood. And the funny thing about it is, in entertainment, they will say, Oh, come and put on a show, or come and sing and dance for us, and you can eat all you want, and you can drink. I don’t drink. I’m really thin; I don’t eat that much. I need something else; and money was the thing I needed. But we had to earn it; we had to earn it. They didn’t take us seriously, you know. Well, my kids are a little luckier, because they’ve had the benefit of our stories. And they went in with degrees, so they know that they can handle it. And we expect for them to give back; we always say in our family—and we were honored by a high school for this; much is expected from whom much is given. And man, nobody in our clan, nobody would ever start to begin to think that maybe they were owed this, or maybe they’re kind of special. We make fun of everything, and man, we’d take ‘em down. You know, that wouldn’t happen in our family.
So everybody’s expected to do housework. No breaks?
My son, who has a real thriving career on his own—he fronted for Fifty Cent.
Afatia; for Fitty Cents. And I mean, I remember him, he was June Jones’ first running back, and won a ring, and you know, all state, all star, and, excuse me. By Saturday morning, that kennel better be cleaned, ‘cause we don’t have a yardman that’s gonna clean the kennel. And he used to do it, and he’d say, Ho, Mom, can’t you get—you know, I gotta be at rehearsal, and I got—yeah, we can, but you know, twenty minutes or half an hour, do your stuff first. And that’s the way it is; I expected that of them. And you know, I’m really grateful that they’re great kids.
I know you brought in some major acts.
And you developed major talent.
I think we’re known as a Polynesian revue. And I don’t know that many people know that Tihati Productions has a vast department that brings in contemporary acts, like we brought in Lionel Richie and Cyndi Lauper. And we also do thematic parties. You know, we’ll prepare a whole Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Aloha in a Volcano. So we do many things; but I think they still think of me as the hula girl. I mean, maybe, because they’ll all say, Oh, you know, you run that halau. And I say, No, I’m not a kumu; I don’t have a halau. But Tihati Productions, they think of as a Polynesian revue.
You’ve had to really strike a balance between Polynesian authenticity and entertainment. How do you work that out?
I decided early on not to educate them; rather, to entertain them. But, to not sell myself, and not give them what is real. Any Tihati revue that you see will have real flowers, we’ll use real ti leaf skirts. We do authentic numbers and sing it in the native tongues; you know, Tahitian, Samoan, Fijian. And a lot of my instructors are from those islands, Hawaiian. So I never felt that uh, tourism was a threat to me. In fact, when some people might have thought, Oh, that’s a sellout, she’s worked in Waikiki for thirty-five years; you know, why isn’t she with us. I would say, Well, tourism dollars sent all my kids to college. And I never felt that I wasn’t doing exactly what is me. You know, I believe God gave me a gift in my roots and my heritage, and I share it, and lucky for me, tourism is Hawaii’s number one industry, and they’ll always need the hula girl and the steel guitar, and the fire knife dancer. And so I think I’m here to stay.
Lucky for Cha Thompson, we’ll always need the hula girl. And lucky for us, she’s here to stay. Mahalo piha to Cha Thompson for sharing stories with me. And mahalo to you for joining in, this week and every week, for Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
Surround yourself with people that can do things that you can’t; ‘cause there’s always things that you can do, that they can’t do. And then you get the completed circle, you know. But I have to say that for me, and just finishing college now, I realize that a lot of people do not take um, take God into consideration. For me, without that, man, I’d be a basket case. That’s what I held on to. I said, Lead me, guide me, take me. And that’s the only thing that I follow. I’m kinda bossy, and I think I can do many things, and I have a hard time not being the one to make the plan or to organize. But, but yeah, I can follow the scriptures; I can follow God.
Leslie Wilcox talks with Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, women’s advocate, community organizer and executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center. When Dr. Thein was an infant, her family evaded Japanese armies that were occupying Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II. In the first of two episodes, Dr. Thein recalls idyllic, post-war life in the Burmese town of Kalaw and how she made her way to Hawaii.
Leslie Wilcox continues her conversation with Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, women’s advocate and community organizer. In the second of two episodes, Dr. Thein talks about meeting her future husband, Jack Reynolds, and fellow Burmese activist Ang Sun Suu Kyi. She also describes her current passion: assisting low-income residents, immigrants and refugees at the Pacific Gateway Center.
I think back and say, Wow, I really came to America, alone, on a plane, and not knowing anybody. Where did I have the guts do that?
Women’s advocate, community organizer, and executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein came from a homeland ruled by military force to a new home in America; next, on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Dr. Tin Myaing Thein is the quietly dynamic force behind efforts to improve the skills and economic development of Hawaii’s immigrant refugee and low income population. Her empathy for the poor and disadvantaged harks back to the Christian values instilled by her parents during her childhood in Burma, also known today as Myanmar. One of her childhood friends grew up to be a Burmese Opposition leader, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. They remain friends. During World War II, the infant Myaing, along with her three siblings and parents, moved from village to village to escape the Japanese occupation of the former British colony. At war’s end, her family settled into more comfortable circumstances in the idyllic town of Kalaw, where the children attended British schools.
The weather was beautiful, just like Hawaii. It was on the hill, so it was not cold or too hot. We had the most beautiful pine trees in that area, and so, the environment was lovely. And we just walked to school and back, and it was a little town where everybody was safe, we all knew each other.
What did your parents do?
My father was an irrigation engineer. So, he stayed in the Dry Zone, ‘cause he had to build dams. And his joke was, I’m a dam engineer. [CHUCKLE] And my mother was a social organizer, and she founded the YWCA after the war. They had to set up the institutions again, and then she also organized the Girl Scouts in Burma. At that time, outside of the United States, it’s called Girl Guides. And she was very well known in the community, but it’s all volunteer work.
And your father was mostly absentee during that time?
Yes and no. He was posted in different towns and different areas, and he would bring us home, because he felt that being with him, we would learn more about the country. So, we went all the way north to Myitkyina, down to the south, and we would go on boats. It was very well organized by him. And it was, for him, a time of teaching us about the country. So, we learned a lot.
So, were you close to your parents?
Yes. Well, we were a Christian family, and among the Burmese, they are very few Christians.
How did your family get to be Christians?
My father’s side was the third generation Christian. My mother’s side was the second generation. I think my grandfather from my mother’s side somehow during the days of the kings, and the last king who had killed all his cousins so that they couldn’t take the throne; well, he and his family ran away. And he never told us why. So, to this day, it’s a mystery why he had to run away. And he and his father came down from Mandalay and onto the River Irrawaddy, which is the main river in Burma, and on a bamboo raft, pretending to be farmers. And they just came down until they reached the area where the British were. He then converted to Christianity. And my inkling – I mean, I don’t know for sure, is that he was well looked after by the Christian community and saved by them, so that they wouldn’t get into any more trouble with authorities. And I think because of that, he gradually accepted the Christian religion.
Do you have any inkling of what it was that made him run afoul with authorities? Did he question authority, or any idea?
In those days, when the king had power over you, life or death, it’s not something you do, but who you are. So, he was related to some of the families that were in danger of their lives, because the king was getting rid of anyone who would have the power to, challenge him for the throne.
I see. Now, as one of the few Christian families in your village, did that make a difference in how you were treated?
No. We were friends with everybody, and of course, we were in the Christian community too. So, that was easy for us to do. And back home, we went to church five times. I mean, Sunday school, then the regular church, then Christian Endeavor, and then Youth Endeavor, and then Women’s Group. [CHUCKLE] So, the whole day was spent at church. And later on, we would have a family gathering and have a meal together. Every night, we had Family Devotion before we went to bed. So, a lot of that, I still privately observe. My sister still observes that back home. My father was a very devout Christian who believed, in of course, reading the Bible and following what the Bible said about a rich man should give away all his riches and follow Him to the Kingdom of Heaven. So, when he retired, he called us and said, I have given you education, and you can now stand on your own two feet. And he planned to give away whatever he had. And he did. And we went from a well-to-do family to nothing. It was the hardest lesson for us. Because he did prepare us; he said, You have to learn how poor people live. And when we went back to Kalaw every summer, we used to travel in the first class section of the train. And a couple of years before, he said, Go in the third class and see what people have to put up with. So, he was preparing us, but we didn’t know, of course. And when you’re traveling in third class and you’re not comfortable, but it’s only for a short time, you can bear it, right? So, after that, when we all graduated and he gave us this notice that he was giving everything away, we lost our chauffeur, we lost the car and I had to take the bus. And I remembered what he had done, and I thought, Oh, he was preparing us for what life would be like when we had to just do with whatever we had.
Any resentment about it?
No. One, it was his money; two, it really taught us what people have to go through. It was a lesson that I won’t forget. I did realize that it was very hard to be poor. Very hard. And you have less resources to fight whatever life throws at you.
In 1948, Burma gained its independence from Britain, and years of nation building followed. A fledgling democracy could not be sustained. In 1962, the military took over the reins of government. Tin Myaing Thein attended Rangoon University at the time, and was vocal in her criticism of the government’s repressive policies. She was strongly encouraged by her mother to accept a grant to study at the East West Center in Honolulu. Twenty-six years would pass before her return home.
1962, March 2nd, the army took over in a coups, and they changed a lot of rules. It was difficult for people to speak out. There was martial law, and there was curfew, and also, people were not allowed to leave the country anymore. And then, they closed the country, and people were not allowed to come in. They gave, at that time, twenty-four-hour visa, one day; that’s all you could come, and you had to leave. Pan Am was flying in at that time, so with the plane routes, you only got sixteen hours in the country if you wanted to come in. The newspaper was censored, and they nationalized all the banks. And we even had a joke that the Nationalist Chinese government who nationalized their bank, their bank was nationalized by the Burmese government. [CHUCKLE] And so, it was a time of tense work and some of the people who were my friends and very outspoken, were disappearing in the night, never to be seen again. And some of our other friends who were against the government were speaking out against the coups, because we had a parliamentary democracy before that. So during that year, I was in the psychology department, and they were watching the psychology department. I don’t know why. And we were having little rallies and so forth and so on, and my mother was very worried that I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut or I wouldn’t be able to control myself.
Weren’t you fearful after your friends left forever, with no notice?
You never think it would happen to you. You think, Oh. And sometimes you say it because of the moment, because it’s something you feel unjust and uncalled for. So, there was a huge uprising by the students, and I was in the department at that time. And by the student union, they were all gathering, and shouting slogans and –
They, and you?
The students. No, I was in the psychology department. They were like, way by the gate to the university. And so, the general came down, the one who had, you know, taken over, and he was watching to see what was happening. And the students, they’re very naughty, and they spotted him and started directing their comments at him. And they would say very unkind things like, Your mother is a peanut seller. [CHUCKLE] And you never passed the exam, you don’t have the right to put a foot inside university property because you haven’t passed the exams to be a university student. I mean, that’s true.
So, was that bravery, or foolishness? I mean …
I think a little bit of both. And so, the general ordered them to be shot. And so, at that time, there were like three thousand students who were shot.
They were shot?
They were shot, and then the army came and took their bodies away in the trucks. It was very, very terrible. So, that’s why 7/7/62 is what we remember as the day, the infamous day. And then, he blew up the student union, ‘cause they were all converging in the student union. And so, I think by that time, my mother was very worried, and so she started looking for ways to get me out. And she probably knew that the psychology department was being watched, ‘cause they felt that psychology had something to do with the West, and we were using Western methods, and so forth.
And when you said you spoke out at times, do you remember what you spoke out about?
Well, it was to get people released. My friends who were in jail that had been taken and people who had disappeared. Around that time, my brother disappeared. It’s something that the family never talks about.
Your brother disappeared. I mean, was he sleeping in the house and then, you didn’t find him in the morning?
No; he left early to go to work. And we didn’t … to this day, we don’t know what happened.
Had he spoken out?
I don’t know. [CHUCKLE] He may have, at work, anywhere. We do know that at that time, there were an atmosphere of fear, and you couldn’t trust each other. You didn’t know who was gonna tell on who.
As a news reporter here, I’ve covered families who’ve lost a family member, likely to homicide, but the body was never found. They just never knew what happened, who did what, or anything. And it’s a very difficult thing to live with, that unknown. But you say your family never spoke about it, even to each other?
Yes; to each other, yes, we did. My sister did, and then each of us have our own take on it. My parents never accepted it, that he would be dead. My brother did. My sister waited for him, so did my mother, for a long, long time. And I think we have accepted the fact that he may have passed on. We have rumors that he was seen in the border area, that he was in Malaysia, that he had fathered a child with this woman and that they were living in Penang. I mean, we tried to follow up, but nothing. It would have been just as easy to slip a letter or word of mouth to the family that he’s okay. But not having had any, and it’s over, a long, long time.
Do you seem so composed because this happened a long time ago and you’ve just had to integrate it into your life, or were you always accepting of … this terrible unknown?
I think it’s because of the time. You learn to live with certain things. Time does heal, or rather, time lets you learn how to live with it. And that’s why.
Any advice to people about how to live with something terrible that’s happened?
You can dwell on it, and you can try to make the best of those memories, but you do have to move on. But you never let go. I still look.
When you’re back home, you hope you see him walking in –
No; because the rumors were that he was crossing the border in Thailand and Malaysia, when I was in Malaysia for an East West Center conference, I was looking. In Thailand, when I go, and the plane stops there, and even at the airport, I’m looking. Still.
What a tough way to live. You seem so calm about it. Were you calm at the time?
I was … foul-mouthed at that time. [CHUCKLE]
And no fear of mortality.
Yeah, I wasn’t.
Yeah, I guess teens don’t think about mortality.
Right. And so, my mother said, There’s a wonderful chance for you to go to the East West Center, and also to get a PhD degree.
She didn’t say, Let’s get you out of here?
No, she didn’t. She was very subtle. But she did say, I think it’s time for you to leave, and grow some more. So … that’s what I did.
She meant, learn some discretion.
Or learn a better way to approach this situation.
The situation. Yeah. She was actually sending me to another place where I would be able to utilize all my skills that I had learned from her. Organizational skills, you know, community organizing, learning to speak up for other people. That’s something I think all of us can relate to. It’s so much easier to fight for somebody else. My grandfather, the one who ran away from Mandalay, put education as a very, very important value for our family. Every single one of us must have a degree, a baccalaureate at the lowest level.
And did you want that for yourself?
You know, Leslie, in those days, I just did what I was told. And my mother saw in me a different person. And coming to America and going to the East West Center really changed my life, and for the first time, I found, I had to make my own decisions.
How old were you?
Twenty. I think back and say, Wow, I really came to America, alone, on a plane, and not knowing anybody. Where did I have the guts do that?
I don’t know. [CHUCKLE] I think it probably came from my grandmother, but the other one was my mother. And I think that this experience at the East West Center, finding other friends from other countries, relating to them inter-culturally was a great awakening for me. And my personality really came out after that.
And who did you find out that you were?
My mother. [CHUCKLE]
An organizer, and a speaker for justice?
Yes. My mother and my grandmother.
Tin Myaing Thein’s years at the East West Center provided the very foundation on which she has built her life’s work. In Hawaii, she formed a profound appreciation for the diversity of cultures here, and the strength found in common bonds. She also forged a life partnership with future husband, Jack Reynolds.
When I first arrived, there was a cultural clash. And in Burma, we don’t have dating. So, when young men would ask me out, I didn’t know it was a date that I was going on. And I felt very bad. We have this feeling where you don’t want to refuse anybody anything, so I would go out on dates. I was having a hard time keeping up with my schoolwork as well. And there was one time when the gentlemen were asking me to a movie, and I said yes, and I saw The Sound of Music eleven times.
Because you didn’t want to say no?
Yeah. And I didn’t want to tell them that I’ve seen it before. [CHUCKLE] But my future husband, he’s the only one who caught on. He said, You’ve seen this movie before, haven’t you? ‘Cause I was already mouthing all the lines. [CHUCKLE] And he said, Okay, something’s going on. But he was a Peace Corps volunteer. He was the first group to go with the Peace Corps in Thailand, and uh, he somehow understood what was happening with me. And so, he helped me and he strategized to go to the study hall every day with me. And so it, in effect, got rid of all the other guys, ‘cause they saw me with him all the time. But he helped me to study, and I got my grades back. There are some other stories. Like when you first came, you didn’t know how to turn the faucet on. Oh, my god, how do you – and I didn’t believe that washing machines really washed clothes.
What did you think they did?
I don’t know; it wouldn’t be clean. It wouldn’t be clean enough.
And you were living at the East West Center dorms?
Right. And I had to watch other girls washing to say, Oh, it really did clean, [CHUCKLE], before I could believe it.
Yeah, there are so many things people must assume, that you didn’t.
How could you?
Yeah. And we didn’t have elevators too, in Burma at the time I came. So, I didn’t know how to get out of the elevator. It was so funny. ‘Cause I went to the boys’ dorm, and the ninth floor and down were boys’ dorm. And then, if we had meetings, it was above the ninth floor, so we were going up to the floor. And I got into the elevator, but then there was nothing that said … how to get off, right? And the buttons that says, push to stop, and pull to run. So, we come from the British English where run is really operate. Right? So, I said, Okay, where do I run? I didn’t know that the word run meant operate here. So, I was thinking, Okay, I guess you push-pull it, and you run out when you get to the floor that you want. And every time I tried to do that, the elevator would go up, and then down again. So, I would pass that floor. So, I was riding up and down the elevator like three times, until somebody came, and then I watched. And the person just pushed the number nine, and then got off. I said, Oh, okay. [CHUCKLE] That’s what I had to do.
How were your English skills when you got here?
It was fine. I went to the Methodist English High School, which was British-run, and of course, we were not allowed to speak Burmese in the school. So my English was okay.
So, going back to the East West Center. You said that was a life-changing experience. In what other ways did it change your life? Obviously, you gained American skills, and you met your husband.
Yes. I learned that they valued you for all the different skills you had. And I was taught classical dance, which my father didn’t approve, but my mother did. So, I knew how to do the classical dance, and when we got here, there were people who were asking about what Burmese dance was like. So, I was able to dance and show them, and my mother had made the dance outfit for me, and so forth. Back home, you have a certain bias against entertainers and performers, and so, I wasn’t allowed to do that. And all the dance lessons were done in the kitchen, where my father wouldn’t see me. [CHUCKLE] But here, you were valued for that skill. And also, I was able to organize groups and teach people about cooking the food in Burma, and so forth. And I think that really opened my eyes, that you know, people here are valued for anything that you can do.
And when you grow up anywhere, you tend to have stereotypes about other cultures. What were some of the conclusions you made, based on the people you met? What changed in terms of your thinking about other cultures?
Well, that we all had commonalities. We all like similar things, and we can enjoy each other based on those, even if there are differences. And some of the differences are so minor that it didn’t matter. Yeah.
Appreciation for the skills set that each individual can contribute to the community is felt every day in Chinatown at the Pacific Gateway Center, as this nonprofit organization guides and nurtures participants. Under the award-winning leadership of Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, the Pacific Gateway Center assists Hawaii’s immigrants, refugees, and low income residents with opportunities to realize their own dreams of success. In an upcoming episode of Long Story Short, we’ll learn about Dr. Thein’s lifelong friendship with Burmese Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Thank you, Tin Myaing Thein, for sharing your long story short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou, ‘til next time. Aloha.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
Well, Burma has a very strange shape; it’s like a kite with a tail. And it’s right next to Thailand, south of China, and on the west we have India. So, we are squeezed between the giants. And we were under the British for about a hundred years, and then the Japanese came, and we were under the occupation of the Japanese for a number of years. And then, the war ended in 1945, which meant that, life would return normal. And up in the Shan Plateau, there was a hill station which the British had occupied and set up schools there. So, we went to live there; my grandfather was the mayor of that town. And so, I think the happiest memories of our lives were in that town. It was called Kalaw.
Part 1: Forthright and Strong
The kitchen incubator is a very important project, because I think many of them have learned that we have to move away from total dependency on government funding, and there’s such a movement as social enterprise. So, we have projects that will bring in some extra revenue, which we then use into the programs.
Burmese native and champion of Hawaii minority small business owners, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein; next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Born and raised in Burma, or Myanmar, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein’s amazing journey has led her to Hawaii’s Pacific Gateway Center, where as its executive director, she has empowered thousands of immigrants, refugees, and low income residents on their path to self sufficiency. Back in her student days at Burma’s Rangoon University, Myaing was a vocal critic of the repressive regime that had toppled the nation’s democratic government in 1962. The following year, at the strong urging of her mother, Tin Myaing Thein left her own country to study at the East West Center in Honolulu. Because of the dictatorial policies of the new regime in Burma, Myaing would not return for the next twenty-six years. Her childhood friend and fellow Girls Scout, Aung San Suu Kyi, stayed in the country and would become a political prisoner for years, later to emerge as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese Opposition leader. When Myaing left Burma, she took with her two powerful legacies of her mother and her grandmother; perseverance and resourcefulness.
The influence of my mother is tremendous, because she is a self-starter, and she and my grandmother, both of them fought for other women who didn’t have the same privilege. And the famous story that we have about my grandmother was, in that little town where we grew up, my brothers were walking home with her, and they came across a couple around the corner where the husband was abusing his wife. And my grandmother didn’t know them at all. And in Burma, the culture is that you respect elders. So, that was the only thing she had as a shield, right? And she went up to him and she said, You stop this, this moment, don’t you dare lay a hand on her, or I will come and get you. And my two brothers were trembling, because if he turned on her, they had to protect her, and they were too young to. But, the man obeyed her and apologized and said, I’m so sorry, and they went home together. It seemed like they made up. But my grandmother had guts. And we got a lot of that from her. Burmese women are, in their own right, very forthright and strong. And in the five duties of a wife and five duties of a man, the women are supposed to handle the finances in the house. I know in America, it’s different. The man likes to handle the finances. But over there, the woman does. And she has to make sure that the children are well fed and educated, and the relatives are also cared for. But she holds the purse strings. So, it’s quite an honor. We came out of a time when we had major problems with the Colonial powers. The British were our masters, so to speak, for a hundred years. When they had the Nationalistic Movement to fight the British, which we couldn’t conquer militarily, we fought them culturally. We never gave up our dress, our language. Even though we can’t speak Burmese in schools, we were speaking at home. We were to have English names in school, so we had our own Burmese names at home and we had different name at school. The British symbolized the West and the Caucasian race. To marry a Caucasian was … somehow betraying them.
You weren’t keeping the bloodline strong.
What was the thought process on that? I mean, love isn’t really logical, for one thing. [CHUCKLE]
Love isn’t logical. He was a very handsome man. [CHUCKLE] And he had the traits that my mother would approve of. And he also was one of the most organized men I know, and he could do work that would be the same work that ten people could do. And when I first met him, I thought, Oh, my god, we will never, ever, in the Southeast Asian cultures, ever catch up with the West, because if they work like that, and can produce like that, we will never catch up. But then, I found out he’s very rare. There are lots of other people who are not organized like him. And my parents accepted him, but I think to this day, people still feel the pain of me marrying a foreigner. They call it a foreigner.
How long were you at the East West Center?
I was there for three years.
And then, what?
Then, my husband was in Thailand at that time, he was doing his master’s thesis. And I went back, and we realized that if I went home — at that time the country was closed, I couldn’t get out again, and he wouldn’t be able to get in. So, we decided that we would get married, and we went back. We did get married, and we came back, to a school that accepted both of us. So, I could get my master’s, and he could get his PhD. And that was in Pittsburgh. And we arrived in Pittsburgh in the middle of the night, and then in the morning we thought, Oh, let’s see it. And it was a horrible looking place. It was not like Hawaii at all. I had imagined all the places in the United States to be like Hawaii, as beautiful, right? And there was soot all over, and we lived in housing. And of course, at that time, I was still wearing my native dress, my sarong and slippers, and it was so cold. The good part of it was that because it was such a horrible atmosphere, we both studied real hard, took extra courses, and got out of there [CHUCKLE], and we went to New York.
For your PhD?
For my PhD, and he was working at Columbia University also.
How did you decide what you would get your PhD in? Did you have a plan at that point?
Well, what happened in Hawaii was that when I came to the East West Center, although it was a US government scholarship, the Burmese government, the new military government had come in ’62, and I was the last group to leave the country. They had decided that I’ll go for a master’s in microbiology instead of psychology, which was my major.
Were you good at science, by any chance?
No, not at all. And I don’t know why they felt that I could do it. And when I got here, analytical chem was the worst part. And so, East West Center was very kind, and they allowed me to get a bachelor’s. That’s why I have two bachelor’s. And then, when we went to Pittsburgh, we were trying to not waste our years for the microbiology course, as well as get back to my people-oriented school. So in Pittsburgh, I went to the graduate school of public health and tried to keep the people in my line of work. And then, when I went to Columbia, there was a very special program in graduate studies where you had to have a master’s in public health or science, and you had to have a master’s in a social science. And the other social science I chose was medical anthropology. And it was wonderful, because then I got my two master’s. And the teacher there was a wonderful woman named Margaret Mead. And I was so thrilled to be in her class. Oh, she was … feisty woman. And she had us take chances. For our group project, we studied the Hell’s Angels. We had no idea what we were getting into. [CHUCKLE] And she did call us in and said, Okay, end your project now, because I don’t think I want you any more in danger. But she just pushed us to the limits. It was really, really neat. So, we did, in the second semester, focus on another group, the Harikrishnas. [CHUCKLE]
That’s a change in scope.
Yeah. We got the difference in how the groups went about what they did in their mission, and how they got to being what they were.
Do you remember any real concise takeaway from Dr. Mead’s classes?
Well, it’s just that there are different groups, and there’s a lot of things that they do for different reasons, but you have to look at it from their perspective. And then, you begin to understand.
A former British colony, Burma lived with an authoritarian military rule for almost five decades. Tin Myaing Thein’s childhood friend, Nobel Peace Prizer winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is at the center of a political reform movement. This conversation took place in 2012, some months before Aung San Suu Kyi visited Hawaii, and the two saw each other in person again.
Along the way, you also knew Aung San Suu Kyi from your home country.
Yes. She was in New York at the same time. She was working for the UN. But Aung San Suu Kyi and I know each other on a social basis. We went to the same school, although I was older than her, and she was in my Girls Scout troop. We had fun. Of course, we had a camping trip which was nothing more than in her compound. It’s like camping out in your yard. [CHUCKLE] That’s what we did. And it was a lot of fun.
What was fun about it?
Well, actually, ghost stories, and then getting scared that somebody would come. Actually, we were very, very safe in that little hut that we were in. We learned songs the Girls Scout songs, and so forth. And we would be yelling at the top of our lungs. [CHUCKLE] She must have been five, I must have been nine. Right, something like that. And then, she went away and we met again in New York. At one point, she thought that she could stay in our guest bedroom. But we were on the West Side, and the UN was on the East Side, so it didn’t work out. We hung out and talked, and whatnot. And then, of course, we went away from Columbia to Trinidad in Tobago to do some studies there in family planning. And then, she went on to England.
Do you have a close connection, would you say?
Yeah, we did. I haven’t seen her for a long, long time. Yeah.
What’s she like?
She knew the path. She had decided what her destiny was going to be, and it had to be intertwined with Burma. There was no doubt about it. And she had her chart all planned out. And she wanted to do whatever she could to help the country move forward.
Did you ever imagine she would spend all those years under house arrest and, you know, isolated and kept away?
Yeah. That was a long, long time. But I’ve been following her speeches, and she said that during the years there, she did a lot of meditation, she read a lot of books. She was able to think, and follow through the radio what was happening in the world. And she said she had more time to do that, than if she was outside.
Do you think you’d still have that kinship, if you were to see her today?
I think so. Yeah. Those are bonds of childhood that you never actually sever.
What do you think the future of Burma is? You’ve seen so much from the time you were moving around, escaping the Japanese invaders, to the military Junta taking over. What now?
I think that watching what’s happening, there is tremendous amount of room for optimism. The country has a very farsighted president who released Aung San Suu Kyi, released a lot of political prisoners, demolished the censorship board so that all the newspapers can print whatever they want to do. And the man who was head of the censorship board does not have a job anymore. That’s good news for many of us, and I’m sure he is happy too, to be retired. The US also have dropped the sanctions of importing goods from Burma to the US. So, with that I think there’s going to be tremendous growth.
Which means it’s far past time for us to know how to pronounce the new name of Burma, which is …
Yes. Myanmar, has become politicized, and people will say, Oh, it’s what the new government put in. But it’s always been spelled with the M alphabet in the Burmese language. And what people don’t bring to the discussions is that the Burmese alphabet has certain letters that have more than one sound. The Fa letter has two sounds; an S and a T-H sound. The letter Ma, which is the M sound, has both M and Ba. So, you write it with M, but you pronounce it with a B. So, I’m sure when the British were there, it wasn’t that they were stupid, they heard B, so they called it Burma instead of Mynmar.
Oh, it’s always been the same name, essentially.
It’s the same name.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
But Myanmar, if you say it in Burmese, it’s Burma. So, if you said Burma, I’m sure the British heard it as Burma. And that’s why they called it Burma. But then now, it’s twisted into, one group saying, No, it’s the regime calling it Myanmar, and another saying, No, we don’t want what the regime does, and so forth, and so on. But actually, it’s all linguistics.
Do you think you can tell something about someone from the country, based on how they pronounce the name of the country?
I can tell their age. [CHUCKLE] Yeah.
After years spent earning two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate in medical sociology, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein worked to improve the status of women, and was honored nationally for her work. Along the way, she and husband Jack Reynolds raised two children. Dr. Thein has spent the greater part of her career serving as executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, a Chinatown-based nonprofit in Honolulu that offers health and social services programs, giving a jumpstart towards self sufficiency for low income residents, immigrants, and refugees.
This particular job, where it was almost like case management, was doing what I was doing naturally anyway, helping people. And it’s not just with businesses, but also social services, helping them with new skills, English skills, occupational skills, and so forth. I have the most wonderful board, in the whole, wide world, I think. Because they totally go along with my wildcat ideas, scatterbrain ideas, if you want to call it. But the Kitchen Incubator was conceived through many community discussions with our clients. The refugee women said, We’ll never get off welfare — this was a long time ago. And we don’t have enough English, and we don’t have the education to get a good job. But we can cook; and we’ve tried, but we haven’t been able to do anything, because we have to have a certified kitchen. And they tried to work with Pizza Hut and cook during the hours that Pizza Hut wasn’t using. They tried to use bars, because the bars are shut down during the day or in the morning. And it didn’t work because of the insurance. And I just tucked that idea in the back of my mind, and when we went to the mainland, I found out that there was such a thing as kitchen incubators. And so, I did more further research on it. And I’ll tell you, Leslie, people come to you because everything is the right timing. I was looking for funds, but I didn’t know where to look. And along came this wonderful woman named Gail Fujita from EDA, the Department of Commerce.
Economic Development Agency —
Something like that? Okay.
Economic Development Administration; yeah. And she said, I heard that you’ve been talking about this kitchen incubator, we want to fund you. And I almost fell off my chair. And she helped me look for other funders, because it wasn’t enough what she could give us. And she looked for other partners that we could partner with, and just walked me through the whole process. And we had so much support. Central Pacific Bank was also key, and so was the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. And we were able to build it. That money today would be triple if we build it today.
How much did it cost then?
And when was that?
So, we have been very, very lucky with all the support that everybody’s given us, to help people start their own food-related businesses.
Well, what kinds of foods are they cooking in the kitchen incubator?
Oh, tremendous. There is a lady who’s making children’s lunches for private schools. There’s a Korean man who’s cooking Micronesian food, and he’s selling it at a Micronesian store. There is a couple who have moved out, and that’s what it’s all about. They should start their businesses and then move out at a certain point in time. They made these wonderful cakes that won awards, and they’ve now moved out to Kailua. There’s Aunty Nani, who is making cookies. And then, there’s another lady who makes Hawaii’s Best Brittle. Oh, it’s out of this world. And her name is Mary, and she’s trying to supplement her social security income and get some extra income for her needs.
And do they all block time in the kitchens?
Yes, they do. So, they can come in the morning, or afternoon, or evening; anytime that they want.
Oh, you must feel so wonderful, knowing that you had a hand in getting that going.
Well, I like food. [CHUCKLE] And people at my organization, we like food. And so, I always tell the story that when we were outlining our values with a workshop leader, we came up with the usual, integrity, spirit of aloha, so forth, teamwork. And the staff came up with food as one of the values. For refugees, it’s the only way they can go home. For immigrants, that’s the way they go home. For different immigrants of different cultures, we share food, we like each other’s food, and that’s how we can relate to each other. The kitchen incubator is a very important project, because I think many of them have learned that we have to move away from total dependency on government funding, and there’s such a movement as social enterprise. We have projects that will bring in some extra revenue, which we then use into the programs. That’s how we’ve been able to fund our program.
And do you know how many businesses have been created as a result of the incubator?
Oh, yeah; at least four to five hundred, over the years.
And you do more than the incubators, as well.
You mentioned social issues.
Yes. We help immigrants who want to get their citizenship. We help fill out their forms, we help tutoring them for their citizenship classes.
Don’t you have an English as a Second Language Class too?
Yes, we do.
I sat in, years ago, on one of your classes. I never knew how they did that, how the teacher couldn’t know any of the languages, but would still be able to —
Be able to teach.
— teach English.
Yes; it is something like an immersion, but on the other way. So, it’s been very, very rewarding to have English classes. We did have Punahou Schools come and volunteer to help the children and their families with English language practice. Among our refugees, we also help the human traffic victims and their families. And we help to get them settled, get them jobs, and get their kids into school, and so forth. We have a project called The Hawaii Language Bank, and we provide on-the-spot translation, as well as translation.
How has your program changed over the years? You have anything new happening?
We are converting a gas-powered car into an electric car. One of our staff donated his car, and we have got a kit, and it’s now ready, to have the car on the streets. Our rationale was to help our clients who are not well-to-do, because they can’t afford a thirty-two-thousand-dollar car from Nissan. But with a kit that’s like three or four thousand, and then the labor that’s given, maybe couple more thousand, maybe with five, max six thousand, they can get an electric-powered car.
And they could help convert other people’s cars.
Right; exactly. So, we would have teams learning how to do that, more and more people will learn how to do it. Another project that we have is the farms. We were able to get farmland. We leased farmland from Hawaii Ag Foundation, and many of our human traffic victims who are farmers are able to farm on the land. Because they were having trouble getting leases, and so, we stepped in. It’s almost like an agricultural incubator. Each of them got five acres, and we’ve worked with CTA from University of Hawaii College of Tropical Ag and Human Resources, and they said that with the new technology of agriculture, you can live very well on five acres. So we used the five-acre model, and everybody got five acres.
And these are truck farms; they just pull up and cultivate it every day.
They don’t live on the property.
Oh, no; they don’t. But we’ve had our first harvest, and now they’re on to their second harvest.
Yes; yeah. [CHUCKLE] And along with that, we have pop-ups, where we’re helping chefs who want to start their own restaurants. So, they get to use our Lemongrass Café in Chinatown. They cook there, and then people will sign up to come to their pop-up, and they will test out their recipes to see if they can get a following.
So, it’s restaurant for a night kind of thing?
Yes; restaurant for a night.
Dr. Tin Myaing Thein’s commitment and passion for her work have been recognized by many organizations. Honors include the East West Center Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Hookele Award for Nonprofit Leadership. Married for forty-six years at the time of this taping in 2012, she and her husband Jack, who’s now retired from his management consultancy, are the proud grandparents of two. They’re also close to their extended family that includes Myaing’s sister, cousins, nieces, nephews both here in Hawaii and in Burma. Thank you, Dr. Tin Myaing Thein, for sharing your long story short. And thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou, until next time. Aloha.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
What’s the budget of the Pacific Gateway Center?
It’s about two million.
You make a lot happen with two million dollars, don’t you?
Yeah; we have to, because my staff, they are very dedicated, and they’re very motivated, and they know that ours is not a nine-to-five job. When there’s a problem with an immigrant who has a domestic violence issue, you just can’t say, Oh, it’s five o’clock, time for me to go home.
Right; see me in the morning at nine.
Yeah, right; take two aspirins. And so, we have to go and extract the wife or anything that needs to help save somebody else. There are issues when somebody’s life is at stake or their welfare is at stake, and we have to continue on.
Leading the University of Hawaii at Hilo into the Future
In this edition of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox talks story with Rose Tseng, who recently stepped down as Chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Tseng oversaw the transformation of UH-Hilo into a world-class university, leading the way during a 12-year era of growth, innovation and expansion.
Tseng’s life story starts in China during World War II. Coming to the US as a college student — speaking little English — she distinguished herself as a student, teacher and ultimately the first Asian-American woman to lead a four-year university.
Since arriving in Hilo in 1998, Tseng has dedicated herself to improving educational opportunities, solving community issues and promoting international cooperation and understanding. In addition to being a scholar, scientist and educator, Tseng is known for her talent in bringing together people, resources and communities to set goals and achieve a common vision.
Hawaii should really unite the world through—I mean, whether it’s culture, the political. We are in between East and West. If we could be the model for the world, then you will have better world peace. I think the world is one place. If people understand each other, there should be less war. And there will be less competition, but more collaboration. But Hawaii kids have to learn that first.
Rose Tseng is a product of East and West. She was a Chinese immigrant who came to the US as a college student, and came up through the academic ranks to become the first Asian American woman to lead a four-year institution of higher learning. In a dozen years, as chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Dr. Tseng was a catalyst for innovation and growth. Her story is next, on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. If you don’t live on the Big Island, you may not recognize the name Rose Tseng. But once you’ve heard her story, you’re not likely to forget her. When Dr. Tseng became chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo in 1998, she brought a can-do spirit, a collaborative approach, and a sense of urgency that would transform the school during her twelve-year tenure. She was born in China, and given the name Yun-Li. Both of her parents were medical doctors who took care of patients, regardless of ability to pay.
You started life in northeastern China, in the same province that gave us Confucius. What was that early childhood like?
Well, I was five when I left Shandong, which the Confucius was born. I have no relation with him.
But you know, I remember I was the third in the family. We have a pretty good house, but it’s a courtyard with four quarters. We are the south quarter, and my family, four of us, and my parents, live in there. And the north quarter was the [INDISTINCT] for grandparents, and the relatives. And we were comfortable. But my mother was always working. Sewing, and things like that, even though she was a doctor.
Your mother was a professional who was raising her children at the time she was working.
Did she talk with you about the whole concept of having it all, and what her opinion of that was?
My mother came from a traditional family, so she also tell me, You have to be good woman and mother, and lady, and granddaughter, you know, whatever mother eventually too. So I had to learn how to sew, and I have to learn to—I mean, being a woman means you have to manage the house with little money. And she is pretty perfectionist, and she taught us that woman has even more responsibility than man. But still, you have to be good in the world. You have to compete with the world, ‘cause she showed example. Because her skill, she was able to make the living, and carry the responsibility for the children, and for a lot of money in the family came from her clinic. ‘Cause my father get—you know, public servant is very little money, beginning of Taiwan. So I am the second daughter. We have older brother, my older sister, and me. I would say … come to me, she didn’t have a really, really strong hope for me to be the best in the world or something. But she just feel like, you have to do your best, do your best, do your best. Contribute. [CHUCKLE]
So it was by position of child, what the expectations were?
Yeah. My older brother got the highest expectation. He has to be perfect in everything. By the time when I get there, I had to be good, but I don’t think I have to be the first in my class all the time.
After World War II, Rose Tseng’s family moved to Shanghai, and then to Taiwan, to avoid the spread of Communism.
What was Taiwan like for the family who had just arrived?
Taiwan was very rural and very tough that time. ‘Cause right after second world war, Japanese moved away, and China, Taiwan is Republic of China. And there’s nothing. No school, and nothing. [CHUCKLE] No economy. I mean, the agriculture was bad, everything was bad. So we move in, my mother is a pediatrician and gynecologist. And they found jobs. Yeah, they found jobs in a military hospital first. And my mother finally, with four kids, she couldn’t work, so she had a clinic in the house. We had to help out. No babysitter, nothing luxury, but we get clothes, we got food, and we go to school, public school. And so we had a pretty tough—not really, really poor, poor life, but not luxury at all.
A lot of people would figure, since both parents were physicians, there’d be affluence.
No; no, not in the old days in Taiwan right after the war. Taiwan was very poor. Actually, we were not the poorest. Some of my classmate had no shoes. Some of my class—well, I even personally didn’t have anything more than maybe one pair of shoes. And we had to make our own clothes. Even when I was twelve, I have to make all my uniforms myself.
Did your parents communicate values to you about work, and community?
Yeah; yeah. I think that’s what daily, they showed us. Even though they were kinda poor, they have a clinic in the house, my father immediately come back from the hospital, university hospital and medical school hospital, he had fulltime job there, make very little money. But then he come back, he immediately take his clothes off, and treat the patients. And many of the patients don’t pay. That time, they don’t have money. So my mother kind of help out, and she did the kids and the mother, and the father does the surgery and all that. I know they were busy all night, and on the weekends. Very little pay. But I see them doing that. I thought, Well, that’s life.
Did your parents, as physicians, encourage you to go into the medical field?
Not really. Actually, they probably told all of us, Don’t become physician. Or they kind of, maybe informally, we saw how they do, seven days a week, and the house is open for the public all the time. And we decided, none of us want to be physician. They think scientist or educators are the best. And they also don’t like us to make money, either. They said, Making money is not good. So in a way, none of us went into business. We all become scientists or—
What was the bias against making money?
I don’t know. My parents just tell us from—they warn, people who are rich are not as good as people who are poor. Or something like that.
Did your father ever explain why he was willing to take in people that he knew would probably never pay him?
I think it’s kind of—I don’t think they had to say it. Basically, we grew up that way. When the patient comes in, we all have to disappear, or go to the back yard.
When there’s a need, you fill—
M-hm. We saw them doing that. And I think, yeah, maybe it’s just their education, their life, and they just show us. And they’re very happy. We saw them busy, but they were happy.
Her parents’ work ethic was reinforced by Rose Tseng’s teachers, who recognized her potential, and encouraged academic excellence.
They would say, You’re good, but you’re not working hard enough. You have to work hard enough. And that was when I was thirteen, my seventh grade, actually eighth grade teacher tell me I didn’t work hard enough. And lo and behold, I started working hard enough. I got everything. And I got exam from the high school entrance exam, which was big deal. And I thought, Well all I have to do just little hard work. So from then on, this teacher told me, You’re good in math, science, but you’re not really good in PE. You better learn PE. I thought, Oh, I don’t like PE. But then she told me, But you cannot be successful, you’re not healthy. So a lot of things is hard work by somebody influence you all along.
When you were born in the same province where Confucius was born, my guess is, you were not named Rose.
How did you get the name, Rose?
Actually, my teacher was a Catholic nun. She said, Hmm, you all have to pick a name. She gave me a long name, and then Rose. And Mary, I think. And you know, I thought, Oh, I want a shorter one. But Mary was in every textbook, so I don’t think I want Mary. So Rose was the one. [CHUCKLE]
And Rose is a nice, classic name.
Yeah, I thought. And I understand the color, and I understand, I mean, I understand what a rose is. So I said, Okay, I’ll pick that name. I never knew I will stick to this for the rest of my life. I thought was using a lang—but I never use Yun-Li anymore.
Rose Tseng started college in Taiwan, where she studied chemistry and engineering. While she was away at school, her parents moved to Ethiopia to work for the World Health Organization. When Rose went to visit them, she caught the travel bug, and decided it was time for a move of her own.
I told them I’m not going back to Taiwan, and I’m gonna apply for some college in the United States. And I look in the United States, I decided the east, west, and I got admission for East Coast, West Coast, UCLA, and the university in the East Coast. And Kansas State, I decided. And I told them I’m going to Kansas State. They said, Hmm, okay. I mean, they didn’t say one thing or the other too. They gave me like—I remember, a thousand dollars in 1962, not a whole lot of money. That’s the only money they gave me. From then on, I was on my own.
So you began applying for scholarships?
Yeah; I did. And I thought Kansas was cheaper, a little bit than UCLA, like maybe a hundred dollar cheaper for tuition per year. But that make a difference. So then, I went to work in a lab, and I work in the summer as a waitress.
What about the language? When did you learn English?
Actually, I did not learn alphabet until twelve … seventh grade. And I went to school a year early, so in seventh grade, I was twelve. And then I didn’t learn English until, really, Ethiopia. I went to Ethiopia, and I didn’t know how to speak, except English, so I start practicing. By the time I get to Kansas, maybe two months later, I was fine. I was able to understand enough, ‘cause I took—I mean, I was a pretty good student in high school. So I took all the English grammar, writing, and when I went to Kansas, most people thought I could speak English. But there were things that I really didn’t understand. But yeah, I just learned by trial.
And no problem getting a job, no problem with your schoolwork?
Mm, no, no problem with schoolwork. Schoolwork, my math and science is so strong, so my chemistry, I get A’s. But I remember taking speech communication; that was tough. I remember taking American history, and social science; that was tough, because I have to do all these questions in certain time. I understand it, but I’m slower to reading all these long questions. But it was tough for the first couple years.
Rose Tseng earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Kansas State University, and then, once again, she headed West with a scholarship to UC Berkeley, where she would earn her master’s and PhD in nutritional sciences, with minors in biochemistry and physiology.
Kansas was very nice, I learned everything. But I miss ocean too much. I grew up in Taiwan, and I miss ocean. I also miss tofu.
I also miss—
Not a lot of that in Kansas, right?
No; no. And vegetable and fruit, and fish. And things I missed too much. So Berkeley gave me a scholarship, and actually I had scholarship, and then for Berkeley fellowship to match up tuition and everything. And so I went there. And of course, Berkeley is a good school, too.
Let’s talk a little bit about meeting your husband. Because he would become your lifetime companion.
Right, right. And we met in Berkeley. And he was a graduate student, I was a graduate student. We both came from Taiwan. And we got to know each other. And we met in the library. We were studying in the library, so we’re both are not rich. So we go to movie together occasionally.
But same values and—
—you could understand his profession as well.
And then, how did you decide, when it came time to go into the working world, whose career led?
Well, I think that part, I’m still traditional Chinese—was traditional Chinese. I married, change to his name, I felt that must be done. And then I was following him. And I finished my PhD earlier, but I did a year post-doc, waiting for him to decide where he want to go.
And then you went where he wanted to go.
M-hm, yeah. He want—
San Jose. He got recruited to IBM. So he moved to San Jose, which is not very far from Berkeley.
And then you found a job there—
M-hm, m-hm. Actually, I stayed home for half a year, trying to say, I don’t need to work anymore, I can just enjoy life with a little kid. My first daughter is one year old that time. But I found myself immediately got into San Jose State, teaching part-time, and San Jose City, teach chemistry part-time. And then I start feeling I’ll enjoy the teaching, and enjoy research, so I went back, and they recruited me fulltime. And then I found the first Department of Nutrition and Food Science at San Jose State when I was like twenty-seven.
And when you became the chair of the department—
—was that where you wanted to end up?
No, I did a lot of things by chance. Because they didn’t have a department chair, and they asked me to do it, I did it. [CHUCKLE] And I think I just kinda grew into it, because I was developing new curriculum, I was doing research, I was advising students. So I got into it.
But in the back of your head, it wasn’t, and after this, I’m gonna go do that?
No. Not really. I think if you look back, I just happened to be in the right place, and people asked me to do certain things. It just gradually happened.
What she calls chance, led Rose Tseng to take on more and more responsibility. Her ascent took her from teacher, to chair, to dean, and ultimately, chancellor; first, at a California community college system, and then at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where she became the first Asian American woman to head a four-year university. Along the way, she developed a reputation as a skilled matchmaker, with a talent for bringing together the people, resources, and funding to make things happen.
I like knowing people, and I like to build teams and how to work together. So I think basically, now I look back, maybe I was born or happened—I had the opportunity to learn these things, and I enjoy learning it. And when I learn it, I’m not very strong leader in a way, I don’t tell people what to do. We kinda work together. So I’m a facilitative kind of leader. At least in San Jose State, they tell me I was more, and even the union told me, You’re not a true, true management. You’re more like us.
But that—maybe—I don’t know what the standards were then, but now, the standard is collaborative leadership.
Yeah. Actually, I feel like I was born to do that. And I didn’t know that was the kind of things you should do. I mean, now at that time, I told my father, I’m not, I’m not the kind of dean people think I should be.
You don’t tell people what to—
—do, and when.
I don’t tell people. My father says, They want you. If they want you, they must see some good about you. You’ve been there for many years, they know you. So I think collaborative facilitating and not bossy, but still have the vision.
Were you recruited for the job of UH Hilo chancellor?
I love Hawaii. I went to Hawaii for every vacation. And lo and behold, somebody nominated me for the UH Hilo job. So anyway, so it just came my way. And so I decided to apply, decided to send my thing in the last day. And it fits. It fits, because I want to get a smaller place, I want to go back to research, and meeting with people, and get culture and science. I’m a scientist, but with really understanding of culture and minority culture, and indigenous culture. I love to learn that. So it fits after a while, I thought, Well, this is my destiny. I go around the world, going back between East and West.
Well, you say it fits. But I can think of a couple of reasons why it might not have fit. For one, you’re a hard-charging leader, and Hilo sometimes resists change. It wants things done on its own time. And you were from the outside, too.
Two things that could have kiboshed the deal, as they could have really hurt you, unless you figured a way around them.
I think I was maybe took me a little while to figure out. But I did ask community, What do you want? I said, I came in from outside, don’t ask me for the vision of the university. Even though I was a couple years ago, I was on the accreditation team for UH Manoa, so I knew a lot about UH system. So I thought Hilo was intriguing, because this is the second university in the State of Hawaii, and still hasn’t really polished
No, and it was feeling very, very marginalized by—
—the UH system.
A little bit, I think, the people there all feel that way. So go back to, I came in, first few month, I learned and tried to ask the community, What do you really want? And they say, What’s your vision? And I said, I don’t really have a strong vision. I want to get better, but I want to get the university better, the community better, and the State better, help the State better, and getting East and West connection better to Hawaii. And very vague. But then they gave me input. I had a survey, literally, being a scientist. And I taught research methodology, I did a survey. And everyone fill in. I couldn’t believe people fill in six-page things what they want to do. So I came out with goals, and finally followed the goals. Making university better, making more native Hawaiians, and making culture and science together, and getting more resource, getting university bigger, getting true, true residential university. And a lot of things fits what I like to do. And they came from the community, not just from me.
I know you’ve said that the success of a university is tied to the community’s success.
And both can help each other.
How did you go about connecting the two better?
I think my purpose is, if we all want certain thing together, like in Hilo, the leadership together, whether it’s union leaders, whether it’s a business leader, or community builder, native Hawaiians, we eventually see the same thing. Want to be a better place for the next generation, and want Hawaii to be a better place.
Everybody wants the place to be better, but so many have different ideas about how to do that. And you’ve had to navigate some interesting—
—contradictions or schisms between, say, Western science and Hawaiian culture, and the feeling about Mauna Kea being a sacred place.
Yeah. That’s one, people tell me is very, very difficult. I didn’t find it that difficult. ‘Cause I want, first of all, it’s sincere from my heart. I really believe native Hawaiians have so many good culture, good language that we really, as a Hawaiian state, especially in Hilo has more native Hawaiians. We have to make that the best. So I encourage them and support them, and they are good. So we got a new building, we got a new PhD program, and all that. And they’re the best. Then, I have science. I’m a scientist myself. Hawaii, out of the whole place, is a natural resource. How do we protect the nature, protect the culture, and protect the science, and make the science best. Everybody have the same goal now. I would say not everybody, the majority of people says, We want the best for the children. And of course, more science, better science, as long as our kids can get involved. And that’s it, that’s it. Your kids has to get involved. Because we cannot have a foreign scientists only, even though I may be coming from mainland, but I see myself as a resident of Hawaii now. I think my university had to deliver some education so that the future—the world best telescope, like thirty million telescope, had to be able to hire our students. And they see the future, they could be the best scientist, they can get Nobel Prize, they can get discovery. And they have the hope. So we’ve been—and the Imiloa Astronomy Center is one thing Senator Inouye helped me to build that, and he has the vision, and I carry through pretty much with the help of everyone. That’s integrate culture and science. So now the kids in Big Island and everywhere understand science and culture can integrate or can help each other. And it can be the best of both worlds. We have many native Hawaiian kids are in science field now, and they’re doing very, very well. And they actually are probably better scientists, because they have the interest in their heart than many people who just become skillful, but no passion. They have the passion of protect the mountain, passion of understand the universe. They have the passion of everything they learn.
I wonder how many of those of us who are outside Hilo realize to what extent the campus changed during your twelve years as chancellor.
I’m pretty proud of that. It’s not myself. The Legislature helped, the community people helped, the students helped, the faculty helped. But we have the same goal. When we work together, things happen.
We just don’t have time to list everything that blossomed while Rose Tseng served as chancellor of UH Hilo. Just to give you an idea of developments on her watch, the school added ten new bachelor’s degree programs, six master’s degrees, and two PhD programs. It launched three new colleges, a foreign exchange program, and nine building projects. Student enrollment went up fifty percent, and funding for research grants more than tripled.
The metrics from your tenure are very impressive. But what do you think was the most fun and notable, in terms of what you did? Because this took—it was all leadership, and it took a lot of people, but what was the fun of it for you, in terms of what you did during the day?
I don’t know what’s the most fun. I think the fun during the day is to see students. And I think that’s why I decided to move from a big place to a smaller university is, the students know me, and I see them—all kind of students. The native Hawaiian, the international, the mainland students, the Oahu—and they just love it.
Can you define, perhaps, the essence of your tenure?
I would say, I did my best. This place is a better place for the community, and for the people. And in certain ways, unite the world better through East and West connection. And the kids, they are better citizens, and better global citizens than before. That’s just increment, but to the point of more broader impact to the world. And the kids are enlightened to be global citizens.
You didn’t move to Hilo until a dozen or so years ago. Do you think you’ve found the place where you’ll live the rest of your life?
Yeah, I like Hilo. I really, really like—actually, I like Hawaii. I think I learned a lot, the last twelve years, from Hawaii. Especially Hilo, because I live there. People are so sincere. People are so pure. And they don’t get mad. You could be the meanest person there, I think you can get mellow.
And so I enjoyed Hilo. The people say they’re slow, they’re whatever. I find they’re just so patient. I mean, most Hawaii are like that, too. I think all the Western people should come to Hawaii to learn the real aloha spirit. Not just fake aloha spirit. The sincerity, the people, the goodness of people. And you know, Hilo is really—people are very, very nice.
Your whole life, it sounds, you’ve been twenty-four/seven. What do you do when you’re just—do you ever have a time when you’re doing nothing, and really thinking about nothing? Just mellowing out?
I love education, but I don’t always like twenty-four/seven. So I decided that I need to step down, then I can have a little life, then I can still do education, and still do things for the community. And I don’t think I will ever just stay doing nothing, just for myself, and just enjoy. I don’t think I’m that kind of person yet. Maybe when I get a little older. Right now, I still would like to contribute. And I’m helping. I don’t want to be running the university, but I want to run things that helping the university, helping Hawaii, helping the State.
Rose Tseng’s advice for students graduating from high school and college is to travel, read, meet people from other places, and always keep learning. All things she continues to do, herself. Although Dr. Tseng stepped down from the chancellor’s position at UH Hilo in June 2010, retirement was not what she had in mind. She told us she’ll make herself available to help in advancing the goals of UH Hilo, and she’ll keep working for more East-West exchange. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.
For young people, I would say, read, learn, and learn from everybody. Confucius said you have learn from any three—I mean, if you are among any three, he said he can learn from the other two. Even Confucius. So I feel like I’m humble, I need to learn from everyone. And I think young people should just learn.