Candy Suiso



Original air date: Tues., Feb. 24, 2009


Program Director for Searider Productions


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.


Candy Suiso Audio


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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.


Success receiving grants… success producing broadcast TV commercials… success winning awards…


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—


We still—


–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—


And they—




–just take to it.


It was amazing




It’s incredible.


–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—


Yes, yes—




–yes, yes.


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.


They know—


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.


Yes; 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 back.


–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.




And it was so exciting; we felt like rock stars.




Thank you for that.



Kelvin Taketa



Original air date: Tues., Jun. 22, 2010


Building Links Between Subcultures in Hawaii


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.


Kelvin Taketa Audio


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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.


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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—


And being—


—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—


Wow, that’s—


—strong opinions.


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]




I guess.


Yeah; and you’ll have to make the choice.


Yeah. Right.


‘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.


Yeah, use—




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.


Yeah. Definitely.


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.


Did you?


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—


It was.


—you rode.


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.


True words.


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.


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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.



Ramsay Taum


Original air date: Tues., Mar. 4, 2014


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.


Ramsay Taum Audio


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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.


Eventually. Yeah.


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.


For example?


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.


It was.


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.


It is.


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 To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit


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



Original air date: Tues., Aug. 5, 2008


Stories of Faith and Family


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.”


Cha Thompson Audio


Download the Transcript




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.




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.


The prettiest.




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?


No; no.


All Pidgin?


Yeah; yeah.


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]


That’s great.


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.




Big achievement.




Then what?


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]


–see that


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.


You defer to God.


I do. I do; all the time.



Dr. Tin Myaing Thein


Original air date: Tues., Jan. 22, 2013


Different Shores


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.


Download: Tin Myaing Thein, Different Shores Transcript



Original air date: Tues., Jan. 29, 2013


Forthright and Strong


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.


Download: Tin Myaing Thein , Forthright and Strong Transcript




Part 1: Different Shores


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


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.


Yes; exactly.


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?


Five million.


And when was that?


  1. 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.




It’s amazing.


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.


Right; right.


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.


What are they growing?


They’re growing cucumbers, tomatoes, … peppers, eggplant, sweet peas.


There you are, back to food again.


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


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.




Rose Tseng



Original air date: Tues., Sept. 28, 2010


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.


Rose Tseng Audio


Download the Transcript




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—


Yeah; m-hm.


—the need.


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—


Same values.


—you could understand his profession as well.


Uh-huh, uh-huh.


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—


Which was?


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—




—as well?


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—


M-hm, m-hm.


—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.


M-hm, m-hm.


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.


M-hm, yeah.


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


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.



Lawrence Tseu


Original air date: Tues., Jan. 17, 2012


Nationally Recognized Honolulu Dentist and Philanthropist


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Lawrence Tseu, a nationally recognized Honolulu dentist and philanthropist. As a boy who grew up poor in Kalihi, Lawrence shined shoes and sold newspapers to pay for his tuition at St. Louis. Dr. Tseu talks about the joys and struggles of growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood and his journey to dentistry.


Lawrence Tseu Audio


Download the Transcript




Like the old saying goes, you can take a boy out of Kalihi, but you cannot take the Kalihi out of the boy. It’s hard to forget the past, where you grew up. It’s always gonna be a part of you, even though you’re not living there anymore.


He was a resourceful kid on the streets of Kalihi and Chinatown during World War II, and his journey has taken him from poverty to the pinnacle of philanthropy in Hawaii, and beyond. The life of Lawrence Tseu of Honolulu 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. In this edition of Long Story Short, Dr. Lawrence K.W. Tseu is accustomed to being asked for money, and he has a soft spot for those in need because he knows what it’s like. He grew up poor during the Depression, started working when he was just nine years old, and eventually rose to become a local titan of philanthropy. Lawrence Tseu once lived with a loving family in what he recalls as a hut on the wrong side of the tracks.


We know you as a kid from Kalihi, but you actually were not born in Hawaii.


No, I was born in Hong Kong, because my dad is from Hawaii, born and raised in Hawaii. And after college, he went to Hong Kong to try his luck in business, and he met my mother who’s from Shanghai, and I was born in Hong Kong. And when I was three years old, we came back to Hawaii.


Now, your father was an educated man with a master’s degree.


Yes. Well, he was in the First World War. He volunteered, actually, at seventeen, forged his parents’ signature to go to France to fight. And he received three Purple Hearts and participated in seven major campaign battles. So, on his way back on the troop ship, he stopped by in New York and decided he wants to get an education. So, he worked his way through Columbia University, and then got his master’s degree from New York University, NYU.


But then, you grew up poor in Kalihi.




Could he not get the job he wanted?


Well, here’s what happened. When he went to Hong Kong to try his business, he was quite successful, met my mother in Shanghai. And my mother, of course, came from a very wealthy family in Shanghai. The father was the major owner of a large department store called Daisun, who was in competition with Wing On Company in Hong Kong and Shanghai. So they were quite wealthy. When my grandfather passed away, my uncle took over the business kinda, and he wasn’t a very good businessperson, so we kinda lost some money. So my dad said, Well, maybe let’s go back home and try our luck back in Honolulu.


And how did it go in Honolulu?


Well, when he came back, he started a rattan furniture business, and all of his supplies came from the Philippines. So when the war started, of course, he lost his supplies and his material to make furniture. So at that point, we were quite destitute. No income, no business, and so we just went bankrupt.


And so, what did he do? How did he fight the Depression?


Well, he was an in engineer, and so, he went to work for the Navy. And then we kind of built ourselves up again from working for the Navy at Pearl Harbor during the war.


What was life like in Kalihi? What street did you live on? What was your neighborhood like?


The area that I grew up on was considered the poorest area of Kalihi. You had the area below the railroad track, and the area above the railroad track. And the railroad track is actually Nimitz Highway right now. Now, the best area of Kalihi was Kalihi Valley. That was considered the Waialae Kahala of Kalihi.


And what was it like living there?


Well, we had a small house, just cold running water, and no garages. It was a very simple small, little hut, actually.


Did you play on the street?


Yes. Yeah.


You didn’t go to parks or anything?


Oh, no; there wasn’t very many parks then. The only place that really had grass was the Bishop Museum. And so, my brothers and I would go to the Bishop Museum every so often, so we can run on the grass to get that good feeling. You know how it feels to run on the—


And how did you get around? How did you get up to Bishop Museum?


Oh, we walked. There was no such thing as a bike, or riding something. We just walked. Everything was walking.


Now, you started working at a very young age, and it wasn’t because you were hired, it was because you made your own job. What was that all about?


Well, right after the Pearl Harbor, my mother said, You know what, now’s a good time to make money. I said, How? She said, Well, you go shine shoes. I said, But I never shined shoes before, I don’t know how it’s done. So, I asked my neighbors, to help me make a shoebox from an orange crate. So my brother and I, my older brother, he’s just about thirteen months older than I am.


And how old were you?


I was nine and a half, and he was ten and a half. So we managed to somehow make a shoebox, and we went to town to buy polish to shine shoes. Now, we never shined shoes before. We don’t have no idea how it’s done. [CHUCKLE]


And how did you set the price?


Well, it was ten cents a shine.


Oh; okay. That, you knew; okay.


Yeah, that, I knew.


Well, where did you go to get your customers?


We’d go to town. And at that time, there were a lot of sailors.


Ah …


See, sailors are the only one that shine their shoes. The soldiers had these boots, so you can’t shine the boots. So sailors were mostly ninety-nine percent of our customers.


What was your corner? Did you have a special place?


Yes. The Kalihi bunch was right across the street from Hawaii Theater on Bethel Street. And we used to call that Battle Street, because we had to defend our area.


Was there competition among the Kalihi boys?


No, no.


All friends?


We all helped each other, yeah.


Do you think that says something about the Kalihi neighborhood?


Well, maybe because the poverty and the closeness, we kinda stuck together. So we were the only ones in town that had what you call a gang to protect our area. So, the other shoeshine boys were just stragglers. They’d come and go, and different areas. But we had our set street, and it was very, very lucrative.


Were there other ways to make money, besides shining shoes?


I don’t know whether I should … well—


It sounds like you should. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] Well, there was another way that I used to make my money, besides shining shoes and selling papers. These young sailors, they’d come into town, and they want a good time. Prostitution was legalized, and so they would show me, bad pictures and say, Hey, sonny boy, where can I get some of this? I said, Oh, I know where. And they said, Well, take me to the place. I said, Oh, I’m not gonna take you unless you pay me first. They say, What do you mean? I said, Well, you each give me a quarter, and I’ll take you folks, and show you.


More than shoe shines.


Yeah. Oh, yeah, I clean up. [CHUCKLE] Some days, I really did well.


And you were how old, now?


Ten years old; I was ten. So, once we arrived at the place, I said, Okay. We called them mates. I said, Okay, mate, here’s the situation; this corner is Caucasian. We used to call them Haoles. I said, This corner is Haole girls, it’s ten dollars. Across the street is local girls, but young and pretty, it’s five dollars. And I said, on this corner is older local girls, it’s two dollars.




I used to be the grocery boy for one of the madams. And every Saturday, I would meet her at, I think, about ten o’clock in the morning, and I would go Chinatown shopping with her. And I would carry her bags, and then we would go back to the house of prostitution.


Did your mother know you were doing this?


No, I wouldn’t dare tell her.


And how long did you do that? Starting at nine and a half.


Yeah, until the war ended.


And how much of a help was it to your family? Oh, well, what did you with the money? Did it all go to your family?


What I’d usually do was, at the end of the day, I would cash in the coins for dollar bills. And on a good day, on a Saturday, we’d make as much as ten dollars on a good day. So I would cash it all in for dollar bills, and we’d bring it home to my mother. We’d give it to her.


The whole thing?




You didn’t even go get a soda?


No. In fact, we never ate lunch, when we were shining shoes. We saved as much money as we can. So one day, my mother said, Oh, what did you folks have for lunch? I said, We don’t eat lunch. And she said, Why not? We want to save the money. So she gave us a good scolding and said, From now on, you have to go to eat, and you have to eat lunch. So right on Pauahi and Bethel Street was a fountain. The old fashioned fountain where you come up on a stool, and sit and be served on the counter.


Yeah, right. Ice cream floats, and everything.


Yeah, right, right. So what we did was, between my brother and I, I would eat first, because was younger. So we’d order a tuna sandwich and two Cokes.


And you’d have half sandwich each?






We would split the sandwich. [CHUCKLE]


Because you were saving money.






So I would have my own Coke, and my brother would have half the—I eat half of the sandwich, and then when I’m done, he would hop on the stool and he has his half of the sandwich. [CHUCKLE]


So that ten dollars, how much did that help your family, in the money of that time?


Well, in the early 40s, ten dollars goes a long ways.


I understand you started going to private school, and paying your own tuition?




Could that be true?




As a fifth grader?


The tuition then at St. Louis was only hundred fifty dollars a year. And when you shine shoes and make maybe three, four dollars on a weekday, and then maybe seven, eight bucks on a Saturday—


Oh, you were doing it weekdays, too?


Oh, yeah, after school. So that’s why John Henry Felix always said, Oh, we make more than our parents.


Was that true, literally?


Well, almost. Yeah, we did make some good money.


Now, he was a Papakolea boy that you kind of took under your wing, your gang joined up with.




And he’s your close friend to this day. And he has a PhD, he’s been a City Councilman, he’s a business magnate.


Yes. He is what I call a success story.


Right about this time, you decided you wanted to be a dentist, at this early age.


Yes, from the age of twelve, I told myself, I want to be a dentist.




While I was in Puuhale School, all the poorest of the poor were entitled to go to Palama Settlement for their dental work. To be poor, you don’t qualify. You gotta really be destitute, practically, almost. So I would get my dental checkup by going to Palama Settlement, see? And one time, I had a very, very passionate, gentle dentist that it was so painless, and caring and careful. That impressed me so much that I said, Someday I want to be a dentist and be like him.


And from that time on, you were used to pretty much taking care of yourself.


Yes. After the war, I got a job as a service station attendant, or a mechanic helper, but I’m always working, since I was nine and a half.


So after you graduated from St. Louis, you had a goal to go to college.


Yeah. Well, I wanted to go to college, but didn’t have money, so I joined the service. And so, I joined the Air Force, because I didn’t want to dig foxholes. We come from a very patriotic family. My dad, like I said, at seventeen, signed up for World War I. So, when we became of age, he said, You know, freedom is not cheap. There’s a price for freedom, and I want all of you boys to go in the service. I don’t want to see you guys get drafted. So my oldest brother went in the Navy, my other brother went into the Army, airborne paratrooper, and then my younger brother went into the Marines, and I went into the Air Force.


So you’re in the service, and you’re earning a GI Bill, right?


Yes. So, the GI Bill I got was seventy-five dollars a month, and if you’re married, you had an additional seventy-five dollars. So a hundred fifty dollars, I started college.


You got accepted to dental school after college.


Yes. So of course, in college, I had to work my way through college, because the GI Bill didn’t cover all of it. And then she worked as well, yeah?


And did you have kids while you were still in college?


Yes; yes, uh-huh. So when I started dental school, I had two children already.


And dental school, I always think of that as, it’s a professional school, and people don’t work while they go. But you worked fulltime in dental school.


I had to work. There was no choice. So what I used to do was, school gets through at five, and I would to go to school, and reach my workplace at six. So six to twelve every night, and then I get home by one o’clock. And then I would eat my dinner, and study, until six-thirty, and then I’d get up to go to school.


And was the dental training what you hoped it would be? Did you love it? Because this is something you had decided so long before.


Oh, I enjoyed every minute of dental school. I really enjoyed the challenge, and what I’d learn every day was new, that I graduated tops in my class, in spite of working.


And you went to a very good school, as well.


Yeah. Northwestern, at that time when I applied, was the number one dental school in the country. It was known as the John Hopkins of dental school. Most pre-med students would apply to John Hopkins, most or all pre-dental students want to apply at Northwestern.


So you not only got in, but you were top of class.


Yes. My children would ask me, Hey, Dad, what makes you so motivated? And I would say, I’m tired of being hungry and poor, and people looking down on me, and I want to make something out of myself to escape the stigma of Kalihi.


Now, your kids didn’t have that stigma, and presumably, they didn’t grow up in Kalihi.




So, do you consider them blessed, or do you think maybe everybody needs to grow up in Kalihi and understand the hardship


Well, that’s a very good question. Because I let them know that I grew up in Kalihi, and that it takes a lot of discipline and appreciation to get out of Kalihi, and that what they have now, they should appreciate because they don’t have to go through the hardship to learn what I’ve learned.


But do they have the same motivation you did?


Well, for some reason, they must have, because they all did quite well in their professions.


Have you actually retired? Because it seems like you’re at your office a lot, you’re still involved. And if you retired, you must have done it fairly recently.


Yes. Well, after my wife passed away, before she passed away, she made me promise her that after she’s gone, that I would quit my practice. Because, she feels that even while she was alive, I put so much hours into my practice that without her, probably I might work myself to death. So she said, Okay, Honey, you gotta promise me, when I’m gone, you have to quit your practice and enjoy life. So, a year ago April, April 1, 2010, I officially completely cut myself off from my practice.


And do you miss it?


I miss my patients. The dental work itself is a source of income, but I miss the interaction with my patients. They were like family. Every six months on their checkup, it’s a nice family reunion. I remember their kids, and their accomplishments, and it’s kind of a very, very pleasant reunion. And I miss my patients. I love ‘em all, and they’re really precious to me.


While Lawrence Tseu was busy running his dental practice in Honolulu, a mutual friend introduced him to the woman who would become his second wife. Bo Hing Chan was raised in China, educated in Europe, and lived in Hong Kong. She came to Hawaii to vacation, and to seek business contacts for a jewelry enterprise.


She’s the daughter of a famous general and the former governor of Canton. And she came on vacation to Hawaii, and we met through a friend. I never believed in love at first sight. But after I met my wife … it can happen.


Did she feel that way, too?


Yes, exactly.


She had inherited wealth, and you were self-made.


Most Chinese don’t give the money to the daughters; they give it to the sons. A well-to-do Chinese family would send their children to Europe, at that time, to be educated. And that’s where my wife went, to Oxford, and University of Paris. But the girls are not deprived of any conveniences or comfort, but they don’t inherit money. If they do, it’s a very small amount.


But your wife built a fortune?


On her own. She was quite an entrepreneur.


So you had a very close relationship, and she really influenced your thinking about a lot of things.


She’s very philanthropic in many ways, so she said, With the money that we have, we should share our blessings; so do continue to help the underprivileged and help the poor. You can’t take the money with you anyway, and you can’t spend it all, so do some good with it, and help the underprivileged.


Is that something you had been involved in before?



Well, I think I got part of it from my grandfather. Most people don’t realize it, but my grandfather, when he came from China to help the Damon family, promote religion to the Chinese, he established the um, Palolo Chinese Home with the Damon Family to help the single Chinese men that had no place to go when they got old. So I think I must have inherited some of that tendencies to help.


I have to say that it’s such a blessing to have the money to share with others. How do you decide who to give to?


Well, my criteria is mostly to help the underprivileged children. But it all started because I was poor myself, and my dad always mentioned, and my parents of course, mentioned that education is one way to get out of poverty. So I thought, if I can help educate the underprivileged, that would get them out of poverty. Some people inherit wealth, yeah, and they can do well with the money. But if you have an education, to me, that’s one way to meet up with the wealthy, to be on an equal level playing field, so to speak.


What other projects have caught your attention?


Healthcare is also important. I’m involved with the American Cancer Society, because my sister and my wife passed away from cancer, so I have special feelings to help the American Cancer Society.


What’s the gift you’ve given—and you’ve given millions of dollars to charities. What’s the one that’s given you the most personal pleasure or pride?


University of Oxford is, I think, one of my greatest accomplishments as far as getting involved with that institution. It was through, of course, John Henry Felix, and of course, my wife got her master’s degree from University of Oxford. So that’s how there’s a tie to Oxford.


Don’t you have buildings named after you at the University of Oxford?


The newest building at Harris Manchester College was named after my wife and I because of our contribution to that college.


And you also have contributed to the construction of a medical institute?


Yes, I established the Tseu Medical Institute at University of Oxford to do research in diabetes, AIDS, and cancer.


With the major exception of Oxford University, Dr. Lawrence Tseu tries to put his money to work here in Hawaii. Among the many organizations he supports are the nursing schools at Chaminade University, and the University of Hawaii, the Boy Scouts, his alma mater St. Louis School, and he also sits on a number of nonprofit boards.


Does life look really different to you in retirement? I mean, do you care about really different things?


Not really. Because while in practice, I was also involved in a lot of nonprofit organizations, and when I retired, I just spent more time with the nonprofit organizations. So there’s not any difference, really. In fact, I spend more time now, because I have more time to devote to them.


You were married for most of your life, most of your adult life.




What’s it like being single now?


Well, let’s put it this way. I enjoy my independence. I can come and go as I please, I don’t have to account to anybody what I do. And that’s very comforting.


So it’s a good place to be?


Yes, yes. I had a good marriage, and I enjoyed it, and I don’t think anybody can replace my wife. So, no use looking. So I’m happy with my present situation. Independent, flexible, and go as I please, and come as I please.


You’ve talked about the adversity of being poor. Has there been another adversity that you think has shaped you? Because, you know, you learn more from failure than from success, and from hard times than from successful times and happy times.


What affected me most was the death of my family and my loved ones, yeah? My sister, my parents, and my wife. That kind of made me look at life with a different view, that life here is only temporary, so it’s better to help others than give, than to receive. So that has been sort of my philosophy in life.


The seed of that philosophy had been planted early on, inspired by a poem that resonated with Dr. Lawrence Tseu, even as a young man with few resources and an abundance of ambition.


My sister gave me a book, a poem book my Kahlil Gibran, who was a very famous poet. And I read through the book, and this one poem caught my eye that I felt was something that I would like to do and follow as a way of life in the future. So I can read it if you don’t mind.


I’d love to hear it.


The poem goes like this. I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there may be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer nor neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again. So, I feel that if I’m gonna do something nice, I better do it now, because I may not be able to have the opportunity to do it again.


You’ve had a long life, but do you feel life is short?


Well when I was shining shoes, it seems like only yesterday. That’s how fast life went by.


I suppose, if you enjoy your life, no matter how long you’ve lived, it’s not long enough.


Yes. You still want to do more, and you still want to help more. There’s never enough time to finish your objective in life.


Is there something you really need to do, before you pass this way?


Well, I think I’ve done all that I wanted, and accomplished all that I wanted to accomplish. I’m very satisfied camper.


That’s a lot. I don’t know how many people can say that.


M-hm. No, I don’t regret, and I’ve done everything that I wanted to do. I wanted to be a dentist, I wanted to be a pilot and fly, and raise a family, and help people, and establish whatever I can to be a Good Samaritan. So, I’ve accomplished everything I wanted. There’s nothing I regret that I have not done.


Wow. So, does that mean you can hit the snooze button?


I can check out any time. [CHUCKLE]


This conversation took place in 2011. In his eighties, Dr. Lawrence Tseu is not slowing down, let along snoozing. He continues to rise hours before dawn each day, to keep up his commitments, not only writing checks, but connecting people and doing everything he can to support the educational and charitable causes close to his heart. And the kid from Kalihi has made many trips to support work at the buildings at Oxford University in England, which bear the names of Dr. Lawrence and Bo Hing Tseu. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mahalo for being with us.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


My dad gave me a lot of advice, and so did my mom. What I remembered very clearly was what he told me one time. He said, Son, the average person learns from experience, but a wise man learns from experience of others. So when I hear things, and I listen, I would learn from what I hear, then I try to avoid that mistake.



Kent Untermann



Original air date: Tues., Oct. 30, 2007


Hawaii Entrepreneur


An entrepreneur with an inspiring story of success. Kent Untermann’s career has included playing football at the University of Hawaii, training at the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie camp – and turning a swap meet business into an operation that generates $15 million dollars a year.


Leslie Wilcox sits down with Kent to hear how he said goodbye to his NFL dreams and applied himself to success in another field – the picture framing business – starting the Hawaii company Pictures Plus.


Kent Untermann Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Today we get to hear stories from an entrepreneur with an inspiring story of success. Kent Untermann’s career has included playing football at UH, training at the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie camp – and turning a swap meet business into an operation that generates $15 million dollars a year. We’re going to sit down with Kent to hear how he said goodbye to his NFL dreams and applied himself to success in another field – the picture framing business – starting the Hawaii company Pictures Plus.


That preseason injury that took you out of the NFL, off the Dallas Cowboys team; what was it?


Well there was actually a pulled hamstring. I pulled my hamstring really badly on a workout when I was first with the Dallas Cowboys. There was a lot of misconceptions. I never actually played in the NFL; I had tried out with the Cowboys. So I want to make sure that I’m clean on that.


So you were trying out — you were at a rookie camp?


Yes; I was at a rookie camp. It was in the spring of 1985. And they were trying to rehabilitate and get it better, and by the time the season came around it still wasn’t ready, and Tom Landry, who was the coach at the time had said I could come back the following year, which I intended to. But then the injury just didn’t cooperate.


And how hard was it to leave your NFL dreams behind on the floor?


It was very challenging. I had to do a lot of soul-searching. But I really decided, and I could have pursued it, because it wasn’t as though it was really a career ending injury. However, I just decided that it was time to move on. And it was a tough decision, but it was the right decision.


Move on to what?


Well, move on to re-channeling my energies. I put a lot of effort and energy into football and I realized that I wasn’t gonna retire from football. Meaning that I was gonna do something after I played football anyway. So the sooner I decided to move on, the sooner I could start that next career, whatever that was gonna be.


So you’d already developed the discipline. Now you just needed a place to put that discipline. That’s a really good way to say it.


Yeah; a lot of disciplines were developed from my athletic career.


Is it true what I heard – that you went from trying out for the NFL to trading at a swap meet?


Yeah; there was a lot of people that thought I was really crazy, saying, ‘Kent, you can still play at the NFL and all’s you have to do is go back and try again.’ And perhaps I could have made a team. But once again, I had decided that I wanted to move on. I was very entrepreneurial and didn’t mind starting literally at the bottom. So that’s a true story.


You probably knew of other football players who didn’t give it up, and kept trying. Did you ever regret, ‘Ah, I should have given it one more shot’?


No; because I decided when I, at the time that I made the decision, I was gonna have no regrets. And so if there was a little piece of me that still wanted to pursue that then I was gonna pursue it. And so I decided at that time, if I was gonna let go, I had to let go completely. And I didn’t want to be exactly what you described. I saw so many ex-football players—and there’s a lot of ‘em. And football is kinda like acting; it’s a game of chance. And there’s a lot of good actors and good football players that never got a chance to play at that level. And so I made a conscious decision at that time, I never wanted to be one of those ex-football players that said they coulda done it.


So you came back to Hawaii where you’d gone to the UH Manoa; and how is it that you find yourself at a swap meet at that point?


Well, fortunately my wife Laurie was going through the nursing school, and we had made a commitment to each other—we weren’t married at the time, but we kinda knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. She was in the nursing school and had about another year and a half. So I had to kinda preoccupy myself with something, and had an opportunity to work for Ford Motor Company on a temporary basis. They had a bunch of extra goods left over, told me I could have ‘em, and I went and sold them at the swap meet. So that’s kinda how it all began.


And what was beginning?


Well, little would I know, it was the beginning of kind of an entrepreneurial career, which was the start of Pictures Plus.


And how did you get onto the framed pictures?


Well, I was buying and selling a bunch of different things at auctions and trading things. And I was a marketing major and I’d just find out how to market something and then I’d be out of it. And so I wanted to find something that was, that I could sell on an ongoing basis. And there was an opportunity at the time to sell these framed pictures. And so I decided to bring those in, since it looked like something that would do well at the swap meet.


And they did, obviously.


Fortunately they did; yes.


So from there you to a large, very successful business. What are your gross revenues?


Currently, they’re just over fifteen million dollars today.


And that’s back going back to what, 1986 starting at the swap meet?


Yeah, started in 1986. I actually used my small signing bonus, five thousand dollars at the time with the Dallas Cowboys, to start buying and selling things there.


And how easy was it to go from there? I mean, it’s a huge jump from the swap meet to this very large, multi-platform business.


Well, there was a number of steps along the way to get there. We obviously, fortunately at the time, the swap meet really allowed us to be successful to take those other stepping stones. But it’s been, whatever it is, a twenty-year process. So it didn’t happen overnight.


Did you have a model you were building on or a mentor advising you on this?


No, it’s really evolved. I think I’m very opportunistic, and so I recognized that there was an opportunity in a marketplace that I thought that custom framing and framed art was overpriced. And so I thought if we could buy well and bring it to market and convert it at a more affordable price that we would be able to scale and make a larger business out of it.


And what, among the services you provide and the products you offer, what’s your best source of business?


Well, our largest sales volume is custom framing, where a customer brings in something and we frame it to their specifications. It is our highest profit margin, but it’s also our highest cost of doing business. It’s extremely labor-intensive. We’ll spend thirty to forty minutes with a customer designing what they want, with no guarantees that they’ll agree to it. And then we have to make that exactly to their specifications. So it takes a lot of labor, and we try to give great value in our business. But it’s very challenging to keep that kinda price-service quotient in line.


And you know the rap Hawaii has as a bad place to do business. What have you found along the way?


You know, I’m a little bit of a contrarian, so I believe if something’s really tough, there’s opportunity; if something’s really good, then there’s opportunity. And we have been successful in Hawaii, I think, because some of the barriers to entry have been more difficult for businesses. So if you can be successful, I should say, because it’s just as challenging for everybody. But most recently, I’ve found it more challenging, just because of the low unemployment rate. And our product is very labor-intensive. So it’s been tougher lately.


Does that keep you from expanding, you think?


Yes, it does. We’re fairly done expanding. I think that we’ve penetrated the market about as well as we can. We’ve probably even gone into some markets that maybe we shouldn’t have. They’re just not large enough markets to support the way that we do business.


Did you imagine when you started at the swap meet that you were gonna be running a fifteen million dollar a year business doing picture frames?


You know, I can’t say that I did. At the time, I always like to plan and project ahead, and I thought we’d have a five million dollar a year business. So it’s tripled my expectations.


For you though, failure doesn’t seem to be an option. Actually, you see failure as a possible opportunity, right?


Yeah, I never look at, I never consider things a failure. I’ve made hundreds, thousands, I don’t know how many bad decisions in business and everything else. But every one of those is an opportunity to learn from something that you didn’t. And I’ve actually grown and gained more experience on a bad decision than I have on a good decision.


But it really, I mean, you can fail a second time too, in terms of what you do with that, quote, opportunity.


Right. You can, although if you do it right, the hope is that you learn from that, so you don’t fail again. Even though you could, but I always look at it as an opportunity. So it’s, to me, it’s not a failure unless you continue to do the same thing over and over again.


I take it the word ‘driven’ describes you.


I think that’s fairly accurate. Yeah; I think I’m relatively driven and have always been fortunate to be that way.


That’s one of the things I love about this show. I get inspired by the people I meet and the stories they tell. We’ll hear more from Kent Untermann – coming up… on Long Story Short.


So you wear many hats. Obviously, besides being a businessman and an entrepreneur, you’re a father, you’re a husband. Which of your roles tends to define you most?


Ooh, that’s a good question. You know, I’m fortunate I enjoy every one of my roles so much. I think the most challenging thing is to find that balance. But I enjoy I’ll say I enjoy being with my family the most. Absolutely, no question about it.


It’s interesting. Usually it’s women who talk about balance when they’re asked about what they enjoy most or what their biggest challenge is. You sound like an active dad.


Yeah, I’m very active. And fortunately, I just love my children, and we just have an incredible relationship. And so it’s very easy. I don’t look at it as a chore; gosh, I gotta be a dad. I really enjoy being with my wife and kids, and so it comes real natural.


And yet, the business has got to be all-consuming. But you work with your wife in the business.


I do work with my wife. Unfortunately, or fortunately, for the family she retired a couple of years ago. And she kinda ran the whole back end of it, and I run the whole front end of it. Since she’s departed, the back end of it, it’s been more responsibility on me, which has been better for the family. But I’ve been encumbered with more challenges since she’s been gone.


You know, many years ago, I was at UH Manoa commencement address by the late Herb Cornuelle. And he said that the most important choice you make in life is not your career but your choice of spouse. What do you think?


Wow. Absolutely. I have actually mentored my kids with two things. One was, be the bigger person. And then at about twelve years old, I told my wife now we have to ingrain in our kids the most important decision you make in your life is who you marry. It influences the rest of your life. So I could not agree more. I have an incredibly fabulous wife, I’m proud to say.


And you’ve been through more than one career.


Yes, I have.


But not more than one wife.


No, no, no. I have a wonderful wife and cannot say enough great things about her. And the benefit of living with someone that you are in love with, and supports you so well, is just beyond words.


So those were your two messages for your kids. Those were your foremost messages.


Yes; until my kids were about twelve years old, we just ingrained into them, be no matter what they did, it was always about being the bigger person. What that meant was, if kids did things to ‘em, it’s kinda the sticks and stones will break my bones type thing. But um, really trying to mentor them to rise above situations. And so we called it uh, you know, be the bigger person.


And the other was choose your spouse wisely?


Well, who you decide to marry will be the most important decision you make in your lifetime. So in other words, really think about that, and think about it real deeply, and how – don’t just end up with somebody. We wanted to start real young, so that perhaps when they were older and they were making a decision, if it wasn’t the right decision that we had already hopefully influenced them in the right way at a younger age.


You expect a lot of discipline from yourself. Do you expect that of your children too?


Yes. Nothing more than I would expect of myself, of course. But yeah, there is definitely a level of discipline I would expect of them.


Speaking of discipline; is fitness important to you now?


Yes, it is. I don’t – I feel a lot better when I’m taking care of myself. And it’s back to the balance thing; sometimes it’s hard to justify to work out for an hour because that’s an hour less with the family, an hour less in the business. But it’s very important to me, and I try to work out four or five times a week, and make sure that that happens for the benefit of everybody, including myself.


I know you do a lot of thinking and you like strategy. I’m surprised you didn’t consider becoming a coach.


You know, my wife always brings that up. I don’t know why I don’t have any desire. Probably because I’ve been out of football so long, I don’t really have a very high opinion of my ability to think as a coach strategically. I’m so far removed from it. I would probably enjoy working with the players and kids mentoring them. That aspect intrigues me. But the strategic and X’s and O’s part, I’m too far removed from.


So have you been watching the UH football team?


Absolutely. Enjoying every single game.


You played in ’81 to ’84 under Dick Tomey.




And June Jones was around too.


June Jones was the quarterback coach. I worked closely with him in my junior year.


And could you tell me your thoughts about how the program has progressed or moved along?


Well, I wish that I was a quarterback or receiver in the current offense. I’ll be the first to admit that. Back when I played as a tight end, which they don’t have any offense now, we weren’t sure if they knew that we were eligible. We thought they thought we were just an extension of the line.




And maybe that’s why June got rid of the tight end. But no, it’s been really enjoyable to watch. I think that June and his staff have done just a tremendous job. And it’s really been neat, kind of an entrepreneur and as an ex-UH athlete, not to knock Von Appen, but hear the, for lack of a better word, excuses that we heard back then about, oh, we can’t do it ‘cause we don’t have this and we don’t have that. And today, they still don’t have those things, yet they’ve found a way to be successful. So I really admire the job that they’ve done.


As you look at some of the controversies going on in Hawaii? The Super Ferry, which may have shown us a tipping point where people are just kind of tired of so many changes, you know, or a sign that they just see a lack of control? Do you find yourself feeling that way as well?


I actually find myself on the opposite end of it. I’m really disappointed in the behavior. I’ve been involved in a few things, and I’m all about people having a voice. I think having an opinion is wonderful. I think it’s wonderful that people can express themselves.


I think sometimes it’s how you express yourself. And just as far as an opinion on the Super Ferry, I think it’s great for the interisland folks, for commerce reasons and all that. But without getting into detail, it’s just the behavior I have seen on how people are reacting to certain things, I’m disappointed in, frankly.


Are you concerned at the direction Hawaii is going in for your kids’ sake?


What I’m most concerned about is, I have an opinion of the people of Hawaii are the most fabulous people in the world. And that’s why I’ve chosen to reside here. I, despite the challenges, I’m here because of the people. The people in this island are the most wonderful people in the world.


That’s right. This is your adopted home. You’re from Northern California, right?


Yeah. I’ve lived in California, which is a pretty nice place. But you know what? The people in California don’t measure up to the people in Hawaii in any way, shape or form. And I’m here because of the people. And so the recent behavior of the people is what’s disappointing to me.


Mm hm. What advice would you give somebody starting with, as you did, a modest sum with which to start a business in Hawaii?


Well, I think first of all, that’s the best way to start. I think it’s much easier to start small. Because when you start small, there’s not a lot of risk. I started with five thousand dollars. You know, the worst thing that would have happened is, I would have lost five thousand dollars; not the end of the world.


But it’s all you had, right?


It was all I had. But how hard is it to start over with almost nothing? I mean, starting from nothing, or almost nothing, it’s sort of nothing. So I think starting small is actually easier. I think the key to starting your business, though, is first of all you’ve gotta really want to have your own business. If you just sorta think you want to have your own business it’s not a good idea. ‘Cause it’s gonna be tougher, harder and more challenges. But like anything, if you really want it, I think you can be successful with it. And what’s an obvious mistake people make that they don’t realize going into it?


I think it’s maybe identifying their strengths and weaknesses, really being honest with yourself. Sometimes we have a tendency to think that we’re better at more things than we really are. And so if you could start in a business where your core competency or your natural skill sets could be leveraged more often, you have a higher chance of being successful.


You sound like you’re into the challenge and the process, and the achievement. Where does money fit into the equation?


I think money is more important just as far as meeting the needs of your employees and our family. Of course, my family comes first. So really meeting the needs of our family. But I have to say at times I’ve gotten too caught up in just, yeah, enjoying what you do to the extent that you sometimes take your eye off of the pure business and economic side of it.


Family first. Finding balance. Coming up next – we’ll ask Kent Untermann to share his vision for his business. One of our PBS Hawaii viewers asks this question. What inspires you, and who inspires you?


What inspires me. I think I enjoy working with people, whether it’s my kids and just the interaction, and the other thing that inspires me is just making things happen. I really enjoy taking something and trying to make it better, tweak it, noodle with it. So I think I’m inspired by making things better, improving things, adding value to it, and looking back and seeing what you’ve created. I think that drives me.


You talked about the difficulty hiring people in this kind of tight labor market. Are you concerned about this widening gulf between the haves and the have nots in our society here?


You know, I’m becoming increasingly concerned about that. I’ve watched the Gold Coast on the Big Island, and you just see these incredible dwellings – multi-million dollar houses going in. I just thought, who’s gonna service those people? How are those people gonna continue to be serviced? Even in our business, where we’re looking for service-oriented people and what we can afford to pay, and what those people can afford to live on. There’s a real gap there and a real mess. And yes, I’m very concerned about that.


And as an employer, I mean, if the folks you want to hire can’t afford to live here, then your business goes flat. Or worse.


Absolutely. We’re very employee-driven and uh, the service levels we provide to our customers are through our employees. And that’s how we provide the service that we do. And it’s increasingly challenging to be able to accomplish that.


A lot of business folks are concerned about workforce development, which many interpret to be the need to educate future workers better, have a stronger educational system. Are your employees, do they come to you qualified?


Well, I believe that we need to invest in our employees. So I’m really big on training. And no matter how much training we do, and how much we invest in training, it still seems to be not to be enough. I think anything that we can do, the State can do, the community can do to grow our people is money well spent.


Now that you’re bringing custom and other picture frames to all of Hawaii, are you planning to go beyond these shores?


We have been talking about going to the mainland for a number of years, and scaling it. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. We have things that we have resolve and areas that we need to get better at. And I just want to be careful that I don’t expand too far too fast and end up in a bad place.


Although if Hawaii has presented a lot of hurdles that perhaps other states don’t have, perhaps you’re already ahead of the game to go somewhere else?


It’s really insightful that you’re saying that, because you’re right. Having to ship everything in, the cost of doing business in Hawaii – we’ve done national studies and we’re substantially less than the cost of doing custom framing on the mainland, even with all the added burden and cost of being in Hawaii. So you’re correct. We plan way further in advance, everything gets shipped in on containers.


Your land costs are so much higher.


Right. The rent is higher, the land is higher, the shipping costs are much higher, the labor costs are much higher. So you’re correct. We’ve had the benefit of that discipline.


So what’s keeping you back? What are the things you have to resolve before you decide to move on?


Well, I’m just not convinced that – the way that we do things here in Hawaii, it’s a hub and spoke. Everything goes into the central facility and then goes back out to all the stores. We handle all of that art. I don’t think that that’s scalable. So what we’d have to do on the mainland is just make frames. And I’m not convinced that we can do the volume that we do here in just making the frames and not handling the artwork. But I know that we couldn’t handle the artwork on the mainland in the scale that we would need to. So that’s what we have to figure out.


What about selling to uh, a mainland business?


Actually, I’ve spoken with my kids and they would like to, at least at this age—


How old are they?


Seventeen and fifteen. So we’ve had a family discussion. At least at this point in time, they would like to be involved in the business. And so as long as they want to be involved in the business, I would enjoy working with them. And we have other good employees that we’ve given equity to. So selling is really not something that we’re looking at.


That’s a wonderful retention method; giving equity to employees.


Yes; we’ve given equity to five of our key employees that have just been with us and really helped us grow our business. And so we basically just went back to them and said, ‘Hey, we appreciate what you’ve done and want to give you a – it’s not a large piece, but a small piece of the business, just kind of as a thanks.’ And so that they have some equity in it also.


So actually, you’re in a uh, good spot if, because most family businesses have trouble making it to the next generation, and so many mom and pops have died because of that.


I think we have a little bit of an advantage in that we’re vertical – so we make what we sell, which also has its challenges. And we’re scaled large enough that we’re a little insulated. In other words, at the level that we’re at, we’re able to get enough good resource – I think it’s really hard when you’re very small, so you’re limited on resources. We’re also insulated in – what we do and how we do it I think is an advantage. But there’s still all the challenges that everybody else has, for sure.


So what do you think you’ll find yourself doing in the next ten years, if you could project?


I think that I’m gonna enjoy – my son has two more years in high school, and my daughter has a year. And I’m definitely gonna enjoy those years. Every spare moment I have, I’m gonna be spending with them. When they go off to college, I’d like to think that I will be a part of that in some way, shape, or form if they’ll allow me to. And then after that, I would like to think that one or both of them will come back into the business, which will be kind of a whole new, inspiring, reinvigorating thing to get involved with them. And somewhere along there in that ten-year timeframe, I’d like to think that Lori and I will be able to spend even more time together.


You know, you talked earlier about something that I think a lot of people would like to know more about. It’s the idea of pursuing a dream and actually getting there. You know, you were just knocking on the door of the Dallas Cowboys at rookie camp, and then you had to give up your dream, or part of it was taken away, part of it you had to choose, okay, I’m not going ahead with that.


I think when it come – at least for myself, and I can only speak from experience it was my dream and it was my passion, and I was driven for it since I was five years old that it was my dream to play in the NFL. So it – I can’t say that it was easy to switch gears. But I think a lot of it is if you really back off a little bit. Playing in the NFL, owning a business, whatever, it really comes down to enjoying life and being driven and enjoying what you’re doing. And so really, it was just a matter of switching gears. It was the same thing. And so whether I’m the owner of a picture framing business or a health club or an NFL football player, it’s really making sure that you allow yourself to do things that you’re passionate about and enjoy it.


Inner drive. A passion to succeed. The relentless pursuit. And a love for family and our islands. All part of the character of Kent Untermann. I enjoyed his stories. Mahalo to Kent – and to you – for joining me for another Long Story Short.


I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!



Emma Veary



Original air date: Tues., Oct. 21, 2008


Hawai‘i’s Elegant Musical Treasure


Emma Veary, a beautiful singer with a beautiful voice, was a class act in town back in the ‘70s, headlining shows at the Halekulani and Royal Hawaiian Hotels. She socialized with Hollywood celebrities and was married for a time to Aku, the highest-paid disc jockey in the country.


Today, the elegant Emma Veary is a respected Hawaiian musical treasure whose signature tunes include Kamehameha Waltz and E Maliu Mai. The 78-year-old great-grandmother now lives a quiet life with family members on Maui. Emma Veary sits down with Leslie Wilcox to share stories that begin with young Emma singing professionally at the age of 5.


Emma Veary, Hawaii’s Elegant Musical Treasure Part 1 Audio


Emma Veary, Hawaii’s Elegant Musical Treasure Part 2 Audio


Download: Emma Veary, Hawaii’s Elegant Musical Treasure Transcript




Emma Veary, the beautiful singer who was known as “Hawai‘i’s Golden Throat,” performed in the most prestigious venues in Waikiki and socialized with Hollywood celebrities. Today, Emma Veary remains a Hawaiian musical treasure.


Aloha no; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawai‘i. And I’m very pleased you’re joining me for this Long Story Short with the elegant Emma Veary. We’ll sit down with her to share stories next.


Emma Veary began performing at the age of 5 and came of age during World War II. She would headline at the top venues in Waikiki – the Royal Hawaiian and Halekulani Hotels. And she performed in New York City. Today, she lives a quiet life near family members on Maui and recalls small-kid-time in a loving Hawaiian household in Kapahulu.


Your mom was full-blooded Hawaiian?


Yes, she was full-blooded Hawaiian.


What about your dad?


Daddy was hapa. And we always said he had this much Hawaiian in him, you know. But um, he had some half- brothers. So I was always saying, Well, it’s either whole or nothing. [CHUCKLE] Rotten kid. [CHUCKLE]


Your dad worked at the harbor? Honolulu Harbor.


Oh, yes, Dad worked for Young Brothers. He was a tugboat captain. And I always tell everybody, Do you know I knew Mr. Jack Young, and Jack Young, Jr. who owned Young Brothers? Because we used to go down with Dad all the time.


Today, we don’t think of them as real people. It’s a corporate name.


Yes. No, we knew them. And so we’d go down there, we’d play pool with the guys. I’m an old garbage mouth as a result of that. Hanging around with the stevedores and the tugboat guys, you know; oh, boy, I have to watch it. But we used to go down there and play. And Mom would go do her business, she’d come get us, and we’d go home. And the nicest thing about that when he was working there, Dad ran the pilot boat. And in those days, Dad would take his tugboat, go Aloha Tower, pick up the pilot, and take him out to Diamond Head. And so as kids, we would go down with Dad, and he’d say, All right, be quiet. And we’d sit in the back of the tugboat. You know, and it was just so much fun. And on moonlight nights, it was just great. We all used to sing all the time. And because nobody had any money, what do you do? You sit down and you enjoy yourself and play music, and sing and dance. And of course, because we were from a poor family, we always had an ukulele. My brother used to play the ukulele, my sister danced, and I sang. And that was our entertainment, that was what we did because we didn’t have money. You know. And the neighborhood kids, we had a little thing going where, in those days, they had Party Pack, which was a drink like a Coke. And it was a tall bottle, and they had strawberry, root beer, and orange. And they would give you a dime a bottle, I think, or five cents a bottle. So the neighborhood kids would collect all of these bottles, and on the weekend, we’d take it all down to Koga Store [CHUCKLE] down the street, and get our money, and pool all of our money together and say, Okay, we’ve got so much money. We can go to Hawaii Theater or Princess Theater. But if we ride both ways—‘cause we were in Kapahulu, now; if we ride both ways, we cannot have no popcorn or crack seed. So let’s take a vote. Maybe we ride one way, and we walk home; then we can have our crack seed.


That’s a long walk home.


So we’d go. We’d go to either Hawaii Theater or any of the theaters in town, which are no longer there, except Hawaii Theater. And we’d see our movie; and then we would play all the way down Kapiolani Boulevard, all the way to Kapahulu.


And how old were you then?


Up to Winam. We were just—oh, my; we were like twelve, thirteen and …


That’s a nice little workout.


Yeah. We’d play all the way home. You know, and at that time, there weren’t many buildings on Kapiolani Boulevard. And it was just papyrus and coral. But we would just play all the way home, and then we’d peel off and say, See you. You know, when we’d get to Winam Avenue in Kapahulu, peel off and say, Okay, we’ll see you at school.


What was the rule about when you had to get home?


Our rule at home was we had to be home, bathed, and ready to have dinner at five-thirty.


Why, was that when your—


That was just—


–dad came home—


–the rule.


–or something?


Yes. Because Dad came home from work at that time, and we’d all sit down and have dinner. And we were all in our pajamas, getting ready to go to sleep, you know, after that. Do your homework.


M-hm. You didn’t think you were missing out on anything material when you were a kid?


You know, I was always working. I started working when I was five. I’ve been singing since I was five, because I discovered that people wanted to hear me sing. And they would pay me. And being from a family who didn’t have a lot of money, wow. I would—I had a special letter from the Liquor Commission so that I could go sing in clubs.


At age five?


At age five. And Mother would go with me. And I sang at all the big clubs. And at that time, later on, as time went on, all of the celebrities used to go to the Waialae Country Club; that was the place to go. And I used to sing there on weekends. So I had the pleasure of meeting all these lovely stars. And of course, one couple that you don’t know, but there was Rochelle Hudson, there was Bette Davis, and there was Dorothy Lamour. And I had the pleasure of meeting Dorothy as a child when she was a very young woman, and again when I was working at the Halekulani. One night they told me, Emma, Dorothy Lamour is here tonight. And I went, Oh, my god. So I pulled out a medley of her songs, and sang them to her, and reminded her about when we met when I was a child. And she said, Oh, my god, she says, after hearing you sing those songs, I never want to sing them again. [CHUCKLE]




But she was such a beautiful, beautiful woman. And at that time, we had so many theaters. You can’t believe how many theaters we had that had shows.


Live shows.


Live shows. There was the Princess, the Hawaii, Liberty, Queen’s, King’s, Palace, Pawaa Theater, Kewalo Theater. These are all no more.


They were movie houses? They were—


They were movie houses.


–musical acts?


No; they were movie houses, but they would have music you know, between the shows. Like Radio City Music Hall. You know, they would have some come on and perform in between the movies.


That was standard in those days—


Well, they—


–in theaters?


They used to have a lot of that going on; yeah. So I used to go and sing at all of these theaters. And I sang at Hawaii Theater so many times.


I know you walked back from seeing the movies when you were a—


Yes; yes.


–a kid. How did you get around in those days when you were a very young singer?


My mother was always with me. My mother always took me wherever I had to go; she was always there with me. And she used to sew my little gowns and my curls, long curls—I had long hair way down my back, and she’d make these long curls with ribbons, you know, like. And then I met—while I was going through that phase, in 1941, Joe Pasternak came to Hawaii and saw me perform somewhere, and asked me to come to Hollywood, and he would groom me to become a star. And we had said okay. And I was supposed to leave on the 8th of December in 1941. And on the 7th, the war started. So he called me and he said, you know, to my mom, Does she still want to come? So my mother says, You have to ask her. So I got on the phone. I said, Well, Mr. Pasternak, I said, inasmuch as there’s a war going on, I’d rather stay home with my family. So I lost out on that one.


True; the State went into martial—




Well, it wasn’t the State then.




It was a Territory—




–went into martial law, and—






Right. And I didn’t want to be away from my family if there was a war. So I gave up that—


You must had some thoughts about that, what if.


What if.


What if.


Oh, yeah, sometimes. But I never go there. I see what’s happened to so many of these kids, that were at that point in their lives going through Hollywood, and what has happened to them. [CHUCKLE] And I got, there but for me—you know, I’m lucky not to have gone through that.


And you have a very wonderful career here.


And oh, I had a wonderful—


Now, what—


–career here.


How would you describe your singing? I mean, you have—well, one, you have this wonderful, elegant look; but you have this …


Well, I started—




I started—




–out wanting to be an opera singer. And I had the goods to do it. And I went to New York when I was fourteen, and—all alone—and went to a girls’ school. And I stayed—I talked to the International House people who just— they were apartments, it was a home or a huge place for foreign students, college students. And I befriended some college students, and then I went to see the manager of the International House and asked if they wouldn’t allow me to come and stay there on weekends, because I had no family. And so they allowed me to do that. So when I wasn’t in boarding school, I would be at the International House, and I discovered Broadway. And at that time, all the biggest Broadway shows were on: Carousel, Song of Norway, Bloomer Girl. All of these shows were on Broadway at the time, and I fell in love with Broadway, and decided, okay, I can sing a little bit of opera, but I’d like to sing a little bit of Broadway too.   And that’s how I came into being able to—fortunately, I could pull it off. I could sing a little opera, I could sing a little operetta, I could sing some Broadway, and I could sing some popular songs. Then I could combine my Hawaiian music with that, and that’s how I became an act when I came home.


Now, why did you come home? I mean that’s—you know, New York. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.


Right, right, right. Well, you know, I kept going back and forth to New York, and I did a lot of summer stock there. And of course, I did do some shows here. I did at the Honolulu Community Theater. And that was after I was— let’s see; was I was married at the time; yes. But I did some shows here with Donald Yap, who’s still here. And loved it. And I was just going over some tapes the other day, doing Carousel with the Honolulu Community Theater.


How do you hold up?


Pretty good.




I’m still doing pretty good. [CHUCKLE]


And looking back at what you sounded like then, do you—were you all that, that you thought you were at the time?


You know what? I was shocked that—I was amazed. [CHUCKLE] You know how sometimes you don’t know what you have, when you have it?




I was amazed with some of the things I could do vocally.




I still, you know, I still sing, I still work. But I miss—I always say I miss my old self. I miss my voice. It still works, it’s still great, but it’s not where it was because I’m not where I—you know.


Well, for those who weren’t living here, or weren’t alive in the 70s, your name was the class act around town. You were the headliner at the—maybe the first headliner at the Halekulani Hotel.


Yes; yes. They didn’t ever have an act there. And Hal, Aku—


Your husband at the time.


I was married at the time. And I talked to him about doing the act. And so we went down and we were at the Royal Spaghetti House, and when we decided we wanted to leave that venue, and come to Waikiki. So he went and talked to the Halekulani, and talked them into putting me on the lanai there. And because of the way the room was, I said, I’ve got to design a stage that would work for me. So I had an H and I would put the piano in either side of the it was an H like that, the piano here, the piano there, and I had around H, and I could work here, I could work here, and I could work between the pianos. And so they built the stage that I wanted, and they built me a dressing room. And on opening night, I went to work at the Halekulani, and they had put a drape down in the back where the ocean was, to keep people from looking in. And so I said to them, Excuse me, what is that there? And they said, Well, that’s to keep the people out. I said, You know, you have one of the most beautiful views in Waikiki. And I said, I want you to take that away. They said, Well, we paid five thousand dollars to build that thing. I said, Well, I don’t want to go on if you’re gonna have that there, because there are people passing by; they will become fans, they will become clients after and come into the show. I said, So I’m not gonna go sing until you put that silly thing up.


So they wanted to block the—


Yeah, block— Block you— Yeah.


–from the beach, even though it was an—


Because the people—


–outdoor venue.


Yeah, because the people would look in.


Well, it’s fun—I have a different point of view on that. My vantage point was, I was one of the beach people. You know—


Right, right.


–the rug rats out there—




The kids and—


Yes; yeah.


–and the young adults who—




–who were taking advantage of the free music in Waikiki.


I used to—


You could go up and down the beach, and—and—


I used to call them my—


–sit in the sand.


–my scholarship crowd. And eventually, they all came in. And they would come in and have dinner, and see the show. And they’d tell me, I’m the scholarship friends, you know. And I’ve met people on Maui; I’m friends with ali‘i at—the Lavender King of Maui. And people come to up him all the time, and they know that we’re friends, and I helped him get the business started. And he said, you know, people come up and say, I used to be here scholarship crowd. You know.




And I went, Oh, my god. [CHUCKLE]


That’s right; they knew what time your show started, and they were there early.


And you know—


But they weren’t in the—


Right, right, right.




And New Year’s and Christmas, some friends would show up, just to be cheeky, and they’d get their wine and everything, and sit on the sand, and watch me. And I’d go, shame on you. [CHUCKLE]


And that was a phenomenon that I think a lot of people have forgotten or didn’t know, when there were live showrooms in—




–Waikiki, and there were the cheap seats on the beach.


Right. Right, right, right. But you know, I felt like, hey, where would I be without these people?




They are also people who will eventually come to see me. My fans are very precious to me. And I communicate—people call me, I talk to fans, and I have a relationship with my fans. Because I wouldn’t be who I am without them.


In those days, wasn’t it called, at the Halekulani—




–the Coral Lanai, where you performed?


Yes; it was on the Coral Lanai, yes. Yeah. It wasn’t House Without a Key; it was— No; it was—


–Coral Lanai.


–the Coral Lanai. Yeah. Because the House Without a Key is next door; it was next door. Yeah. Yeah.


And then you were a headliner at the Monarch Room as well.


And then after I left—


The Royal Hawaiian.


–there, I went to the Monarch Room. And performed there for a number of years. And that was interesting.


It was very interesting, and of course, there, I had a big orchestra. Which was another you know, style of work. Because the other, I had either two pianos or piano and a harp. And then I went to a thirteen-piece orchestra after that, with a piano player.


What was the most requested song when you were at the Monarch Room?


You know, everybody had their own different songs that they wanted to hear. Of course, everybody wants to hear         h     h   t , because that was—




–the signature song. That was the signature song.


And also, a song written by Irmgard Aluli.






. Yes; that was also another signature song.


Emma Veary’s social circle included some of the biggest names in radio and television at the time– Hawaii Five-O actor Jack Lord and his wife Marie; singer Jim Nabors; comedienne Carol Burnett; and Hal Lewis, the highest-paid disc jockey of the time, better known to radio listeners as J. Akuhead Pupule.


I remember when it was announced that you would marry Hal— [CHUCKLE] –Aku—




–Lewis. I—it seemed like such a mismatch, ‘cause he was this—




–wild and crazy man, and you were this elegant, serene, beauty. How did that happen?


You know, that was so funny. I was sitting at home one day, and the phone rings, and this voice says, Hello, this is J. Aku Head Pupule. And I hung up the phone. [LAUGHS] And then he said—the phone rang again, and he says—


You thought it was a crank call?


Yeah. He says, Excuse me, he says, this is—he says, Don’t hang up on me, this is Hal Lewis, J. Aku Head Pupule calling. I said, Yes, what can do I do for you, Aku? And he says, Well, I’m divorced, and I want to marry you. [LAUGHS] And I hung up the phone again. [LAUGHS] Hung up the phone again.


Did you think it was him that time, or you still thought it was a crank call?


I knew it was him, ‘cause I recognized his voice. And I said, You’re crazy. I hung up the phone. And so he called back, and I said, Okay, I will talk to you if you’ll just be civil, and what is it that you want? He said, Well, I’m divorced, he says, I’d like to take you to dinner. I said, Okay, if you don’t you know, go crazy on me, I said, I will go to dinner with you.


What did you mean, go—




–crazy on you?


Well, start talking silly, like I want to marry you, et cetera. And because he had always been good to me, on the radio. When I was singing with the symphony, and working around town, he always used to—since I was little, he used to play my whatever.


And promote you.


Music, and promote me. So he comes over, and I said, well—I told my mother and my children; I said, Well, J. Aku Head Pupule is going to take me out to dinner tonight. And they went, What? [LAUGHS] And I said, That’s all right, I have to be nice; he’s been nice to me all these years, you know. And so he comes to the door, and he knocks on the door. And I open the door, and he says, Will you marry me? I slammed the door on him. It was the funniest meeting we’ve ever had. And finally, I said, Okay, don’t talk silly; I’ll go to dinner with you, let’s go to dinner. We went to dinner, came home. Then he said, Well, I want to—you know, I want to meet your daughters. You know. So we went out to dinner, and he tried all of the shtick that he could. Oh, and the first night we went out to dinner, he took me—we went to the top of the Ilikai.




And so we get up there, and he’s trying to impress me, naturally. We get up there, and the girl says, Yes? He says, I need a table; my name is J. Aku Head Pupule. And she says, I’m sorry, we don’t have a table. [CHUCKLE]


And he looks at me, and I start giggling, and he says, My name is J. Aku Head Pupule. And she said, I don’t care who you are. [LAUGHS] She was brand new to the islands; she didn’t know who he was. And he couldn’t get in. And what kind of a name is that—Aku Head Pupule?


I am hysterical.




I’m laughing so hard. Finally got the manager; they said, Oh, god, Hal, come on in. And they took him in. You know. But that’s how we met. That’s how we met. And then we took our children out, and he was a really nice man. I used to tell him, Why are you so abrasive? He said, Who the hell would listen to a nice guy; I get ‘em so goddamned mad that they won’t—they can’t turn me off. And that’s what he did.


Because they didn’t know what he would say—






Yes; yes.


But was he really that brash?


No, he was a real nice guy. He was a really nice man. You know. But—


So did you start to feel pitter-patter and flutter-flutter, or when did the—


Oh, oh—


–romance begin?


Oh, oh, gosh. [CHUCKLE] But he was—you know, he was a really nice man.


M-hm. And did you have fun times together?


Oh; oh, did we have fun times together. Yes; we had a lot of fun together. But people say, Well, why did you get a divorce? I said, You know, it’s very difficult when you have two people; one works during the day, the other one works at night. Hal comes home from work, he goes to play golf, then he comes home to see me. I am walking out when he’s coming in; okay? When I get home at night, he’s asleep. He get up, and he goes to work. There is no—how can you maintain a relationship? We managed for ten years, eleven years living that way, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy to maintain a relationship on that you know.


So it had nothing to do with his abrasive—


Being mean or—


–ness or—


Yeah. No, no, no, no. He—


And the story about him was that he was the—everyone said he was the highest paid disc—






–he was.


–disc jockey—




–in the country.


In the country; in the country. I guess in the world, if you want to go there, because we—you know, he was. Definitely.


Does that mean you got accustomed to a life of luxury?


Yes, yes, yes. But I have to tell you this; I got the—I did the down payment for our home. [CHUCKLE]


Just because you have it—




–doesn’t mean you—




–keep it.


Yeah. For—also for a home in Kahala, yeah, that we loved.


And then after you got divorced—you didn’t marry again?


It took me a while before I married again. I did marry one more time. Actually, I’m a mother—I have two daughters. I’ve got two real daughters. I got nine fake kids. [CHUCKLE] I have children from wait; two other marriages. And there are nine of them. And they still call me Mother. They all moved to—a bunch of them have moved to Maui, and what they said was, What do we call you now?




I said, What did—


–of the divorce?


Yeah. What did you call me before? I divorced your father; I didn’t divorce you. [CHUCKLE] You know, so they still all claim me, so I kind of got a big bunch of kids around. They’re all grown up now, with children.


The move to Maui about sixteen years ago. You live—




–near your daughter, Robin.


Yes. Robin, interestingly enough—I have two daughters. Noe is a kumu lomi lomi; she’s a lomi teacher. She has taught all over the world. She’s been to Switzerland, she’s been to Germany. She’s taught in Japan, and she loves her work. And she has two boys. And one of them has a son. So I have that great-grandchild. And Robin, who has become a musician, and is very successful at what she does, has three children, and two grandchildren. And so we’re kind of growing here, you know.


And Maui is now—Maui is a preference over Oahu at this time?


For me? Oh, yes. Yes.


And now, you are a great—








–who appears to be ageless.




Would you mind saying how old you are?


I’m seventy-eight.


And don’t look it and—


And so—


–don’t feel it?


Sh-h. I feel it. [LAUGHS] I might not look it, but I feel it. No; I’m in good health. I’ve never, you know, drank or smoke. I’ve worked, and it’s managed to keep me young. Just the work itself, you know. And just the attitude that—I won’t let anything pull me down. I look at the world with different eyes, you know, than when you were– you just grow as you get older. And the aches and pains happen periodically, and you just say, Okay, so what. [CHUCKLE] Just keep going, you know.


Emma Veary, Hawaii’s “Golden Throat” from the golden days of live music in show rooms up and down Kalakaua Avenue. The liner notes on one of her albums read: “Where in Hawaii can we find the class act – the best entertainment? Emma Veary at the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.” Written by Emma’s Kahala neighbor back then, none other than Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord.


Mahalo to Emma Veary and to you for sharing company with me on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


My mother was a very intelligent woman. You know, when she was a young girl, they gave her a scholarship to go to school—where was it, I guess the Mormon people, because you know, she was so bright. And she chose not to. But she was always reading, and reading. That was her thing, and she got us all reading; and my entire family reads constantly. Because of wanting to learn, and understand more about life, et cetera. And that’s how—she always was that way; she always read from her childhood, up until she was, you know—still, when she lost her speech and I was taking care of her, she was still reading. You know, and writing notes to me.




Part 2



Many Islanders know of Emma Veary, the elegant singer who once headlined at the best Waikiki show rooms. But do you know that as a child, she lived at the Waikiki Natatorium with her family and more than twenty at-risk boys? Aloha no; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii inviting you to join me for a conversation with a few surprises. Singer Emma Veary has lived an extraordinary life. We’ll share stories with this Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement award recipient, Emma Veary, next.


Emma Veary’s strongest influence was her late mother, Nana Veary, a pure Hawaiian woman raised in traditional ways. Nana Veary dedicated her life to a spiritual journey and she loved everyone, including the rich-and-famous and the homeless. At one time, Nana took in so many boys (today we’d call them at- risk youth) that the family actually moved out of its rented home in Kapahulu and into the Waikiki Natatorium.


So you were a small family, but—


A small family of five.


–in blood, but not in terms of relatives. [CHUCKLE]


Oh. A huge family. You know, hanai here, hanai there; all these people. Mother would bring kids home who were on the brink of being delinquents, and help straighten them out. And one story is, you know, one evening, my dad comes home and everyone was asleep already. And we had a little two-bedroom home.


Where was this?


This was in Kapahulu on Winam Avenue. And we had this little two-bedroom home, and Dad and Mom slept in one bedroom, and three kids slept in the other bedroom. And we were all grown—you know, we were teenagers. And he comes home, the lights were out, everybody was asleep. And we hear this crash, bang, and this cursing and cussing. [CHUCKLE] My mother had brought home about twenty one boys who were on the brink of, you know, having problems.




And they were all asleep in our living room. And Dad fell over all of these bodies that were asleep, and he didn’t know who was there, or what was happening. He was panicking. And here, Mother said, Oh, that’s all right, Dad, these boys are having problems, I brought them home, they don’t have a place to stay to live. So here we are, with all these kids there.


Were there unlimited resources to feed all these mouths?


Oh, no; no, no. They’d go ahead, and everybody, whatever we had, you eat. If we don’t have, you don’t have.


So these boys, twenty one strong, come to your small house in Kapahulu.




And the landlord—how’d the landlord feel about that?


You know, in those days, nobody cared. It was interesting; it was interesting because when I was little, we used to be within twenty feet of the road on the sidewalk on a main thoroughfare, and we would take our pillows and blanket, and our little goza mats, and go and sleep out all night long. They can’t do that anymore. But this is what Hawaii was many, many years ago. And I miss it.


And when the twenty one boys moved in that night and—


Oh; yeah.


–and in subsequent days, your mom wasn’t worried about you, as this pretty teenager in the house?


No, no. The boys used to take care of us. It was a different time than it is today. It was just absolutely amazing. They adored us. You know, and we had our favorites. And they would you know, we’d con them into doing all the work that we had to do. And the boys came and went. People would come and go in our lives. Nobody just stayed.


Can you share with us some names that perhaps we might know?


Well, we had Keo Nakama there; well, Johnny Costello.


Who’s a musician.


We had Jimmy Kaku, who was also a musician and a singer. And Richard Kauhi. And he’s quite an icon to the Hawaiians.


Well, were most of the boys musicians? Was that the common bond? Or was the common bond being futless, and having-




–nothing else to do?


A lot of futless, but a lot—they were musicians.


I’m trying to relate to your family moving to the Natatorium with all these boys.




How did that happen? What was that like?


Well, we had rented a home, and the people who owned the home, their daughter was coming back and they wanted the home for her, so we had to vacate. So Mother, who was working at the Natatorium at the time with Walter Napoleon, said, Mr. Napoleon, I need time off; I have to find a place to live. He says, What do you mean? She said, Well, we have to give up our house and find another. He said, Don’t go anywhere. He says, You just stay here and work; I’ll fix it up for you.


What did she do at the Natatorium? What was her job?


She was the matron of the Natatorium; whatever that meant. And she would hand out the towels and the keys, and everything. But she was also the lifeguard matron. She didn’t know how to swim. [CHUCKLE] She said, I don’t know how they gave me that; I can’t even swim. She said, And here I am, the head of the lifeguards. But he said, Okay, Hannah, we have three rooms underneath the bleachers. He said, And one bedroom for the children, bedroom for you and Barney, and one for just like a living, you know, and kitchen. And then we walked right outside, from being under the bleachers, and there was a little bathroom, private bathroom for us.


But did he know you were gonna bring all those boys?


Well, the boys were beach boys. A lot of them were from the beach. So they would go home to their families. They had families, but Nana was the only one that could make them tow the line. And so they would come and, you know, visit, and go. And the first thing we did in the morning was jump in the water, and swim. The last thing we did at night was jump in the water and swim, before we went to bed. And because the bleachers—we never spent time in those bedrooms. The bleachers were heated from the sun, warm. We would just lay our mat there. After we jumped out of the water, we’d get a towel, towel-dry ourselves, lay down. We didn’t need any blankets or anything, because it was warm from the sun, the day’s sun.


You know, in my lifetime, I have swum in the Natatorium.


Oh, my god.


But I don’t recall it as being particularly clean.


No; it—


Was it clean back then?


Well, I don’t know. Because it wasn’t concrete on the bottom. It was sand; it was sand. They built it on the sand, and I don’t think they ever—it wasn’t like a regular pool that has a bottom on it. Because we used to go down and pick up sand, and bring it up. You know. And the water just came in through the holes on the side. Overnight, it would more or less clean itself out. And then, you know, everybody comes swimming. And at night, the waves would come in, and the tide would just clear. You know, but you couldn’t see the bottom.


And over time, I’m sure it got—


Oh, I’m sure; I’m sure. Yes, yes.


More and more deteriorated condition.


Right. And at that time, they were having swimming meets there too. And I know Ohio State used to come over. That’s where a lot of the Hawaiian boys went to school. And they used to have the meets there, while we were there.


Wow. So it was big time.


Yes, yes. Oh, we used to have fun, ‘cause we lived under the bleachers. We’d just go home, and we didn’t have to go anywhere at night, you know.


You didn’t feel a loss of privacy, or wishing for the kind of homes your friends had?


No. Never. We were just very happy with our lot. You know. And grateful.


And your mother says that that was probably the happiest time ever for her.


Yes. And I was going to Kamehameha at the time too, at one point. And I’d take the bus and go to Kamehameha School, and then come home to the Natatorium. [CHUCKLE]


Emma Veary loves sharing stories about her family – especially her mother, Nana Veary, who wrote this book, “Change We Must,” chronicling her spiritual journey. Nana immersed herself in Hawaiian theology, then Christian Pentecostalism and Zen Buddhism – literally traveling the globe in her quest for spiritual truths.


Your mother negotiated so many changes in her life. In fact, she seemed to do so effortlessly. She went from revering nature and speaking to the Hawaiian deity figures—


Yes. Right.


–to Christian Pentecostalism.


Oh, gosh, yes. [CHUCKLE] To metaphysics. [CHUCKLE]


You know, she seemed to have the two belief systems coexist. She still believed in the Hawaiian way,




Yes; yes.


–when she went to neighbor islands, she would ask the guardian spirits to allow her to come and partake of the joy of the islands.


Uh-huh. M-hm.


And yet, she believed in the Christian God. In the past, people had said, You gotta pick. You know, Queen Kaahumanu; Hawaiian ways out, Christian ways in. But she seemed to—she wanted both.


No. Yes. And this was her whole journey, to just balance—put them all in balance, and take a little bit from each, and put them all together, and make her own little thing. Which is what we lived by, and I’ve lived by, and I still do live by. A little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and make your own thing. I think that was her whole journey, is getting everything she could possibly learn about spirit and—and religion, et cetera, and putting it all together, and making this one thing that she could work with.


We know Nana Veary as this renowned spiritualist whom people came from far and wide to consult and see, and spend time with.


Yes. Right.


What was she like as a mom, starting out when you were a little baby?


I mean, she was just—you know, she was just our mom; that was it. And interestingly enough, when we grew old enough, we chose to go on her spiritual path with her. And that’s what made life most interesting. Because whatever she was studying, we were studying. And we were chanting in Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan or whatever she was doing; we were doing it. So we were living her life, her book, with her; which I still do. You know.


For all of her life, she was in tuned spiritually, and went on these journeys for truth.


Yes. Right.


How did you and your brother and sister fit in?


Well, you know, again, we all joined emotionally, spiritually with her in her journey, and she’d come home and tell us what was happening with her. And we’d all exchange whatever was happening with us. And we enjoyed learning about the other parts of the world, and what their belief system was. And whenever she went anywhere, she always came back with all these wonderful tales to tell us, you know.


Now, so you’re a grown up yourself, and your mom’s on this spiritual odyssey.




You didn’t think, H-m, how come only my mom is out there—




–in India searching for truth?


You know, we were sharing our mother since we were kids. You know. And we enjoyed sharing her with people. We felt so blessed to have her that we thought, Oh, let’s share her with everyone. You know? And that was our attitude about it. You know, share her with whatever. And I know she was lecturing at one point at UCLA. And this young student got up in the auditorium and he said, Excuse me, Mrs. Veary—trying to be smart like all students are—and he said, I understand the Hawaiian are a dying race. And she says, Let me come back to that after I finish my lecture. Okay. After the lecture, she said, All right, young man, I’ll answer your question now. I prefer to think that the Hawaiians are not a dying race; they are very busy creating an international race. Take my little granddaughter here; come here, Debbie. She says, This little girl is French, English, Spanish, Hawaiian, Japanese. She says, How more international can you get? She had a standing ovation. [CHUCKLE] But, you know, that’s how she thought.


And did she bring to you her aha moments, her epiphanies?


Yes. We used to sit and have these discussions about what was happening in her life, and what was happening in ours, and how we were growing. And we didn’t we didn’t go out an awful lot; we didn’t enjoy doing that. We liked to stay at home with the family. You know, we did a lot of things together.


And she said that she just learned that there’s just not a big place in one’s life for negativity.




So she tried never to say—




–anything bad. Did she succeed at home? I mean …


Well, we had our—


As far—


–spankings and everything. I mean, if you want to call that negative. But—


But could she be positive about so many things?


Yes; yes. She taught us to see only the good. And I have trouble with one child who only sees good, and she will not see the other. I said, There is also something that is not good here, and you have to find a balance there. You know. You just can’t see only good, good, good, good, good; because not everyone is made up of the two.


Do you think your mother saw the negative, but chose not to acknowledge, really?


Yes; yes. That is non-acknowledgement of it, and nullifies it.


Are you that way too?


Yeah. I think I—


It sure takes away the petty things of life, doesn’t it?


Yes; yes. I know I’ve sat one night and I said to myself, You know, Mom, I’m—this is very interesting. I talk to myself a lot at home.




Because I live alone, and the children are in the other house. And I said, You know, it’s interesting; I think I have gone past you now spiritually. You know? Where you were—in my journey, because—


You picked up the baton and ran—


Yes, yes, yes. And I said, Which for me is very interesting. You know. I think I’ve passed you. Nanny-nanny- nanny. [LAUGHS]


How do you think you’ve passed her? In what ways have you been able to grow?


I’ve really been able to put what she spoke of into action. You know. And I have found that it works in so many areas in my life. You know. And of course, I think one of the biggest areas is the financial area.




That I’ve been able to, you know, make that work for me. So I always says, Hey, Mom, I think I’ve gone past you; ha-ha.


Because she never mastered her finances?


No. No; because I’ve learned so much more since she’s been gone, just by going inward and you know, trying to go—taking the baton and go further with it.




See how much further I can get. Because the world has changed an awful lot since she’s been in it, and you have to make changes. You have to make changes.


Nana Veary, Emma Veary’s mother, attracted many people to her through her welcoming personality. She even drew the interest of tobacco heiress Doris Duke who called young Emma “Tita,” a Hawaiian word for “sister;” and whom Nana and Emma affectionately called, “Lahilahi,” a Hawaiian word for “fragile.” Nana Veary and Doris Duke seemed an unlikely duo. But the two bonded in friendship, traveling and searching for universal truths together.


How does your mom—


How did they meet?


–who is the lifeguard matron at the Natatorium—


Yes. Okay.


–meet this heiress, Doris Duke?


She was at a little dinner party at the old Lau Yee Chai, and she was there—I think she might have been there with Daddy Bray.


We should say that Daddy Bray was a fully credentialed kahuna.


Kahuna; yes, yes. And he loved Mom, they used to get together all the time. And so he called Mom after the party, and he said, You know, Miss Duke wants to meet you. [CHUCKLE] And Mother said, Daddy; she said, I have so many friends already, I don’t need anymore. [CHUCKLE] But she and Mother had some crazy, crazy times.


They traveled the world together?


I think Mother went around the world with her three times. And of course—




–this was wonderful, because—


Was this just a vacation?


Well, she loved India, and she’d always go to India. But they would go all over the world, and Mother would be seeking, and she’d go right along with Mother. And you know, just see what Mom’s up to.


And what did your mom find in her search?


Oh; she went to a lot of places. She went to—but Mother was always seeking, finding different places to go to— spiritual places to learn about the religion of the place, and just trying to incorporate it into what would work for her. So it’s kind of an international thing that she was trying to create herself a spiritual, what is it—her spiritual journey was trying to get all of these religions and make them work together, as one.


A few times on these trips, she said her intuition saved her life, and that of Doris Duke.


Yes, yes; yes, she told me about that. It was interesting things happening that way, you know.


Did you experience that from her when you were a child? Did she seem to know, have intuition or psychic ability?


Well, interestingly, my sister had it. And I had it; and I have it. But I don’t use it; I don’t use it at all. We were all kind of—we all saw. But I always tell my mother—I said, You know, my so-called, for lack of a better word, ministry is music.




I said, I sing, I heal through singing, you know, that’s my calling, and that’s what I love to do. So I leave that all to you guys, and you know, do my thing.


There were many people who were attracted to your mother’s personality or—


Yes; yes.


–abilities. Who are some of the others who are well known? Doris Duke. You mentioned Jackie Kennedy?


Oh, yeah. Well, Jackie came and was a friend of Doris’. And my children kinda grew up down at Shangri La with Auntie Lahi. And so it got to the point where every time—when Jackie met the two children, my two daughters, she asked if they would play with Jon-Jon and Caroline. So Robin became Jon-Jon’s buddy; she took care of  Jon-Jon. And Noe, Cathy, became Caroline’s friend. So this went on for a number of years; whenever they’d come over, Jackie would call me and say, Emma, this is Jackie. I said, I heard you were in town. And she said, Can I borrow your two beautiful daughters? I said, Fine. You know, and they’d go. And I never really met her ‘til months—‘til years later when I was in New York because I don’t like to push my—you know, I don’t ordinarily tell everybody my last name, just so I want to be normal. I don’t want to be that lady that’s up there somewhere. Because the whole attitude of your relationship changes.


So does that mean you didn’t enjoy the star treatment when everybody knew your name here, and was familiar with your work?


I’m me. [CHUCKLE] You know, it’s nice that somebody says—you know. But I get embarrassed. [CHUCKLE] I still do get embarrassed when people say, [GASP] And I’ve actually been out sometimes, and if I look—if you pardon the local expression, junk, no makeup, goofy, right? Somebody say, You know, you look just like, I’ll say, You know, they tell me that all the time; thank you so much, I’m so flattered. And I’ll walk away.




And whoever is with me says, Why did you do that? I said, Oh, ‘cause I look junk.




Both Emma and her mother Nana Veary were well-known figures in Hawaii. And they shared many of the same sensibilities, going back to Nana’s traditional Hawaiian upbringing. As was common in those days, Nana was hanai – adopted. She was raised by her grandmother (whom she called her mother) and Nana spoke the Hawaiian language of her elders.


In those days, it was the old Hawaii, and the old Hawaiian language, which was rich in metaphors. And the missionaries came along and changed that.


Yes. Well, you know, even the pronunciation. Mother, when she spoke Hawaiian, it was melodious, and it was soft and gentle. You know, I’d hear her talk, and I’d hear someone else talk, and it was like a different language. You know. It was KalAkaua.




KalAkaua. KUhiO. You know. But soft, not guttural, like they do today. You know, it was just—


Did you grow up speaking fluent Hawaiian?


We weren’t allowed to speak Hawaiian at that time in the schools. They weren’t allowed to speak Hawaiian at all.


Could you understand your—


So I never—


–mother and father?


I could understand, but I could never speak it. We never learned. And then Mother taught Hawaiian later on, but we were grown up and had families, so we didn’t really learn. And I’ve always felt terrible about that. But when I heard that Aunty Nona didn’t speak Hawaiian, I felt good.




I said, Okay.


It was the time.


I’m okay. Yes. And she said the same thing; they weren’t allowed to speak Hawaiian, you know.


I know you know this book—




–well. If I could just point your attention to this part where your mom writes, The language is a riddle—speaking of the—


Yes, yes.


–Hawaiian language. Before the missionaries came and converted the language into the written word—


the Hawaiians used figures of speech in language—that was like poetry.


Yes. Right.


I was fortunate, she says, to be taught to speak Hawaiian in the old way. My mother taught me to speak the language softly, without saying anything negative, or elaborating. Leave the details out, she said; speak softly.


Speak softly. So beautiful. Well, you know, it’s like, The Heavens weep, and the arth flourished. That’s how you said it was raining. Now, that is how poetic and how beautiful, you know. And it was just beautiful to hear her talk.


And why leave the details out? What was the point of being instructed to leave the details out?


Yeah. You waste a lot of energy with details sometimes. You know? It’s unnecessary, you get to the point; you get where you’re going without all the little stuff in between. You know, as people age, I thought, and maybe I’m wrong. I thought change became harder to navigate. And maybe the truth is, it’s human nature to resist change.




But not for your mom. She said, I let changes take place in my life; I know they must, and I know they will. I accept all change as a spiritual adventure, and begin the discovery of God in every new condition.


Right. Yes, yes.


That’s saying a great deal, because there are—




–so many things that are hard to let go of.


Right; right. And of course, one of her things is, Let go of all negativity.   o not give them power. And that’s a big one; that’s a biggie. And I’ve been working very hard on that one. [CHUCKLE] And I think I’ve done pretty good with it. And she says, rom the highest peak of my consciousness, I look down upon the nothingness of things and see instead the beauty of God in all, for He is all. And I love that. I absolutely love that.


And you know from her life that those aren’t just words.


Yes; she lived it. She lived it. And I’ve tried to live by that. By what she taught me. And it works; it does work.


Emma Veary is a treasure filled with surprises – kind of like a box of chocolates! Mahalo to Emma, and to you, for joining me to share stories from a remarkable life in Hawaii on Long Story Short. And thank you too, to those who’ve written us notes expressing appreciation for our efforts to inspire viewers through quality programs on PBS Hawaii. I’d like to express my appreciation to you for your support and encouragement. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


One day, I was sitting around, and someone called and said, you know, I am a healer from New Hampshire, and your mother comes to me all the time. And I sat in my little cottage, and I said, Mom, you go and see everybody around the world; how come you’re not coming to see me? [CHUCKLE] And I could just hear her laughing and saying, My dear, you had me all of those years; you know, let me go. [CHUCKLE]


Do you think she’s still a presence?


Well, she is a presence to a lot of people you know, that we’re not aware of. But people will meet me and say, you know, that Nana has come to me. And I go, Oh, doo-doo-doo-doo, here we go, you know.





Meli Watanuki



Original air date: Tues., Oct. 14, 2009


On Location at Kalaupapa


Like many Hansen’s disease patients at Kalaupapa, Meli Watanuki experienced loss from a very early age. Diagnosed with Hansen’s disease at eighteen, she was abandoned by her husband who took their young son with him. Years later, their bond could not be reconnected. Yet she explains how she found happiness and a new love by choosing to live in Kalaupapa. She and fellow Hansen’s disease patient Boogie Kahilihiwa voice their contrasting views on whether or not children should be allowed into Kalaupapa. This is the third in a series of Long Story Short shows shot on location at Kalaupapa on Moloka’i.


Meli Watanuki Audio


Download the Transcript




It’s funny to me … I get big family, and only me. Maybe God, they tried to tell me something … better you stay, you know, prayer. Prayer, that’s the only way you can do. So I think, I’m not too sure. Only God knows why they went make me sick.


She’s lived what most folks would call a tough life: diagnosed at eighteen with Hansen’s disease, a husband who left her and took their young son with him, surviving the passing of her second husband. But, with her deep faith in God, Meli Watanuki found comfort.   Today, her enveloping smile conveys a sense of peace and happiness. She stays busy as manager of the Kalaupapa Store, and she has two homes, one, right on the beach. But, life in the settlement is not without controversy. Later, we’ll also talk with bookstore operator, patient Clarence “Boogie” Kahili-hiwa, and compare the patients’ thoughts on the longstanding ban against allowing children into Kalaupapa. But first, let’s meet Meli Watanuki, on Long Story Short.


What was your early life like, before Hansen’s Disease?


My early life, there was um … go school. And those days, in American Samoa, is … my family is poor. So I was in the school, a Catholic school in American Samoa. Then my father and my sister, you know, they cannot get money for pay my school. Those days, it’s about fifty cents, those days. Then they went take me away from school, because I was just about in sixth grade. But they went take me away. So I go in the public school, after that, I never finish my school. So I stay home, to help my nephew and my nieces to clean … wash their clothes, cook for them and I help my sisters.


How old were you then, when you dropped out of school?


I think I was about fourteen.


And when did Hansen’s Disease enter your life?


Was 1952.


And you were how old?


I think I was about sixteen–was about eighteen. I was eighteen already at that time.


How much fear was there in your town about leprosy?


At that time, I thought–just like, when you go in the hospital, Queen’s, and then it’s just come out three—three, four days. And when I found out at that time you cannot come out until maybe—according to the doctor, they tell me the first time, Maybe you going stay about few months. And that’s why that went click in my mind, and I will start already cry, because you know, it’s the first time, I get that kind sick, but I don’t know how I went get. So my sisters, they come and visit me … just like it’s a jail. You know what I mean? And American Samoa so strictly … when they get the cage, they get all around the hospital. When the doctor come in, to go inside the hospital, they get big kind tub. They get Pine-Sol. Whenever they go in the compound where all the patient.




And then when they go out, they take out their shoes, they go on top and they stand inside the tub with clean the feet.


How did that make you feel when you saw that?


That went make me more scared.


Was your family afraid of you?


No. My family, because when I came back from Western Samoa, they take me in the hospital. And then I found out that my sister, she died. So her kids had to come see me. They never get scared. They just come hug me.


In the days before there was effective treatment, a woman with Hansen’s Disease had to give up her child, to be raised by others. In the 1960s, there was hope that you could be cured of the disease, and that someday, you’d be reunited with your child. In the case of Meli Watanuki, it was NOT her disease that kept her from re-connecting with her son…


So how did you get to Honolulu?


Okay. [chuckle] So when I parole, when—


They called it a parole?


Yeah, parole, just like you’re discharged from the sickness.




Yeah, the Hansen’s Disease. So my stepsister was here, and my stepmother. They know that I went discharge from October the 19th,1958. So they told me to come here in Hawaii. And I said, Well, I’m not too sure, but they said, You come, come, I will … you just come out from the hospital. So that’s why I came Hawaii. And then I married, and then I moved out. So …


You thought all your troubles were behind you. You got married?


Yes; yeah.


Did you have a baby?


Yeah. I have one child, and it’s a boy. So 1964, I just see because when I come Samoa, I don’t know where to go pick up my medicine. So I thought it’s finished already. And they said you’re supposed to go take your medicine. I said, No, I did not, because I don’t know the hospital. So I went to go take test, and just few weeks and then they call me. I said, Yeah. You set up something with your baby, and your husband, and then you gotta go Hale Mohalu. I said, Oh, fine. And I feel that I better not stay there, because with my baby, I don’t want my baby to get sick, because he’s too young, I think only three years old. So I set up things, and I talked to my husband. And my husband think, just like you go hospital, and few days come back. [chuckle] But end up that was not. Then he came visit me with my son, and they see all the fence around. But they get plenty other Filipino there too at Hale Mohalu. So they was talking about—and he say, They talk Filipino. And then end up that was the last day I see him and my son. They never come back. So …


They saw the fence, they—




They heard the talk.




And your husband took your son away?


Yeah. He take my son away.


So you didn’t see your son from the time he was three




’til the time he was in college?




Did you have contact?


Yeah; we never contact, because—


‘Cause you could not find them.


—don’t know how, you know. But that lady was so nice to me. And the mayor did send me his picture, and his address. When I look, was my son. But big already, the boy. So then I went go try to contact the social worker, the State social worker. Then her and I, we worked together. So finally, we contact him. I called him in Philippines. And end up, he wants to come back. So I told him, Fine. Uh, what I gonna do, so I ask what’s happened uh, the father. He said the father went remarry, and they buy one house, and the father died. And end up the stepmother went kick him out from the house.




I said, I think so that lady [INDISTINCT]. So okay, I try to bring you back. I bring him back here. And the social worker, we was work together that time, so he came. And then me and my husband, we tried to take him back to college to finish up here in Hawaii. But when you are not taking care of your son when small and grow up and just like they won’t listen to me, because it’s different life.


Did you ever achieve—




—a bond with him?




So you lost your son at three.




And even though you tried, he was never part of a bond again.




You seem so matter-of-fact when you talk about it. How much does it still hurt? I know you’ve talked about it, you’ve had time to deal with it, but—




How are you with it?


I feel hurt. It’s hard for me, trying to … go help him and tell him, your mom love you. You know, that … you can do whatever you want to do, but you find a job, supposed to work over here at that time. But …


And now, nothing?


Nothing. He never come back, he never call, no write. So I just let it go.


Like other patients living at Kalaupapa in 2009, Meli Watanuki is free to go, but chooses to live there. She was deprived of her liberty for years. And when the cure came, she was exposed to the stigma, fear, and prejudice that Hansen’s disease patients of the 1960s encountered. Out of that experience, patients came to view a life at Kalaupapa with state support—not as exile, but as refuge.


Now, why did you come to Kalaupapa? You weren’t banished, you didn’t have to live here.


Well, because I feel that … I feel happy. Because when I came here, they was really good, and they tell me, Anytime you can go Honolulu, you can go, Las Vegas, you can call anyplace, but this is your home. So, oh, okay. And I really, really happy to stay here. Yeah.


And how’s your health?


My health is okay. Only I have asthma. So it’s taken care, you know, every time I go see the doctor, yes.


So the Hansen’s Disease is not a problem?


Oh, no. It’s finished already. Yeah. ‘Cause nothing, just like how before.


So you’ve had so much loss in your life. Is that how you see it?


Well, I really [INDISTINCT] happen with all these thing. I go—you know, I pray a lot when I came here. I pray so much, for set up me and take away all that sad to me. Yeah.


Because you had so much sadness, and you needed it to be gone?




And did the sadness go away?


Yes. Now, I’m happy right now. Plus my husband there, and they’re so nice to me.


‘Cause you remarried another time.




This is your third husband.


Yeah, this is the third husband.


And he’s not a patient.




How did you meet him?


Over here. He came here, you know, ’81. And ’81, my husband, he died.


So your third husband was already here as a worker, not a patient?


No, no. He came over here eighteen—1981. So he just start work, and—


Oh, you had met him in Honolulu?




Your third—


Because me, I no go around Honolulu. I scared.


Okay; so how did—




So you met him here?


In Kalaupapa, yes.


What was he doing? What was up?


Um, anyway, he in 1981, and he just start work. He just came work here. So him the one that was doing… my other husband’s graveyards. And after that, they was helping me, uh other things for anything I need. And those days, when—1981 when one kokua they come in patient’s house, they gotta go in the office to sign. You know, I going be at a patient’s house. And then gotta put the name, who’s patient, yeah. That’s how those days. Yeah, 1981.


So he happened to be the kokua—




—who was cleaning your husband’s grave, and then who was helping you out—




—in your—






And I never ask, because I don’t know him. But I saw his work. He’s a carpenter.




Yeah. And so after that, uh everything, and then he said, Okay, if you need anything, I can come and help you whatever you need. I can help you. That’s what he said. So you know, I no need help because they get the State workers. But he work in the State too. Yeah, at that time.


So when did romance blossom?


[chuckle] Oh, Leslie. [chuckle] That was um, ’82 to uh … 1995. Then that’s why and I told him that, Okay, you know what? Time for me. Either you marry me or not, then you stay. You go, you move out, and I stay my house. And I never know that Father Damien was going be [INDISTINCT]. I really don’t know, so and I told him, Okay, um, all this time, I never take communion, because I cannot take communion, and I live with somebody. I cannot do that. So … 1995 … the first week of April, I told him, Okay today is the day. Either you move out … or we marry. If we not marry, you move out. If we marry, then you stay. That’s all you know, I cannot do this, no communion, I only go church and pray. And then he said … I want to marry you. No kidding? Are you sure?


[chuckle] And he wasn’t kidding. [chuckle]


He was not kidding.


In May of 1995, the newly married Meli Watanuki and her husband Randy were accorded the honor of visiting Rome and meeting the Pope, and bringing back home to Hawaii a relic of the beloved Damien. Meli and Randy had only just returned from their honeymoon, when they were encouraged to go to Vatican.


That was quite an honor, wasn’t it? Were you chosen for that?


We never know.


The pope chose you?


Yeah. The pope was … what the story uh, you know. After we came back, and I wanted to find out how we went come through with this. And so they said the pope went uh, tell the uh, the bishop … you know, for take me and my husband, we just got marry. So I said, that’s why I get all this thing? They said, Yeah.


And what was the relic?


The relic?




The relic was a nice koa. Was really nice. And they get his hand was inside. And when we stand over there with the pope and you know, all them. And then they bring, uh, you know, so just put our hand on top, me and my husband. I said, Okay. And then they went bless us.


What did you feel when you held the relic, which was—


Well, I—


—Damien’s hand?


I really feel just—you know, all that time, just I only chicken skin. My face was funny, was all uh, you know. Because I never know is something is going be like this. I never know in my life I gonna, you know, see the pope, face-to-face with him. Oh, and … I kissed two times, on his ring. Oh, the man is …


You know, so many people have done good things at Kalaupapa for the patients. So many–just people have sacrificed. What does Father Damien mean to you?


Well, Father Damien’s mean to me because he was a priest, and he work hard for the people. He work hard for the poor, poor people. And, you know, really love to God and take of the Hansen’s Disease. He no care what … either become sick, but that’s how his … his heart is for God, and take care of the people. Take care of the poor. Yeah. And I know he, just like he is a local boy in Hawaii. Even though he come from Belgium.


Children are a very sensitive subject in Kalaupapa. At this time, in 2009, children under the age of 16 are not allowed in the settlement. This age-old rule was first put in place to protect children from the disease, and to save patients from ridicule and embarrassment. Times have changed, with some patients pressing to hear the sound of children in their midst. Meli Watanuki and Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa are on opposite sides of this debate.



I’d like to see the children before I pass. I’d like to see the children come here and visit, and stay like a normal visitor, like if they say, Well, you have your own house, you can stay in your … whoever invite. They’re gonna be your sole responsibility, because anything go wrong, everything gonna fall on you. And I’d like to see that. Not only for the patients, but for everybody who’s working here.



We were talking about the controversy that broke out when one of the patients wanted children to live here.



Father Damien loved the children especially. And to ban the children over here, maybe their own thoughts. You see, before, couple years back, we had people who just followed the next friend; they couldn’t think for themselves. If you said no, then I will say no. I don’t look at it that way. I look it as for myself, how I see everything. And the majority over here say no, well, I’ll go along with that. But not in my heart.



When I came here, all the old folks, they talk about, they no like children to come here, because some of the kids, they no understand the sick. Even though, it’s no more sick, they still might get scared of the people. They might… they going make fun on the people. And another thing—the kids, they get sick, and there’s no more medicine here for the kids. No more doctor. And over here, they no more school for the kids. What they gonna do over here? They no more nothing here. That’s why we went block that. And they was going take us to court. Yeah. She was going to take us to court because of that. And we said, No. So what’s happen, she went call her niece to bring her baby down at her house. But I don’t know who when the reporter that went take the pictures.   And the little kid, they was on the carpet. We be careful on that. And that’s when show on the TV, I feel myself that was not right. Because no can tell there might—the kids, they going get the sick. Even though they no more the sick, but they gotta remember that so long they get the person to sore on the feet, gotta be watch out. If they get the kids, because the kids is soft, the body, and the blood is. And that’s why that is no-no. And that’s why they was told us they going take us to court. I said, Okay, that’s fine.


Very rare for Kalaupapa to have this—




—kind of division.


Yes. How many times they threaten us. And we said no.


Yeah; the folks who didn’t want children here—




That long-time rule prevailed.


Yeah; that’s right. Because when I came over here and I hear a lot about all the rule about the kids, they no allow that here. I forget what year after that, they went open up, went open up one year. The couple was a patient here, they went bring the kids. Just about ten years old, ten and nine. So what they do, right in the front our house … they use that dakine, the skateboard. And one of the old man, they coming from the other side, up, they go, pick up the [INDISTINCT]. You what’s happened? The kids went go right in the front of my house. They went go like this. The old man, they went go straight to the stone, he went cut up.




And smash his car.


Yeah; and we were advised when we came to be very careful in—




—driving, or watch out around you, because patients may not have good visual or they—




—they may be slow to react, because of—




—physical impairment.


Right; right.


If you go to Kalaupapa, where gravestones are never far away, where history is alive, you can imagine St. Damien walking the same pathways, seeing the same, beautiful views, breathing the same ocean breeze. In a life full of twists and turns, Meli Watanuki’s faith never wavered. Faced with so much tragedy, she found comfort in god. And with the canonization of the priest she always regarded as a saint, Meli’s faith is made even deeper. Thank you, Meli and Boogie, for sharing. For Long Story Short and PBS-Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


MELI: Yes. I’m happy, and just like I come more close to Father Damien. Because I pray a lot for him, every day, every morning. And I go over there, just like I go talk story with, you know, Father Damien. I just say, Father Damien, please to um, help this settlement, people gotta behave themselves and be kind one another.




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