only about five percent of the total population of Hawaii, many of those
who identify themselves as Chinese can trace their roots in Hawaii back
to the mid-1800's. In fact, following the original Hawaiians, who
arrived from Polynesia, and whites who arrived primarily from New
England, the Chinese were the next major group to find their way to
Hawaii. By most accounts, Hawaii's first contact with China occurred in
1787. An English merchant stopped in Hawaii on his way from North
America to China He met a chief of Kauai who accompanied him to Canton,
China on his trip to trade furs for Chinese goods.
On their return in
1789, he again stopped in Hawaii, bringing with him fifty Chinese
carpenters, several of whom are said to have stayed on the Big Island
"under the charge of Kamehameha the Great". Other similar reports of
small numbers of Chinese settling in Hawaii are reported.
As related in Moon
Publication's Big Island of Hawaii Handbook, "No one knows his name, but
an unknown Chinese immigrant is credited with being the first person in
Hawaii to refine sugar. This Asian wanderer tried his hand at crude
refining on Lanai in 1802."
initial effort to refine sugar failed. As reported in The First
Chinese in Hawaii, "Sugar cane existed on the islands already, but
the knowledge of how to refine it and most importantly, how to make
money from it came with those first Chinese in Hawaii."
The sugar industry,
however, did develop and there are reports of other small one-man
Chinese sugar plantations in the islands. By all accounts the major era
of Chinese immigration and early settlement in Hawaii occurred between
1852 and 1898. It is reported that, in 1852,180 men and 20 houseboys
arrived from the South China province of Kwantung aboard the Thetis.
During this period
approximately 50,000 Chinese arrived as field hands to work on the sugar
In these early years
of Chinese immigration, most of the men who arrived from China came to
earn money for their families at home, and had no intention of remaining
in Hawaii beyond the term of their labor contracts. In fact,
approximately one-half of the early immigrants did return to China.
During this period, a
small number of the workers either returned to China to bring their
wives to Hawaii or sent for them. However, many of the Chinese men
married Hawaiian women and settled in Hawaii.
As their plantation
contracts ended, many of the Chinese left the plantations, choosing to
pursue other means of survival including carpentry, taro farming, rice
planting and retailing. As reported in the excellent book, People and
Cultures of Hawaii from the University of Hawaii Press - "They
formed clan societies, established temples, cemeteries, language
schools, and Chinese newspapers to retain their cultural identity."
"For many Hawaii was
no longer a temporary stopping place, but a permanent home. They grew
from 71 Chinese among 1962 foreigners and 84,165 native Hawaiians
(according to an 1851 census) to 20 percent of the population by 1893.
Subsequently the importation of Chinese was abruptly stopped in 1898 to
avoid the establishment of an excessively large Chinese population."
Around 1860 a number
of the Chinese who had left the plantations began to open small
businesses in an area of Honolulu known as Chinatown. These businesses
were mostly small shops specializing in specific trades such as grocers,
jewelers, bakers and tailors, as well as the restaurant trade.
Today, Chinatown is a
triangle shaped area in Honolulu bordered by Nuuanu Avenue on the east,
N. Beretania Street on the north, and S. King Street forming the
diagonal. It is an area that has seen much history since the late
Within a period of 4
years, two major fires struck Chinatown. The first was in 1886 and the
second in 1900. The 1900 fire was deliberately set, officially, to burn
out rats which had brought bubonic plague to Honolulu. However, the fire
got out of control and the entire district was virtually destroyed.
There are those who believe that, in fact, the fire was intended to
destroy the area and with it the economic threat of the Chinese
While fiction, James
gives us some insight into the plague and the fires which swept through
"A cordon was thrown
around Chinatown and no one inside the area was allowed to move out.
Churches and schools were suspended and no groups assembled. Ships were
asked to move to other harbors and life in the city ground to a slow,
painful halt. It was a terrible Christmas, that last one of the
nineteenth century, and there was no celebration when the new year and
the new century dawned.
"During Christmas week
the fires started. Dr. Whipple and his team showed the firemen where
deaths had occurred, and after precautions were taken, those houses were
burned. Chinatown was divided roughly into the business areas towards
the ocean and the crowded living areas towards the mountains, and
although the plague had started in the former area, it now seemed
concentrated in the closely packed homes. Therefore, the doctors
recommended that an entire section be eliminated, and the government
agreed, for by burning this swath across the city, a barrier would be
cut between the two areas."
Michener goes on to
explain that these conservative attempts to control the epidemic did not
work and that by January of 1900 a decision was made that virtually the
entire area known as Chinatown would have to be burned. High winds
extended the fire even further. Whether solely to control the epidemic
or for more sordid economic reasons is a subject that will long be
debated. Michener's characters discuss this very issue:
"'They destroyed all
of Chinatown', America explained with anguish in his voice.'They burned
our stores on purpose because we wouldn't work on their sugar
'No,' Nyuk Tsin
reasoned, 'the wind came by accident'.
'That isn't so, Wu
Chow's Auntie!' Europe cried, ugly with despair. 'The merchants wanted
this done. Last week they threw all the food I had ordered from China
into the bay. They were determined to wipe us out.'"
Despite the fires and
what was clearly a desire by many non-Chinese businessmen to see the
Chinese move out, so that they could take over this prime real estate on
the edge of downtown Honolulu, the Chinese stayed and Chinatown was
In the 1930's
Chinatown was a popular destination for many of the tourists who arrived
on ships which docked a short distance away at the foot of Nuuanu
In the 1940's, when
prostitution was legal on the island, Chinatown was a popular spot where
soldiers, who were being shipped overseas, spent their last hours in the
many pool halls, tattoo parlors or honky-tonks which had sprung up as
the number of troops arrived.
In recent years,
Chinatown has been the subject of urban renewal in an effort to make it
more attractive to the all-important tourist trade. Although still
primarily Chinese, you will see many shops and restaurants run by
Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipinos, Laotians, and Koreans. Chinatown
remains a small area which can easily be explored on foot which is
really the only way to experience the sights, smells and sounds of this
historic district of Honolulu.
The passage of the
Chinese Exclusion Act by the U.S. Congress in 1882 in response to
anti-Chinese sentiment in California resulted in an increase in
migration of Chinese from the United States to the Kingdom of Hawaii.
This increase in
immigration from California combined with the movement of former Chinese
laborers from the plantations into ownership of business was perceived
by many of those in power in Hawaii as a threat. The Chinese Exclusion
Act of 1886 was passed by the Hawaiian Cabinet Council to severely limit
the number of Chinese entering Hawaii.
When Hawaii became a
territory of the United States in 1900, the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act
was extended to Hawaii, and Chinese immigration was virtually stopped,
except for those who could qualify under specific exempt status. At the
same time, many Chinese elected to return to China. By 1910 there were
fewer than 21,000 Chinese in Hawaii.
With the repeal of the
exclusion laws in 1943 and the passage of congressional legislation
allowing for expanded immigration, Chinese immigration to Hawaii once
again picked up. The 1980 census showed in excess of 50,000 Chinese in
Hawaii. New immigrants arrive every year from Taiwan and the People's
Republic of China including Hong Kong.
World War II saw many
Caucasians leave Hawaii for the mainland. Filling many of the voids left
in the professional world and in business were members of the Hawaiian
Success in business
brought economic prosperity for many Chinese. Many were able to move
into areas of Honolulu traditionally inhabited by Caucasians. The
Chinese also developed strong ties to many in the native Hawaiian
community. Marriages between those of Chinese descent and those of
Hawaiian descent have become common.
This close tie between
Chinese and Hawaiians have helped many Chinese reach high levels of
power in politics.
No one's story is more
impressive than that of the late Hiram L. Fong. A graduate of the
University of Hawaii and the Harvard Law School, Fong started his law
firm, was elected a Representative of the Hawaii Territorial Legislature
for 14 years, serving as its Speaker for 6 years. From 1959 to 1977 he
served as a U.S. Senator from Hawaii during which time he was awarded 11
honorary degrees from American and foreign universities.
The Chinese people of
Hawaii today practice a mixture of traditional Chinese and Western
traditions. For example, child rearing still shows strong ties to
traditional Chinese Culture. The extended families, which were once
prevalent among the older generation of Chinese, is now being replaced
by a more Western household consisting of working parents and their
values of good education, hard work, establishing financial security and
the importance of family remain strong, even among the younger
It is interesting to
note, however, that relatively few Chinese in Hawaii are able to speak
the language of the ancestors. Recently, however, Chinese language
schools have begun to open throughout the islands. As with Hawaiian
culture, there is a strong movement to preserve and honor Chinese
culture of Hawaii.