The Chinese in Hawai`i


While constituting 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."

Unfortunately, this 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 plantations.

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 1800's.

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 businesses.

While fiction, James Michener's Hawaii gives us some insight into the plague and the fires which swept through Chinatown:

"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 plantations.'

'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 rebuilt.

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 Street.

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 Chinese community.

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 children.

Traditional Chinese values of good education, hard work, establishing financial security and the importance of family remain strong, even among the younger generation.

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.



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