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If Mr. Ah Fook and the Maui Revolutionaries Did Not Exist, There Would Be No Modern China

February 12, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Whenever I shop at the down-sized Ah Fook’s Super Market, re-built after a tragic fire, in Kahului, I feel both re-connected to my family’s history on Maui and also a deep sense of loss. I recall my trips to the “old” Ah Fook's store in the 1960s where my uncle and aunt knew everybody in the sprawling store and I felt like part of a loving, tight-knit family. Just barely a hundred yards away the bustling Whole Foods represents the “new” Maui, full of organic vegetables, beef, and even sherbet.

Mr. Tam Ah Fook, born in 1872 in southern China, arrived on Maui in 1906, just five years before Sun Yat-Sen declared the new “Republic of China” and was its first provisional president. Although he is best known for establishing a supermarket named after him, Ah Fook was one of many entrepreneurial and freedom-loving activists on Maui (more than a century before TedeX Maui, gathering idealistic Mauians to the MACC).

If Mr. Ah Fook and others throughout Hawaii (in the thousands) had not supported Sun Yat-sen (especially with funding), there would have been no overthrow of the Qing or Manchu Dynasty, no defeat and ouster of the Japanese invaders, and no spectacular economic development of the People’s Republic of China, now the world’s second-largest economy. If Mauians like Mr. Ah Fook did not exist, China would perhaps today be more like how we see Africa, with many cities and regions occupied by Western and Japanese powers, a backward economy, and seemingly no bright future.

When Sun Yat-sen, the “Father” of modern China, was thirteen years old, he followed his brother Sun Mei from Guangdong Province in south China to Honolulu in 1879 – the first of six “stays” in Hawai'i, totaling over seven years. In three years Sun Yat-Sen graduated from Iolani School in 1882 and met King Kalakaua when he won a prize in grammar (this is truly a feat as he spoke no English when he arrived in Hawai'i). Sun’s view of the world was shaped by his Hawai’i experiences (interestingly, he thought that Hawai’i would always be ahead of China in economics, politics, and society and had much to teach the world), as well as religion, as he would later become a Christian. Sun returned to China, where he would become a physician and a nationalist, anti-Qing Dynasty revolutionary – which would bring the Manchu secret police to search for him.

Meanwhile, older brother Sun Mei had relocated to Kokea, Maui, a farming community on the slopes of Haleakala in Upcountry Maui. In the late 19th century the area attracted hundreds of Chinese entrepreneurs, some who converted to Christianity and so St. John’s Episcopal Church was founded in 1907 (my grandparents, if they could have taken the long trip from Kahului up to the cooler village, could have seen Chinese parishioners making a sign of the new church’s name in Chinese characters).

Time after time Sun Yat-sen would flee China for self-imposed exile and often use Hawaii as a secure place to “stay low”, out of sight of Manchu secret police. He would establish nationalist societies, gather funds, and communicate with anti-government groups back in China. One early group was the Hsing Chung Hui (“Revive China Society”) association with more than 150 Chinese joining as members (the now-Mid-Pacific Institute athletic ground was used as a military drill field by Sun’s supporters; another group on the Big Island was named the “Chinese Revolutionary Army of Hilo”). Sometimes he would stay at his older brother’s Keokea ranch – his brother would give so much of his cash to Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activities that he would declare bankruptcy and sell the ranch.

Until the final 1911 collapse of the corrupt Qing Dynasty imperial government, Sun had orchestrated over ten uprisings in China. From the late 19th century into the 1920s, Hawai'i supporters for Sun’s cause contributed more than $250,000, which is worth probably hundreds of millions of today’s dollars. Fewer than 5,000 Chinese lived in Hawaii at the turn of the century – yet this small, vibrant, energetic group was essentially funding arms, food and logistics support for the uprisings, several in southern China, Sun’s birthplace – each one making the Chinese imperial government weaker.

Aside from the revolutionary grocer Mr. Ah Fook, a member of the Tung Meng Hui Maui Chapter and a leader in the Hawaii State-wide Kuomintang (Sun’s political party) chapter, other Maui activists included Dang Hu, a Paia grocery store owner who received a medal from Sun Yat-sen; Lee Tai-sau, a young tailor in Kahului and a dynamic, leading fund-raiser for the revolution; Lau Pang, a Kahului dry goods shop owner and chairman of the Kuomintang Maui branch; and Dang Ming-San – the most fascinating, since he simultaneously ran a Wailuku poi factory and was active in the local Maui Kuomintang chapter -- decorated with a Chinese nationalist silver medal for his "distinguished services" in 1922.

There were many others throughout the State who were secret supporters of the revolutionary cause, including Sun’s Iolani classmate C.K. Ai, the founder of City Mill Company in Honolulu; Chang Chau, a Honolulu court interpreter who was named to head the Central Bank of China; and the most flamboyant and tragic (like a Hollywood movie) was the Honolulu-born Young Sen-yat, a graduate of Iolani School and the then-brand-new College of Hawai’i at Manoa. Young later left for the Mainland, studied aeronautical engineering and became the first Hawai'i-born licensed air pilot. Responding to Sun’s request and for the revolutionary cause, Young went to China and launched the first Chinese air force, recruiting young Chinese in Hawaii to develop an aviation industry in China. Sadly, during the turbulent “Warlord” period when China was divided into fiefdoms and mired in civil war, Young was killed in a battle fighting for the Kuomintang forces. He died at a young 32 years old (if he had lived into the 1960s, he may have ran for State office as the only Hawai’i-born candidate with “international” and “high tech” credentials -- or Young may have created a pan-Asia airlines headquartered in Hawai'i).

And tiny sleepy Keokea, which played a not insignificant role in the end of imperial China, feudalism, and colonialism, has not been forgotten: the Sun Yat-sen memorial park, established in 1989, is at the Kula Highway between markers 18 and 19. It is about 2,400 feet above sea level and is a cool, beautiful scenic spot. Last year with the APEC Forum meetings in Hawai’i, a Sun Yat-sen descendent and representatives from the Sun Yat-sen Foundation for Peace and Education arrived at Keokea and donated a granite Chinese stone gate; a pair of southern Chinese lions; a 3-foot-high granite pedestal for the existing Sun Yat-sen statue; a granite peace obelisk and a picnic table.

Today a visitor to Kokea can see Sun’s statue and tell their children that Mauians are deeply passionate about human rights, unselfish and giving: global citizens who care about injustice. That China’s hero Sun Yat-sen was so changed by his stay in Hawai’i shows that the world can learn from Hawai’i in many ways. In another sense, although Sun Yat-sen's brother had to sell his Upcountry business and ranch, this sacrifice brought about the birth of modern China.


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