My mom taught me what it means to be Pake.
Whenever I see the color red I’m always reminded of where I come from: my mom, Henrene Yoong Lin Kong, and Hawaii Island. Like many locals of the 50th State, I’m a multi-cultural mix plate: 31.25% Native Hawaiian; 25% Japanese; 12.5% Korean, 3.125% English, 3.125% Irish and 25% Chinese. As the eldest of three boys, I spent the most one-on-one time with my mom, who is half-Chinese, because there is a six-year gap between me and my younger brother.
“I’m very proud of my Chinese blood and I have only good memories of living in McCully on the island of O‘ahu with my popo (grandma) and Chinese cousins,” says my mom, who was raised doing Kung Fu with her three sisters and celebrating Chinese New Year.
Red is my mom’s favorite color and in Chinese culture it signifies good luck and prosperity. It’s also the official color of Hawaii Island aka the Big Island where I was raised, and I will forever consider Hilo as my hometown. When I was a kid my mom would always encourage me to wear red and I naturally gravitate to that color when selecting my wardrobe because for me it represents Hawaii Island and my mom.
“I think all men look handsome in red,” she explains, while wishing my Japanese-Korean-Hawaiian father would wear that color more often.
My mom also taught me that in Hawaii we have uniquely Pake (Hawaiian word for Chinese) customs. The Chinese first came to Hawaii in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until 1852 that they started heavily immigrating to the Islands to work the sugar cane and rice plantations. Like many stories of American immigrants, eventually Chinese culture and cuisine evolved in Hawaii and took on a form of its own.
For example, we call the delicious, pork dumpling named char siu bao, manapua, which was an after-school snack favorite of mine. In addition, my mom would also make jook (aka congee) – a rice porridge – after Thanksgiving, and use the leftover bones and meat from the roast turkey for the soup. To this day, I still look forward to eating a steaming bowl of post-Turkey Day jook with won ton chips, chopped green onions and Chinese parsley on Black Friday. Mom also made sure to pop red fire crackers on the four corners of our house on December 31 for good luck. My brothers and I would also get lai cee, a red envelope with cash inside for buying candy, to celebrate Chinese New Year and we would also wish each other “Kung hei fat choy” while attending a lion dance and eating gau. These cultural practices were passed down to her from her father, Henry, who was 100% Chinese, and it was her intent to share the same joy she experienced as a little girl with her sons.
I was very blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy my Chinese and Hawaiian heritage thanks to my ‘ohana (family). Furthermore, I’m lucky that my parents allowed me to pursue my passions of surfing and writing by encouraging higher education. I’m the only college graduate out of her three boys, and I’m the only one in my family that lives on O‘ahu, working as the digital media director of Hawaii Business magazine and coaching the Kamehameha Surf Team. My wife and I both work in Downtown Honolulu, so whenever my mom is visiting we take her to lunch in Chinatown for dim sum.
“As a little girl, my dad would bring my sisters and I to Chinatown so he could go gamble,” laughs mom. “I loved going to the herb shops and eating the food. All of the smells made Chinatown seem like it was another country.”
Whenever I’m wearing a red aloha shirt and walking the streets of Chinatown I can’t help but think of my mom in Hilo and hope we’ll eat a manapua together some time soon.
Wedding photos by Meagan Suzuki
Chinatown photos by Aaron Yoshino