On Sept. 19, we said goodbye to Uncle Henry Chang Wo Jr., who succumbed to a sudden and unexpected struggle with cancer (caused by mesothelioma.).

Uncle Henry was a founding member of the E Alu Pū network, a 13-year-old statewide  grassroots mālama ʻāina network with a vision to collectively build an environmentally abundant and healthy future for communities and the places they most depend on for sustenance.

Uncle Henry was also the inspiration for the Limu Hui: a small but growing network of kūpuna who have started to meet, to discuss limu and tradition and how limu might return  in abundance to where it now dies or is absent.

For much of his life, Uncle Henry advocated for the Ewa community, and more specifically for the limu of that community. Witnessing the decline of limu in Ewa, he worked tirelessly to call attention to the detrimental effects of government policy and development projects to limu and to the nearshore marine environment.

He is gone, but his words and legacy endure.

Uncle Henry Chang Wo Jr.
Henry Chang Wo Jr. Courtesy of Kimberly Moa

Uncle Henry used to say: “We watch that first raindrop that hits the island. We follow the raindrop all the way to the ocean, we don’t let that raindrop get dirty. Because when that mountain water and that ocean water meet, when they come together that’s when the ocean hānau, that’s when the ocean gives birth. Our fishes depend on that, the estuary, they all need that water from the mountain. If it was only the ocean itself, too salty, she make (dies) and that is what is happening now.”

Uncle Henry would say this — often while looking out to where fresh water, now diverted, once flowed to the sea. His feet in the nearshore wash of the tide, he would bend over slightly as if to scoop the water and roll his hands together, like a tai chi move that simulates the currents.

Uncle Henry would draw you in whether young or old. Many across the Hawaiian Islands have been drawn in by his words. He touched just about every corner of the state with his story of Ewa: the house of limu.

When he was done — and if he did not talk too long — you would have a love and curiosity for the nearshore forests of our islands. You would know that many native limu were edible. You ate limu with him. You would know that limu can be a healer of the body and the spirit.

You might hear a scientific term or two. But they did not capture the intimacy he had for his place. You would also hear a narrative that embodied a deep and consistent song: the swan song of the Ewa shoreline. Uncle Henry sang this song for the last quarter of the life he was given.

Uncle Henry Chang Wo Jr.
A memorial service for Henry Chang Wo Jr. will be held Oct. 29. Courtesy of Liz Foote

Uncle Henry’s story is that of a kupuna who looked back to recall and understand the trail, but he also had a vision and pathway forward. His passing is a reminder that there is a place for sadness of loss, the salve of nostalgia, but it is not enough to dwell on loss. All those who fight for a place or sing the clarion call of aloha ʻāina must continue to look to the future. We must be hopeful, and we must act.

Uncle Henry was concerned about those places where things hānau (give birth) to limu and other life. He wanted to see places give birth once again.

If Uncle Henry were to look behind him today he would see that he was not a voice of old, though we inevitably have lost some places, special knowledge and way. There is a new generation rising that agrees with him and we need to make way for them.

Uncle Henry was one of those people described in that Greek saying: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” He was a cultivator of people who loved Hawaii and had a vision and desire to care for it.

He would be proud to know that through the networks he helped weave, people from remote rural communities throughout Hawaii are finding each other and are realizing they are not alone. They in turn take what they thought were private dreams and turn them into common public visions. When they meet they talk about the regrowth of Hawaii nei.

Long live Uncle Henry Chang Wo. Long live the limu of our shores!

A memorial service will be held for Uncle Henry at Mililani Mortuary Mauka Chapel on Thursday, Oct. 29, from 5 to 9 p.m. A special spreading of his ashes in Ewa will be scheduled and held at a later date. For more information on these events, please feel free to e-mail info@kuahawaii.org 

Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo staff members Miwa Tamanaha, Brenda Asuncion, Alex Connelly, Wally Ito and Lauren Muneoka contributed to this piece.

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About the Author

  • Kevin Chang

    Kevin Chang is an attorney and the executive director of Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo, a network and movement building organization that supports community-based natural resource management efforts in Hawaii. A Castle High School graduate, he is also husband to Alma Siria Vega de Chang and a founding member of the band Kupaʻāina.