Sometimes a small, almost hidden article in the newspaper can open up long-suppressed feelings about historical events larger and more salient than the actual news story.
I came across such an article last week in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The news item buried in the business section of the paper was about the Junior League of Honolulu honoring community volunteer Gerry Ching for her efforts to raise more then $1 million for Catholic Charities.
“Ching was the first Chinese woman to be admitted to the Junior League in 1968,” the article stated.
That got me thinking, My first reaction was that 1968 wasn’t that long ago for such overt racial discrimination.
It made me hark back to my childhood in Honolulu in the 1940s and 1950s when residents of Chinese and Japanese descent were excluded not only from service organizations like the Junior League but also private beach and golf clubs. And prohibited from buying property or leasing land in some of the more desirable areas in communities such as Kahala.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener was living here to research and write his famous novel, “Hawaii,” he was surprised and dismayed to find that landowner Bishop Estate had an unwritten rule to prohibit Asians from buying homes in Kahala. Michener’s wife, Mari, was a mainland-born Nisei.
Former Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Lois Taylor remembers the restriction, too. She said when her husband was going to sign a lease on a Bishop Estate house lot in Kahala, the sales agent asked her to accompany him to the signing.
“They wanted to make sure I was white. It was not the best times in Hawaii. Everyone had their own experience with things like this,” says Taylor.
My experience was at the Outrigger Canoe Club. I was 10 years old and walked from my riding lesson to the club with our maid to meet my mother, who was at the beach waiting to drive us home.
When we got to the club, the women at the front desk said I could go out to the beach to get my mother but our maid, who was Japanese, would have to wait by the front entrance and could not enter the club.
This kind of discrimination was new to me and made me mad. I refused to go in. One of the women from the front desk had to walk out to the beach to get my mother.
Something even more dramatic had happened at the Outrigger in 1945 when member and Olympic gold medalist Bill Smith Jr., invited his Ohio State University classmate and fellow swimming champion, Keo Nakama, to have lunch with him. When they sat down, the club manager told Nakama he would have to leave.
“What happened in the past seems like more of a curiosity when looked at today.” — Asa Akinaka, attorney and one of the first Asians to join the Pacific Club
This became a big news story with many angry editorials and letters to the editor to protest.
Honolulu Advertiser sports columnist Red McQueen wrote, “News of Nakama’s treatment spread like wildfire. Members of the beach club are flabbergasted at the incident.”
In an interview, then-club president Harold A. Mountain defended Nakama’s expulsion. He said, “It has always been the unwritten policy of the club not to accept Orientals as members or guests.”
Mountain called the Nakama incident “a ticklish situation” that was not handled in the best way.
Despite all the bad publicity, the Outrigger retained its unwritten racial restrictions into the 1960s. Club historian Barbara Del Piano is not sure when they were lifted. Del Piano says, “I was upset that Asians were not allowed in, but it didn’t keep me from going there.”
Could racial restrictions be imposed here in Hawaii again? Probably not in the same overt, in-your-face way as the 1950s. Current law largely prohibits racial discrimination in business transactions, real estate rentals and sales, and club memberships.
“Over the years, it’s become more civilized.“ says Honolulu attorney Asa Akinaka. “What happened in the past seems like more of a curiosity when looked at today.”
Akinaka and banker Phillip Ching were the first Asian members invited to join the Pacific Club in 1968.
A few years earlier, Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Masaji Marumoto had been invited to join the Pacific Club by some members wanting to end the club’s years of racial discrimination. But Marumoto’s application was rejected. John A. Burns, who was governor at the time, resigned his own honorary Pacific Club membership to protest.
Interestingly, racial barrier-breaking Pacific Club member Philip Ching is the husband of Gerry Ching, the first Chinese woman allowed into the Junior League.
Gerry Ching today jokingly refers to their position in the clubs, saying they were accepted as “tokens” or “hood ornaments.”
Gerry Ching says breaking racial barriers was something she never sought. She was invited to join by her friends who were Junior League members. She says she does not see herself as a crusader but rather as a community advocate who hopes to make life better for others.
The force of law ended many racial restrictions in Hawaii, but even before the law came down hard on the clubs, my older friends say a growing number of people already on their own wanted the racism to end.
Hard-core resistance erupted when women started to demand full Pacific Club membership rights rather than second-class spousal memberships.
The Waialae Country Club ended its racial restrictions in 1951 when it admitted Dr. Homer Izumi, Dr. Samuel Lee and Walter Shew as members.
“The time had come,” said former Junior League member and current Pacific Club member Eppy Kerr.
Taylor, now 92, says allowing Asian-American men to join the Pacific Club turned out to be not such a big deal. She says the men all got along fine, but hard-core resistance erupted when women started to demand full Pacific Club membership rights rather than second-class spousal memberships.
“You would have thought the push was on to have a Nazi join the club,” Taylor says.
She said the male members had countless meetings, some of the gatherings late at night to try to figure out ways to keep women out.
“It was a joke,” Taylor says.
Eileen Anderson, the first female mayor of Honolulu, had been offered an honorary Pacific Club membership in 1980, but she quit 1982 to protest the club’s treatment of women.
Under much pressure from the Liquor Commission, Pacific Club members finally voted on Dec. 7, 1983, to grant women full memberships. Andrea L. Simpson became the first female member the following year.
But attorney Akinaka says even after women were granted full club privileges, the male members still tried to keep women out of certain areas such as their sacrosanct card room.
Akinaka says his concern about divisive behavior in Hawaii now has moved far beyond what happened in the past in private clubs.
The discrimination he’s concerned about these days is what he sees as the increasing divide between outsiders coming to live in Hawaii and local residents. He sees the outsiders — both mainland haoles and foreigners — tending to wall themselves off from local residents.
He says the separation is fueled by outsiders’ impatience and lack of understanding of local culture.
“The outsiders want to transplant where they came from to Hawaii. And the locals are unwilling to understand the outsiders’ point of view. It’s becoming a real problem,“ says Akinaka.
He considers this divisiveness to be just as damaging to social cohesion as the former blatant racial restrictions in the islands’ private clubs.