'This Magical Place' Should Be Treated With Reverence For Eternity - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Ellen Sofio

Ellen Sofio is a family practice physician with a strong interest in environmental and public health advocacy and social justice. She grew up in Manoa.


As children in the late 1960s my sister and I had the good fortune to experience the last of rural Manoa.

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We were entrusted with the feeding, grooming and exercising of several horses. One of the owners, “Uncle” Jerry as we came to know him, was very kind and generous, loved animals and nature. He recalled from his own childhood, the days when funeral processions made their way past his family home on East Manoa Road towards the Chinese cemetery.

Those were magical times. The landscape held an abundance of guava and mango and mountain apple trees and vast thickets of wild hale koa. Farther up in the ko’olau hills, the fragrant and rare rose apples grew.

Other young people frequented the area on horseback including the Teves boys who rode western and whose rumored skill at roping and barrel racing we admired. Freckles, one of the Teves patriarchs, the pound master of Manoa, would make us laugh when driving by our house on University Avenue on his way out of the valley, by blowing his truck’s owoooga horn.

There were other young girls who also rode horses in the valley. Some of them kept their animals in the forest surrounding the Manoa Chinese Cemetery, where the old stalls and paddock were tended by a jovial larger than life part Hawaiian man with blue eyes, Kelly Campbell, perhaps a denizen of the Royal house of Kawanakaoa.

Residents of the forest told me that the Hawaiians gave the land to the Chinese with the provision that it would only be used for burials. As a child, I felt intuitively that the forest at the Manoa Chinese Cemetery was an enchanted and sacred place, impenetrable and mysterious.

When I heard that the Lin Yee Chung Association planned to destroy this peaceful, historic gem to build a housing project, I found it devastating to contemplate. Over half a century since precious childhood memories of a wild, magical place had been forged, my grandmother, father and sister had been laid to rest near the tree lined edge of this beloved forest.

The dirt and gravel road that winds into the east side of the cemetery ends at an imposing tower of basalt rock. At its base is a massive porous black volcanic boulder, laced with moss and draped by jungle vines.

The ahu stands resolute, a staunch guardian of the forest just behind it. Ka’ahumanu … a shrine to the birds.

Nearby, kolea enjoy the tranquility of the grassy cemetery edge, white fairy tern manu ‘o ku soar gracefully over the forest edge in pairs and threesomes, their beautiful wings spread against an azure sky. Butterflies occasionally flutter from thickets of trees. And at night it is said, the endangered Hawaiian hoary bat roosts in the forest depths.

In researching Lin Yee Chung Association newsletters and a book by a former trustee and talking to Bruce Kehaulani, cemetery kahu, I discovered that King Kamehameha I and his favorite Queen, Ka’ahumanu, who became Regent of Hawaii after his death, had a house in the forest. The house is still standing.

Former LYCA president Sam Luke apparently used to talk “all the time” about Ka’ahumanu and Kamehameha’s house in the forest to Malama Manoa historic preservation advocate and then president, Mary Cook. Sadly, both are now gone.

Manoa Valley Chinese Cemetery homes. 9 sept 2016
An unused part of the Manoa Chinese Cemetery is slated for an affordable housing project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

We who are still here must persevere to ensure the protection of our precious aina and heritage. Ka’ahumanu was arguably the most powerful woman in Hawaiian history next to Liliuo’kalani. Originally from Maui, daughter of high chief Ke’eaumoku, betrothed to Kamehameha as a young teenager, and his favorite wife, she came to Oahu and fell in love with Manoa Valley. After Kamehameha’s death in 1819, she was the catalyst behind the abolition of the kapu which allowed her and Keopuolani to eat with and advise the young male heirs to Kamehameha’s throne.

The Hawaiian population was being tragically devastated by imported contagious disease at this time. Ka’ahumanu oversaw the reigns of Liholiho and Kauikeaouli, Kings Kamehameha II and III, both young, inexperienced men when they acceded to the throne. She bravely navigated the turbulent times when missionaries, business men and U.S. military began to vie for power in the islands.

Ka’ahumanu was given the power of pu’uhonua by King Kamehameha I. By her person, she could provide refuge and protection from persecution or punishment. When she was dying in 1832, historical accounts detail how she was carried on her bed from Waikiki into her beloved Manoa Valley.

Amongst her last words were that she wanted to go “to the mansion.” The “mansion” was “Pukaomaomao,” her house in the forest named for the green shutters Ka’ahumanu had acquired from the missionaries in the style of those still visible at the King Street mission houses.

The Manoa Chinese Cemetery forest is a sacred historic pu’uhonua, an oasis of tranquility which should be treated with reverence for eternity. With nonprofit funding and perhaps National Historic Register designation, the common buildings of the cemetery could be preserved in perpetuity and used as gathering places for children and adults alike to learn on site about the rich and fascinating historical legacy of the area.

This magical place, the mana of which was acknowledged by a 19th century Chinese metaphysician, should be cherished and preserved as a meeting place to cultivate and perpetuate deep knowledge of Hawaiian history and Chinese history in the islands, to inspire children and adults towards stewardship of nature, tolerance and the fostering of world peace.

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About the Author

Ellen Sofio

Ellen Sofio is a family practice physician with a strong interest in environmental and public health advocacy and social justice. She grew up in Manoa.


Latest Comments (0)

My grandfather, grandmother, father, uncle(s) are buried at Manoa Chinese cemetery. My family have a few more plots reserved for more family member to be buried there in the future. If I recall right, the Cemetery's Board was looking for ways to sustain the cost to maintain cemetery and therefore sought a solution to keep the upkeep the thousand of grave plot. If the community plans to block this effort, will the government subsidize the cemetery for any deficit? Hopefully the Manoa community, Ka’ahumanu's trust, or City should give this cemetery funds to upkeep its facility. Win win for everyone, no more development and historic cemetery can kept Magical. We dont want another abandoned cemetery go to waste.

whiteforest · 1 month ago

Thank you Ellen, for telling us such a such a wonderful story! You’re blessed. The people at Moiliili Japanese Cemetery are doing an outstanding job of revitalizing an urban cemetery and meeting modern day, real world challenges like vandalism…On the Hamakua Coast there are a number of cemeteries in different stages of recovery from jungle growth. Energy is centered in Hakalau-Wailea! All volunteers! In Honoka’a, the original ownership group that cleared the jungle so the old Japanese cemetery became walkable and visible from the Honoka’a-Waipio Road has a full slate of critical tasks in its future. Btw this cemetery ‘s on the National Register of Historic Places! Like you Ellen, we’re committed to being good trustees of our cultural-historic-religious treasures! (Not Spam. I’m a real person.)

George3 · 1 month ago

Beautiful images of a sacred spot and a queen beloved by her king. These are the places we should be protecting.Souls at rest should remain in their resting realm. There are other lands for true affordable housing. After all, how 'affordable' Will any homes built in Manoa be? Probably not very. Let the souls and the history rest. It's time to act like we live in a place with the rich cultural significance that our home truly has.

mamamata · 1 month ago

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