Some worshippers at a Honolulu Chinese religious society argue that its current leadership is acting against their best interests in their bid to sell the premises.

A Chinese religious society temple was evicted from a building on North Kuakini Street in Honolulu on Monday as part of a legal battle between some worshippers and the society’s current leadership over assets.

The Huang Tin Tin Hu Temple is under disputed ownership.

The organization that runs it, the Gook Doo Sam Heung Society, has existed for 70 years but saw a transfer of control and name changes over the past two decades.

Two lawsuits challenge the society’s current governance.  

Plaintiffs from among the 500 people who actively worship there, claim the society’s current leadership improperly held meetings that enabled them to make decisions to sell the temple and transfer assets – including cash and stocks – to a separate entity without oversight from longstanding members and their descendants. 

They also argue the building that housed the temple, which was dedicated to the society in 1975, was never intended to be sold.

The land value of the address is valued at $850,000 according to City property records.

Chinese temple movers moving
Sisters Young Hee and Wong Yuk Ching donated the temple to the Gook Doo Sam Heung Society in 1975. On Monday, movers were removing furniture and other items from the premises at 688 N. Kuakini Street in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

A memorandum of understanding from the time supports this argument, although it also states that it “is not completely enforceable in court.”

The defendants, the nonprofit Chang Foundation and its directors, Lorene Chang, Hing Chang, Jr. and Julie Chang, argue in response that the plaintiffs lack legal standing and the allegations are unsupported. 

The defendants are being represented by attorneys Philip J. Leas, Paul Saito and Troy C. Young from Cades Shutte who did not respond to a call requesting comment.

In Cantonese, “sam heung” roughly translates to “three villages.” The Sam Heung area covers three villages in China’s Gook Doo district in the Zhongshan province, close to Macau and Hong Kong. 

A group of Honolulu residents who could trace their lineages back to these villages came together in 1953 to start the Gook Doo Sam Heung Society, whose stated mission is to promote Confucian values and beliefs and to help those in need. 

Voting membership is open to people who can trace their lineage back to the three villages included in the Sam Heung region – Oo Syak, Peng Larm and Kew Tow – but the public is generally free to enter and worship as they please. 

Religions practiced at the temple include Taoism and Buddhism. 

Victor Lim is one of these worshippers named in the suit against the society’s formal leadership. Growing up in Burma and Thailand, he said, he practiced both of these religions. 

He moved to Honolulu for college about 50 years ago but estimates that he and his wife Anita only started attending this temple during the last five-to-seven years.

“My wife is the more religious one,” said Lim, who added that Anita speaks some conversational English but that in legal matters he often acts as a translator for her and the temple’s caretakers, who he said don’t speak English. 

“We want to stop the sale of the temple property, which we think is totally inappropriate,” he said.

A separate lawsuit exists led by Carlton and Gifford Chang, who are tasked to prove to a judge that they speak for the membership as well.

In their motion to dismiss the case, the defendants argue that the plaintiffs lack legal standing because the plaintiffs cannot prove they were members of the original Gook Doo Sam Heung Society entitled to membership voting rights and that, “plaintiffs concede that no such membership list exists according to the parties.”

In the U.S. court system, a person who sues an organization must prove that they were in some way harmed by the organization’s actions – have legal standing – otherwise, a judge can dismiss the case.

In 2021, the Gook Doo Sam Heung Society’s name was changed to Inspire Futures Now and then merged with the Chang Foundation. The plaintiffs argue that these actions occurred without sufficient notice of meeting.

The defendants argue that the plaintiffs cannot sue because the plaintiffs were not voting members of the organization and that the category of “lifetime member” is not legally sufficient.

A trial over the matter is scheduled for Aug. 28.

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