Once a year, the 136-year-old Tong Wo Society in North Kohala opens its doors to the public, and on Sunday the community is invited to tour the historic building and celebrate Chinese New Year.
“We try to maintain traditional Chinese values, especially when it comes to New Year commemoration and trying to share with the public a brief glimpse into Chinese culture,” said Clyde Wong, a caretaker for the society who’s been involved for more than 50 years.
Lion dancers will be on hand at the celebration that runs 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the historic site, complete with firecrackers and banging cymbals and drums. A potluck lunch will be served.
“Before the lions perform, they are purified. The firecrackers are like ambrosia to the lions and these lions become enchanted and metaphysically transform into unicorns. They are like magical unicorns in the shape of a ferocious lion that can perform magical deeds banishing negative energy and transforming it to positive energy. They dispel the darkness and bring in light,” said Wong.
Above the doorway will be a red envelope with money, juniper, tangerine and lettuce. The lions will reach out and ingest it and regurgitate the lettuce which symbolizes wealth, the tangerine which is synonymous with gold, so everyone can share in the blessings.
The lunar New Year started on the Jan. 24 new moon, and ends on the Feb. 8 full moon. It is the welcoming back of the gods following their temporary departure.
One month prior, all of the gods leave, going back to the “big pagoda in the sky” to give their annual report and catch up on rest and relaxation.
“So all of the gods have vacated the premises and they do not return until the night of the new moon,” Wong said. “Traditionally, we have the lights on and lanterns hanging (at the temple), which act as spiritual beacons, welcoming back the gods. They all come back in droves. The cosmic force is just tremendous and whoosh they all go back into the statues and the sacred and profane.”
The only gods who stay earthbound are the door gods, who have to look after the building. They are always there, never getting a day off.
The start of it all
The Chinese originally arrived in the North Kohala area in the 1850s to work the sugar plantations, and North Kohala became a stronghold of the Hakka-speaking immigrants.
The roughly 2-acre parcel was purchased in 1883 from a Scottish developer for $500 by members of the Tong Wo Society, formed by a group of Chinese bachelors. The original purpose of the secret society, similar to a Chinese masonic society, was subversive in nature.
“The premise was to overthrow the Manchu government, or the Quing, and reestablish Chinese home rule, or the Mings,” said Wong. “The founder of the movement was Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who was educated at Iolani School.”
Wong explained the name Tong Wo translates to “company of harmonious peace.”
The buildings were under the guise of business so that if the empress’ agents came to Hawaii to oversee Chinese citizens, they would see a beautiful business building.
All of the clubhouses throughout Hawaii, the South Pacific, Philippines, Mexico and Peru were dedicated to the overthrow of the Chinese government at the time.
At the time in Hawaii, Chinese field laborers were making three cents a day and were under a three-year contract to pay for boat passage from China to Hawaii.
“A lot of times, after the three years, these Chinese said ‘OK, I’m a free man now, and I quit,’” said Wong.
Working on the plantations was extremely hard labor, so after their contracts were up many went into other trades such as shopkeeping.
“The Tong Wo Society was their refuge, a home away from home. The society took care of them in life and in death, looking after their souls in the hereafter. It was everything,” said Wong.
The building and its uses
In 1884, construction commenced on the building. All of the materials used came through the plantation’s general store. All of the stock lumber, shingles and windows were prefabricated and shipped from the mainland. Lumber came from the Pacific Northwest and redwood beams originated from California. The design was Victorian-age Chinese.
“The Tong Wo is the oldest existing Chinese type structure left in the State of Hawaii,” Wong explained.
The building still boasts original materials, including the original shingles under the corrugated roof. All of the windows and doors are original.
The Chinese revolution was successful with the establishment of the Chinese Republic, so the political motivation subsided and the society became a social club and gambling house.
The patron deity of the society is Kwan Kung, the patron saint of bankers, firemen and restaurateurs.
“When you have a traditional triad clubhouse you have the main altar, with Kwan Kung as the central figure. On the right side is an antechamber, a room dedicated to the ancestors,” said Wong
Kohala was quite unique, because it had a lot of Hakka women. Normally, in this type of club building, left of the main altar would be a storage closet. But the women of Kohala said since the men had Kwan Kung, they wanted their own god. They chose the goddess of mercy, Guan Yin.
“This is why Tong Wo is so unique. The women had their own place of worship,” said Wong.
When the men had their ceremonies or secret business, the women weren’t allowed in, but when they did come to pray, they had a place to ask for healthy kids and families. The rice planters would ask for bountiful crops, because rice was grown throughout Pololu.
At that time, Kohala produced a huge amount of rice.
“At one time, so much rice was produced in Kohala that they were able to ship it out for the Chinese railroad workers along the Southern Pacific line,” said Wong.
After Pearl Harbor, a good portion of the Chinese in Kohala relocated to Honolulu and the Tong Wo Society was shuttered.
To preserve Chinese history in Hawaii, the Hawaii Chinese History Center was established on Oahu 50 years ago. Members, along with the then-Hilo College anthropology department, toured the remnants of Big Island societies in the late 1960s.
The Tong Wo Society was nestled in an overgrown area of Halawa, North Kohala. They were able track down surviving members of the society and record their memories of the meetings, excitement and parties held there in its heyday.
Wong said they were able to write a grant for students to do a field study, take measurements and clear the overgrown vegetation.
“We inspired the offspring of the surviving members to try to preserve the Tong Wo as best as possible,” said Wong.
They worked with professional architects, and they tried to keep it exactly how it was before, except for the colors. In its heyday, paint was quite expensive and hard to come by, particularly in red. Whitewash was the only thing available, so they added red dirt to it, because white was the color of mourning, and they wanted a vibrant building.
Restoration of the building has been a work in progress for nearly 50 years.
“We are eternally grateful for the kindness of others that we are here to celebrate our 136th year,” said Wong.
Their next big project is to treat termite and dry rot with a special epoxy that binds with the wood fibers, making them stronger, sanding and painting. But the process is very expensive. One wall costs about $5,000 to treat. They also need to fumigate the building every eight years to keep the termites under control.
Tax-deductible donations are always welcome.
“We welcome any kind of help or interest,” said Wong. “As long as we can keep it beyond our lifetime and the next generation’s lifetime and hopefully beyond that, there can be an appreciation of the past and lead it into the future.”
The Tong Wo Society is located at 53-4358 Akoni Pule Highway in Halawa, North Kohala, north of Kapaau.