I was fortunate to have interviewed my Grandfather for a Hawaiian History assignment at the University of Hawaii when I was a Junior in 1973. He was born in 1889, that would make him 84 years old at the time.
In looking back, it was the most rewarding thing I did for 3 college credits in my 4 years there. I was a History Major, not really knowing what to do with it, but I I knew I wasn't going into Business. I was all of 21 years old and had no interest in Business as it was taught at UH. The business building's lecture auditorium was dimly lit, the sound was soft and the speakers were monotone. It was a great place to take a nap.
Little did I know that at age 66, 45 years of my life would be spent the helping to run the business that my grandfather started.
Wong Inn [Surname is first] was born in Honolulu, son of a Sugar Cane Contract Laborer, and sailed with his father back to his ancestoral village in China at age 4. It was 1893, the year the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown and ironically, it was the owners of the Sugar Plantations that spearheaded the takeover. I can only speculate if the return to China was related to this historic event in Hawaii.
The young Wong then returned to Hawaiian soil in 1901 as a 12 year old boy. [See pic] Out on the open seas in a wooden ship for a month must have been grueling, especially for a child. I remember him saying, "I could hear the screams when someone was so sick that they jumped overboard" without any drama in his voice. Having survived the journey, waiting for him in Maui was an uncle from whom he would eventually run away from, to Honolulu.
The bloodless takeover by the US Big Business backed by the Military just 8 years earlier gave them total dominance of the economy of the Islands. A small opening was left to those who could save enough money to eventually have their own assets, most notably their own businesses, and ultimately their own land. This was an opportunity that my "Goong Goong" and many other Chinese immigrants in Hawaii would make the most of.
In 1947, when Wongs Drapery opened its doors at 1315 S Beretania St., Al and Walter Wong, the 2 youngest and remaining survivors of the Wong Inn family of nine, were still students in Honolulu. [Back row, 2nd and 3rd from right]
Al was at Iolani High School and Walter an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii. Both went on to have highly successful careers after getting Law Degrees. Walter received his J.D. at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Al also received his undergraduate diploma.
After receiving his J.D. from the University of California’s Hastings School of Law in 1964, Al became the family’s business lawyer, providing legal advice, conducting meetings and negotiating leases for the company. Walter stayed in Brookfield, Wisconsin and opened a "The Lime House", a very popular Chinese Restaurant, owned and operated it from 1955-1979 along with his wife Cathy [LaRocque] and his children Betty, Steve, Mary, Greg and Sara.
"It was always my father's ambition to own his own business," Al remembers. “He would always take on side jobs to earn extra money, and what is remarkable is that he had less than one year of schooling. He grew up on Maui mostly by himself washing bottles for Maui Soda, and working as a gardener. After coming to Honolulu as a young man, he got a job as a bookkeeper for a small dry goods store, where he learned basic accounting. He then learned to excel in the trade after working in Liberty House's dry goods department for many years."
Growing up in the '30s and '40s, Al says he learned from his parents the old-fashioned values of hard work, honesty, kindness and generosity. "We could always bring our friends home. Even coming home at 1:00 in the morning, Mom would insist on cooking for us."
The first Wong family business was actually a Coffee Shop in Downtown Honolulu during the War. Soldiers and sailors would often wait in long lines starting from 5:00 in the morning, and the whole family had a role in the operation. The girls [Marion and Ruth] waited the tables and the boys [Mun Charn, Dickie, Mun Kin, Walter and Al] assisted in cooking and cleaning, "As a big family, we got along pretty well."
Al Wong [Black Coat, right center], lives with his wife Laurie in Honolulu. Walter and wife Cathy [with Leis, center] reside in Brookfield, Wisconsin. This picture was taken in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Walter’s 90th birthday.
During expansion of Wong’s Drapery in the 50’s and 60’s the family opened it’s doors in the bustling Downtown Honolulu. The family soon became well acquainted with the business movers in the community, among the most notable, Bankers Clarence Ching and KJ Luke, Mega-Developer Chinn Ho, Aloha Airlines founder Hung Wo and Hung Wai Ching, the CS Wo and Sons and Senator Hiram Fong, just to name a few. The Wong family had become an integral part of the changing economy of Post WW II Hawaii.
The 60’s and 70’s brought about the growth of Suburbs, Shopping Centers, Highways and Government Buildings with the infusion of Federal Funding after Statehood in 1959. Booming Tourism brought about a multitude of jobs for the Baby Boomer Generation as Pineapple and Sugar faded as the prime sources of money to Hawaii. Wong’s Drapery soon became fixtures in the now defunct GEM Department Stores in 3 areas of Oahu and went from a Mom and Pop store to become familiar to all of Hawaii. As Mainstream moved outside of the Downtown area, Wong’s moved to it’s current location in 1969 at 1330 S Beretania St.
Probably the most notable growth in the 80’s and 90’s was the explosion in construction of Condominiums, not just in Honolulu. New communities in Salt Lake, Hawaii Kai, Mililani, Waipio and Ewa Beach brought whole new markets to Wong’s Drapery.
The new Millenium brought about the Luxury Condominiums, primarily fueled by the new Global Economy. Now entering the 2 nd Decade of the "new" century, Wong’s Drapery still stands at the forefront of the Window Dressing industry.