Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Hundreds of Wahiawä residents gathered under the stars at the Wahiawä Hongwanji Mission on a cool, crisp Dec. 10 evening for a reception celebrating the debut of a photography exhibit highlighting the former pineapple plantation town’s rich history and its beloved küpuna (elders) and students. The exhibit, titled “Crossing Bridges,” featured stories and photographs of 24 Wahiawä küpuna who were interviewed and photographed by students from Island Pacific Academy, Wahiawä Middle School, Leilehua High School and a college student with Wahiawä roots. The event was hosted by ProjectFocus Hawaii and the Wahiawä Community Based Development Organization.
“Wahiawä has such a rich and bountiful history,” said ProjectFocus Hawaii co-founder and executive director Laura Callies. “We wanted to bring küpuna and students together so that this younger generation of the Wahiawä community could sit down with their elders and listen to their stories of growing up. The title, ‘Crossing Bridges,’ is very apt, as the only way to enter or exit Wahiawä is by one of two bridges. The title also connotes building bridges between the küpuna and students, separated by at least two generations.”
ProjectFocus Hawaii president and co-founder Lisa Uesugi is from Wahiawä, as is her husband Darin Uesugi, who is president of the Wahiawä Community Based Development Organization. WCBDO and PFH partnered in making the intergenerational vision a reality. Darin Uesugi said the project supports the WCBDO’s mission.
“WCBDO is an economic development group which works on projects that improve Wahiawä,” he said. “We want to remember Wahiawä’s rich history, of plantation days and the heyday of the military. We build upon the work of the Wahiawä Historical Society and pass that on to younger generations. We also use that history to boost economic development.”
Displayed in the Hongwanji social hall were 48 beautiful banners, one for each of the 24 küpuna interviewed and one for each of the 24 student interviewers/photographers. Each banner featured a black-and-white photograph of the küpuna or student, their personal story of growing up in Wahiawä and what they love about being from Wahiawä. The photographs of the küpuna were taken by the student with whom they were paired, while the photographs of the students were taken by either Callies or Lisa Uesugi. They used film, not digital, cameras, believing film renders a higher quality image.
As the students interviewed the elders, they discovered some connections through the kupunä’s personal stories. For example, 76-year-old Edwina Wong, who was born and raised in Wahiawä, told Makana Gabrielle Baker, a Wahiawä Middle School student, that May Day was a very important day when she was growing up. As a result, Wong initiated a May Day program at ‘Iliahi Elementary School in Wahiawä, where she was the librarian until she retired in 1995. It is a tradition that continues to this day, with the entire school dancing hula to the song “Pua ‘Iliahi.” Baker, who spent her elementary school years at ‘Iliahi, cherishes her May Day experiences, which she only recently learned that Wong had established. At the reception, they laughed and hugged each other as they shared fond remembrances of this ‘Iliahi tradition.
It is these kinds of stories that the nonprofit PFH hopes to engender through its work. PFH was founded in 2005 as a means of giving children and the senior population a healing voice through the medium of photography. Callies and Uesugi are both professional photographers who strive to enhance self-esteem, self-awareness and self-reflection through an annual summer internship program. All of their work is pro bono. Over 12 weeks, and sometimes for even six to eight months, they train students, many of whom are at-risk, in the use of medium format Holga film cameras.
“Photography can provide a safety net between children and the other side,” said Callies. “The children can capture what they’re feeling about their subject without having to say a word. We often ask them to photograph a person who has been important to them and to write why that person has been important. Through this work, families have been brought together and all kinds of great things have happened.”
Sometimes, surprising discoveries are unveiled through these pairings. For example, it was a long-held belief that Wahiawä’s Leilehua High School got its mascot name, the Mules, from the Army mules of nearby Schofield Barracks. But küpuna Sadao Honda, a 93-year-old retired dentist, knew the real story as a result of his work as the unofficial historian and scribe for Wahiawä and Leilehua.
“It’s a pleasure to let people know about Wahiawä and Leilehua,” he said. He told Leilehua High student Dana Okuma that the name “the Mules” originated with Harry T. Scott, who was Leilehua’s football coach in 1929. Scott was a 1927 graduate of Central Missouri State Teacher’s College (now the University of Central Missouri), whose mascot was the mule. (The mule is also the state animal of Missouri.) Thus, Scott bestowed “the Mules” name upon Leilehua.
Okuma said it was the most important thing she learned from talking to Honda. She said she knew that “connecting to the older Wahiawä community would help me become a better contributor to Hawai‘i.”
These types of connections led Fujifilm Hawaii to sign on as an early sponsor and supporter of PFH’s work when the organization was formed over 10 years ago. “Laurie and Lisa do a wonderful job of finding very worthy organizations to support,” said Fujifilm Hawaii vice president George Otsuka, who attended the reception with three company employees. “They use photography to get their message out to the general population,” Otsuka added.
Fujifilm Hawaii donated its services and materials to create the photographic banners for “Crossing Bridges.” “We support them because their message usually has to do with children and parents or children and küpuna,” Otsuka said. “They work tirelessly to get donations. They always have heartwarming stories.”
The küpuna in attendance had an abundance of nostalgic stories to share about old Wahiawä and why it was a great place in which to grow up. Jim and Suzy Peterson, proprietors of Petersons’ Upland Farm, founded in Wahiawä in 1910, said the best thing about growing up in Wahiawä is that it’s cool and rainy, so you don’t have to water the plants so much. The farm sells fresh eggs. Jim said being an egg farmer in Wahiawä is easy because chickens like cooler weather. Martha Peterson, Jim’s sister-in-law, also a proprietor of the farm, said she enjoyed being interviewed by her grandniece, Sarah Lewers Peterson, because “it was fun to reminisce about how much we paid for glazed doughnuts at Shan’s or Kilani Bakery.” Sarah, a Leilehua High student, said the interviews taught her how everyone in Wahiawä is tied together.
Eighty-seven-year-old Richard Sato was born in the Libby McNeil & Libby pineapple plantation camp in Waipio near Wahiawä. He said his father worked for Sosaku Maruyama, who used to haul pineapple from independent pineapple growers to the cannery. “In those days,” said Sato, “Sosaku collected pineapple from the ‘Hyakunin Konpan’ (100 people sharing), a group of independent Japanese pineapple farmers who sold their fruit to the cannery. Once the big pineapple companies moved in, like California Packing Company, the independent growers went out of business.” Sato’s father eventually married Maruyama’s daughter. Richard Sato was paired with his cousin’s granddaughter, Leilehua High School student Sachiko Maruyama, for the interview. Sachiko said that what she liked best about the project was the students’ sharing with each other their küpuna’s story. She said it was good to learn about the success each küpuna had enjoyed in his or her life. “It’s amazing what a great big thing can come from all of these little parts,” she said.
Fellow Leilehua High student Sofia Reyes found a role model in her küpuna — 94-year-old Josephine Honda. Honda said she told Sofia about how strict her teachers were at her Japanese language school. “Every time we opened our mouths, the teachers corrected us,” Honda recalled. “It wasn’t until much later that I realized what they were trying to teach us. Years later, when I went to Japan on a business trip with my husband for Honda Tofu Factory, the Japanese business people were surprised that I spoke like someone from Japan, not Hawai‘i. My husband was so proud of me.”
Honda also recalled how busy they were as children. “We learned Japanese cooking, sewing, how to make kimono, and we did tea ceremony dressed up in kimono. On Sundays, we learned sahö, or Japanese mannerisms, how to walk and talk. On Saturday nights, we had kendö lessons.” Reyes was impressed with all Honda did as a student. “She told me her life was always on the go and she worked so hard,” Reyes said. “My life is so slow compared to hers.”
Life experiences like theirs were celebrated in high style at the reception, which featured a gourmet buffet dinner served under white tents. There was live music, and gift baskets filled with locally grown produce were presented to each of the küpuna who were interviewed.
In late December, the exhibit was displayed at the Leilehua High School library. ProjectFocus Hawaii hopes to show “Crossing Bridges” at other venues on O‘ahu, perhaps at Honolulu Hale or at shopping malls, as it has done for its previous exhibits.
The event was bittersweet for Callies and Uesugi, though, as Fujifilm Hawaii will be closing its doors in the next month after having been a part of Hawai‘i’s photography scene for 45 years. The closure is the result of a corporate decision.
“Fujifilm Hawaii has always been successful,” said VP Otsuka, who has been with the company for 31 years. “It’s been a happy and fruitful experience, and it’s been a pleasure to work with Lisa and Laurie.”
As the evening wound down, Lisa Uesugi was deeply gratified. “Tonight we are celebrating being hopeful about Wahiawä. Wahiawä is often portrayed inaccurately. There’s so much history and richness and pride here. What I love is that everyone knows each other in some way,” she said. “I’m fourth generation in Wahiawä. I’m proud to bring this to Wahiawä, proud that my family could participate and proud that the whole island can see Wahiawä as it truly is.”
Gail Honda, who was born and grew up in Wahiawä, is Sadao Honda’s daughter. She is now a writer in Honolulu. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 808-942-4783.