Lorraine Toma, pictured here with her son, Thomas, in 2000, brought the first group of women together to organize what would become Hui O Laulima. (Hawai‘i Herald archives)
Lorraine Toma, pictured here with her son, Thomas, in 2000, brought the first group of women together to organize what would become Hui O Laulima. (Hawai‘i Herald archives)

Hui O Laulima to Retrace Its Journey from “Auxiliary” to “We Can Do It!

They were just supposed to help their husbands entertain visiting dignitaries from Okinawa by serving ocha (tea) and snacks, help the men organize dinners, and sit beside their husbands and smile . . .

But something happened along the way.

If ever there was a story about what is possible when women are empowered, Hui O Laulima is it.

The evolution of the 50-year-old organization, from supporters to soldiers committed to preserving and perpetuating Okinawan culture, will be celebrated in “Kanaganatu — Forever Helping” on Saturday, March 17, at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. Their story is rooted in such Okinawan terms as chimugukuru, a loving spirit; ukaji deebiru, gratitude; and yuimaaru, the spirit of cooperation. The program was conceived of by artist and arts educator/organizer Ann Asakura, an HOL member who many know as the co-founder of TEMARI: Center for Asian and Pacific Arts. Asakura was recruited as the show’s artistic director. She describes “Kanaganatu” as a “mélange celebration of HOL through music, movement and fabric.”

As HOL’s 50th anniversary neared, Wendy Yoshimoto, a past president and current advisor, broached the idea of involving Asakura in the then-undefined project with the anniversary committee. She had met Asakura decades earlier when she took a tie-dye class from her at the Richard Street YWCA and had continued to follow her work.

“I was inspired by her reconstruction of kimonos and her artwork that could be found around town,” said Yoshimoto. “Ann conveys messages, through her art form with honesty and integrity.”

Asakura reviewed HOL’s overall vision for their celebration and agreed to help bring its 50-year history to life, from its humble beginnings as an “auxiliary” organization made up primarily of Nisei wives of local Okinawan men, to one that had found its own voice and, in the process, empowered its members — Uchinanchu and Uchinanchu-at-heart. She was impressed that HOL puts its money where its mouth is, preserving and perpetuating Okinawan culture by awarding cultural grants that enable musicians, dancers and artists to keep the culture alive and thriving and growing.

HOL’s story begins in 1968 when the late Tommy Toma, a contractor and then-president of the United Okinawan Association of Hawaii (today the Hawaii United Okinawa Association), expressed the need for a women’s organization to help entertain visiting officials from Okinawa. Toma enlisted his wife, Lorraine, for the job. She invited other Okinawan ­wives that she knew — Katherine Yonamine, Chiyoko Ige, Masae Chinen and June Arakawa — to an informal meeting to discuss the formation of a women’s organization. Tsuruko Ohye, who had helped organize several other clubs, including Hui Manaolana and the Japanese Women’s Society of Honolulu, joined the group for its second meeting at the Flamingo Chuckwagon restaurant.

On Nov. 11, 1968, Hui O Laulima was officially established with 15 women. The founding officers were: Tsuruko Ohye, president; June Arakawa, first vice president; Jane Sakima, second vice president; Irene Kanetake, recording secretary; Jackie Goya, corresponding secretary; Rose Teruya, treasurer; and Caroline Kamisato, assistant treasurer. Masae Chi-
nen, Chiyoko Ige, Chiyeko Takushi, Lorraine Toma and Katherine Yonamine served on the board of directors.

Within a month of its establishment, the women agreed that the organization’s goals would include: fellowship among the members, service to the community, cultural exchange and education on various topics to be selected from year-to-year, self-improvement and welcoming dignitaries from Okinawa. Membership would be open to all women, regardless of race or creed, who were interested in Okinawan culture and activities of Okinawans in Hawai‘i.

Ku‘ulei Ihara, a liaison teacher at the Bishop Museum and an authority in Hawaiian studies, came up with the group’s named “Hui O Laulima,” meaning “club of many hands,” to reflect its mission and goals.

Many of the founding members of HOL had experienced some discrimination by the larger Japanese community while growing up. Okinawans were often teased, “Okinawa ken ken buta kau kau,” equating Okinawans to pig slop. Although the teasing invoked feelings of hurt and anger, it also inspired unity, connecting with their roots and strengthening their desire to shape their own identities and live with purpose. HOL became a place where the women could emerge from behind their husband’s shadow by serving the community while also preserving and perpetuating Okinawan culture.

In 1971, the members organized what they called the Jubilee, an exhibition of Okinawan cultural artifacts, at the Ala Moana Hotel. This first major event included interactive displays, craft demonstrations and Okinawan dance performances.

“We had a Jubilee beginning with a handful of people,” recalled Ella Teruya, who chaired that first Jubilee. “We had no money, but we had really big hearts . . . people that cared about Okinawan culture. Our spouses slept in the hall overnight to watch over the artifacts.”

The Jubilee evolved into today’s Okinawan Festival, organized by the HUOA. The first Okinawan Festival was held in 1982 at Ala Moana Park’s McCoy Pavilion and later moved to Thomas Square and the Honolulu Academy of Arts (today’s Honolulu Museum of Art). In 1990, on the 90th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Hawai‘i, the festival moved to Kapi‘olani Park to accommodate the larger crowds. Hui O Laulima still organizes the festival’s cultural tent.

In order to learn culture, “You must eat it, speak it, dance it and make things from it,” emphasizes Asakura. That is why Hui O Laulima’s three food-related publications have been cultural cookbooks — not just collections of recipes.

“We were the first cookbook to incorporate the culture and the history,” says Irene Kanetake, who was one of HOL’s founding officers. HOL published its first cookbook in 1975. They sold out like hot andagi: All 5,000 copies of “Okinawan Cookery and Culture,” a roughly 6-by-9-inch book with a simple cardstock cover and plastic spiral binding, sold out in three weeks, setting a local publishing record. The second printing of 5,000 copies was gone in the first few months of 1976. Today, they are a collector’s item.

In 1988, HOL celebrated its 20th anniversary with a second publication, “Of Andagi and Sanshin: Okinawan Culture in Hawaii” — a collection of stories about Okinawan experiences. In 2000, HOL published its third book, “Okinawan Mixed Plate: Generous Servings of Culture, Customs and Cuisine.” It featured vibrant photos that brought to life all the knowledge and wisdom that the elders had passed on to the members — a tangible treasure that could be shared and passed on to future generations.

“Chimugukuru: The Soul, The Spirit, The Heart,” HOL’s last cultural cookbook, was published in 2008 and featured award-winning Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine chefs’ adaptations of Okinawan family favorites. Alan Wong, Russell Siu, Grant Sato and Roy Yamaguchi are among the celebrity chefs featured in “Chimugukuru.”

It was the Hui O Laulima members who realized — and capitalized — on the popularity of selling hot andagi at the Farm Fair. The members did this for many years until it became too much work. Andagi sales and HOL’s cookbook sales at events and in local bookstores provided the seed money for the organization to establish a scholarship awards program in 1984. In the first 10 years, 47 students benefitted from the $48,200 that HOL awarded for higher education pursuits.

In 1995, HOL decided to shift its focus to those needing financial assistance for their cultural pursuits. To date, a total of $120,000 in cultural grants has been awarded to 68 beneficiaries. The grants have enabled many accomplished artists and performers from Hawai‘i to travel to Okinawa and connect with their roots, enrich their minds and broaden their perspectives — just as the founding “mothers” hoped it would. The grants also enable neighbor island students to fly their O‘ahu-based sensei to their respective island to teach.

To ensure the future preservation of Okinawan culture, HOL members assist HUOA with its annual “Warabi Ashibi” (“children at play) Children’s Day Camp. Since 1996, children ages 7 to 13 have been introduced to Okinawan history, dance, language, drumming, martial arts, crafts, flower arrangement and plantation games through fun, yet educational hands-on activities. The weeklong camps are held on O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i.

Whether work or social, the gatherings are always filled with infectious smiles and belly laughs. Member Lynn Oshiro said she has come to truly understand and embrace the Okinawan term for working together — yuimaaru. “It’s not only time spent at the event. It’s the prep time, too. I see HOL as a strong team of women. When everyone ‘pulls’ the same way at the right time, things get done. This ‘pull’ and commitment of the HOL ladies is inspiring.”

HOL also expresses its chimugukuru through its dance group, Churakägi Angwata (“Beautiful Women”), made up of about 20 members who visit and dance for nursing home residents and at various community events. The group was formed by the late Shizuko “Shi-chan” Shiroma, who taught the women hula, Okinawan dances and songs, bringing smiles to the faces of many.

The journey continues with “Kanaganatu” and another step forward in an increasingly multiethnic, multicultural, multifaceted Okinawan community.

“Kanaganatu” will integrate modern and Okinawan dance choreographed by veteran dance instructor Yukie Shiroma. Shiroma earned her master’s degree in fine arts in dance from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and started the dance program at Mid-Pacific Institute, which she directed for 20 years. All total, she has over 30 years of teaching and performance experience. Shiroma also studied Okinawan dance with Cheryl Yoshie Nakasone, master instructor of Jimpu Kai USA Kin Ryosho Ryukyu Geino Kenkyusho Hawaii Shibu. She currently teaches Okinawan dance in the UH-Mänoa Department of Theatre and Dance and for UH Outreach College.

Asakura emphasizes that “Kanaganatu” is not a fashion show. It is, however, “the story of Hui O Laulima told through dance, music and visual reminders of history. . . . The clothes are there to embellish the story,” she said.

The participating designers’ creations will help tell the Hui O Laulima story. They include: Brandt Fuse (SumoFish), Lillian Higa (METO), Allison Izu, Grant Kagimoto (Cane Haul Road), Wendy Kim Messier, Diane Nonaka (Moiliili Communty Center); Summer Shiigi (Ten Tomorrow), Lisa Wiemken (Pitacus) and Lue Zimmelman (Nui Mono).

Fifty years of lending a helping hand to fellow members and the community is a milestone to be celebrated with both thoughtful reflection and jubilation. For HOL’s roughly 290 members, it will be a time to look back and honestly say, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”

“Kanaganatu: Forever Helping” will begin at 10:30 a.m. (doors to the Hawaii Okinawa Center open at 9). Silent auction items will be available for bidding prior to the start. The formal program begins at 10:30, followed by lunch and the show at 11. Tickets are $75 per person and can be reserved by emailing event chair Paula Kurashige at pkurashige@gmail.com.


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