Virginia Couple Funding Digitization of “Rice and Roses” Programs
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Much of Hawai‘i’s unique plantation history sits in a climate-controlled vault in the library of the University of Hawai‘i-West O‘ahu, waiting to be saved.
The 12 pallets of videotapes — more than 3,000 cassette tapes — representing the archives of the long-running television series from the 1980s and ’90s, “Rice and Roses,” which aired on Hawaii Public Television, KHET (today, PBS Hawai‘i). The tapes are being tended to with tender loving care by the series’ director, Joy Chong-Stannard, and producer, Chris Conybeare, under the administration of CLEAR — the Center for Labor Education and Research.
The programs delved into all aspects of Hawai‘i’s plantation past — from the picture brides brought over from Asia at the turn of the century; to the prolonged sugar, pineapple and dock strikes; to plantation politics; to the various traditions that brought about Hawai‘i’s blended culture.
The archives at UH-West O‘ahu’s ‘Ulu‘ulu — the state’s archive of moving images — includes some 30,000 videotapes and 400 motion picture film reels. ‘Ulu‘ulu is a project of the University of Hawai‘i’s Academy for Creative Media.
The “Rice and Roses” tapes are in peril because they are slowly disintegrating, said Conybeare.
“We can’t even play them without risking damaging the tapes. We have videos where we are talking to picture brides coming to Hawai‘i in 1918 and ending up in a labor strike in 1920. It is the only tape in the world of this,” Conybeare said.
But a rescue operation is underway.
Enter Frank Moy and Marcia Mau, two federal retirees living in Vienna, Va.
Moy was born in Washington, D.C., and Mau in Honolulu. They are longtime friends of Barbara Kawakami, who authored two major books on Hawai‘i plantation life: “Ja-panese Immigrant Clothing in Hawai‘i: 1885-1941” and, more recently, “Picture Bride Stories.” Both were published by the University of Hawai‘i Press.
In July 2016, Moy and Mau attended the launch of Kawakami’s “Picture Bride Stories” at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. In his presentation, Conybeare showed pictures from the videos he had produced while working with Kawakami on a series about the picture brides, the immigrant women who came to Hawai‘i from mainland Japan, Okinawa and Korea between 1908 and 1924 as the wives of sugar and pineapple plantation laborers who they had never previously met in person and knew only through the exchange of mailed photographs.
“At the end of Chris’ talk, he mentioned that ‘Rice and Roses’ (programs) are on tapes and need to be digitized,” said Moy in an email interview. “At that time, I did not know that Barbara and Chris worked together back in the 1980s to produce the ‘Rice and Roses’ series.”
A short time later, the couple informed Conybeare that they would help fund the digitization of the picture bride series with a $12,000 donation. Then, concerned it would not be sufficient, they decided to donate another $20,000 to the effort.
The couple has since increased their monetary support, which will fund the cost of the preservation and digitization and the production of curriculum support mini-programs for the entire CLEAR/”Rice & Roses” collection. As part of the preservation effort, Conybeare and Chong-Stannard are writing and editing short video pieces for teachers to use in the classroom when discussing Hawai‘i’s plantation period.
“It was Barbara’s work that inspired the original donation in 2017 that would allow us to preserve and digitize our picture bride collection,” said Conybeare.
In his email, Moy recalled attending an eye-opening talk by Chong-Stannard.
“Joy gave a ‘talk story’ about one of Barbara’s interviews with a senior Japanese immigrant about how to make a raincoat! Barbara was surprised to see this old tape. Joy said the tape was done in 1986. Joy’s short talk showed everyone in the audience the importance of digitizing these tapes, which today’s generation does not even know they exist. Even if they knew they exist, they can’t ‘see’ them unless they are digitized.
“Marcia and I want ALL to know about the work of Barbara and CLEAR. To do so means digitizing, and we will fund this CLEAR project for the next five years,” Moy said.
‘Ulu‘ulu head archivist Janel Quirante said some tapes are being digitized in-house. The damaged ones, however, must be sent to California to be saved.
The digitization process will result in a huge computer file (100 gigabytes per video hour) that is stored on special data tapes and then reduced to a size that can be streamed over a computer.
Quirante said the plan is to make the tapes available for filmmakers to use in documentaries, for the public to view and for students to use as learning tools.
“We see our role as preservers,” Quirante said, “but then we have had people come, ‘Hey, I just saw my uncle on your tapes.’”
“This collection is considered the best visual record of Hawai‘i plantation and labor history that exists,” Conybeare emphasized. He said he and Chong-Stannard are excited that the work will now be available to new audiences.
“The collection contains full-length interviews with working class people about their lives, culture and organizing to stand up to oppression. In addition to inspiration from Barbara Kawakami, we were also inspired and worked with others, such as Harry Urata, Franklin Odo and Ah Quon McElrath, to name a few.”
The preservation/digitization of “Rice and Roses” tapes will provide Conybeare and Chong-Stannard with materials they can use on an hour-long television documentary on the life and times of labor and human rights activist Ah Quon “AQ” McElrath.
A segment featuring Barbara Kawakami and picture bride Haruno Tazawa discussing plantation clothing can be viewed on the ‘Ulu‘ulu website at http://uluulu.hawaii.edu/plantation-history-preservation-project.
Richard Borreca is a veteran Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for whom he now writes a Sunday column.