Maile’s Meanderings

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Welcome to Maile’s Meanderings.  This page’s stories were written by one of our historians, Maile Melrose, who is an invaluable source of information here at Kona Historical Society.  Thank you for sharing Kona’s stories, Maile!
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The Sweet Life~Donkey Delivery

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Hayata Hirokawa, our expert rider, is seated at far right; saloon owner Matsutaro Suenaga, seated second from left. Photos donated by Paul Hirokawa


I love this century old photo of twenty-five year old Hayata Hirokawa astride his sturdy little donkey. Not only is Hayata a handsome young man, well dressed in snappy attire, but his apparently amiable donkey is equally dapper and well groomed. His trim leather bridle and reins look clean and well fitted. Note how Hayata has wrapped the donkey’s neck rope firmly around the saddle’s pommel, fully aware this indispensable item will be needed shortly to tie up his beast of burden to handy hitching rails or well placed trees as he goes about his business. And, what an interesting business it must have been!

The donkey is carrying a full load (perhaps ten bottles in all!) of large wicker covered bottles. If Hayata were Portuguese, we could assume the bottles were filled with tasty wine, pressed from Isabella grapes brought to Holualoa by immigrants from the Azores. If he were Hawaiian, we could guess at homemade okolehau or swipes. However, because Hayata is Japanese, the bottles must be filled with sake! Before we jump to conclusions and wonder if our smiling delivery man had a drinking problem, we must look at our other photo, the inside of Mr. Suenaga’s Holualoa Saloon. The room is absolutely packed with barrels of booze, bottles of booze and, perhaps, even boxes of booze stacked up against the mauka wall.

Our Hayata is off to the right, perched on an enormous wooden keg, arms folded across his chest, all the better to display his turned up shirt sleeves and well pressed white apron. Each man’s attire and pose is impressive: fashionable bow tie or tie, straw boater or wool cap, perky suspenders, freshly laundered white shirts, jauntily crossed legs, impeccable hair cuts and well trimmed mustaches. This is not the look of struggling plantation workers. This room is all business with eyes fixed to the future. Rolled up documents in two of the men’s hands indicate to me that something is up, someone has big plans, Holualoa Saloon is about to embark on ????

This is the trouble with photos that are one hundred years old; they may capture the moment, but if everything is not written down, details vanish. This is why it is so wonderful that Hayata’s son Paul is still alive and able to tell me a little more about his father. Hayata did not come to Kona to escape poverty in Japan. He left his comfortable home because the Japanese army was conscripting all fifteen year old boys to fight in the upcoming Manchurian War and he was not eager to die from a Russian bullet on a Chinese battlefield. With his parents’ permission, he traveled to Hawaii around 1903, planning to move on quickly to California to stay with his older sister in Watsonville. However, an unforeseen shift in U.S. immigration law marooned him in Honolulu. Fortunately, an old family tie to Mr. U. Morihara of Honaunau brought him to Kona. Soon he found himself in Holualoa, then a thriving sugar plantation town, which was not a bad place to be if you were young, hard working and had aspirations for a better life.

By the turn of the 20th century, Kona’s Japanese population had shot through the roof. In 1890, Japanese formed a mere 2% of Kona’s 3,500 souls, about 70 people. By 1900, the number had jumped to 27.7% of 6,191 persons, or 1,600 Japanese, a rapid increase indeed. Certainly, some Japanese families were trying to make a living with coffee, but the biggest employer at the time was Kona Sugar Company. The sprawling sugar plantation formed in 1898, building a mill on Waiaha Stream above Kailua. When that business first went broke in 1903, local investors bought it, renamed it Kona Development Company (KDC), and kept on going. Later, a group of Japanese with capital from Tokyo took over the plantation and ran it until it closed in 1927.

In that era, multi-talented Dr. Harvey Saburo Hayashi lived in Holualoa. In 1897, he began publishing his own Japanese language newspaper, The Kona Echo, as well as caring for the health and welfare of his fellow Japanese immigrants. The North Kona Japanese Language School opened in 1898, unaffiliated with any religious organization, thereby becoming the oldest independent Japanese language school in Hawaii. Tanimoto Store catered to this new population, bringing in casks of shoyu, one hundred pound bags of rice, and chests of green tea. American born Luther Stine Aungst set up his Hawaii Telephone Company in town at this same time, stringing phone line from Kau to Waimea. By the time Hayato arrived, the town was dominated by an influx of Japanese who did everything from driving plantation locomotives, harvesting cane and pounding out horse shoes for teams of mules and horses. What our two photos clearly show is alcohol of all descriptions was in high demand throughout the district.

Alas! In 1917 the U.S. Congress approved the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which banned the import, export, manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol. When the new law went into effect in January of 1920, if Kona police had caught sight of Hayata delivering sake up and down Mamalahoa Road, they would have arrested him. The profitable importation of Masamune sake from Japan was deemed a crime, much to Dr. Hayashi’s chagrin. Holualoa Saloon had to close its doors or transform itself into a billiards parlor serving tea and coffee! Horrors!

Prohibition ended in 1933, but after a decade of teetotal sobriety, how many business minded saloon owners and cheerful bar tenders went bankrupt? Probably quite a few. Mr. Suenaga left Kona for Maui, taking his family with him. There, in an unfortunate accident, his son Giro fell into a ditch and died. Later, his son Taro became an attorney in Honolulu. Hayata returned to Japan, married an adventurous young woman called Matsu who longed for freedom from Japan’s established norms. Upon her arrival in Hawaii, she learned how to cook “haole” stews and apple pies; converted to Christianity and became a solid member of Kona Central Union Church. For many years, her home kitchen was used by University of Hawaii extension agents as a place to give cooking classes and teach Japanese house wives that not every meal had to be based on rice and shoyu.

Hayata’s friendly gaze caught the attention of former sheriff and aspiring businessman, Bank of Hawaii president Mr. Soji Ushiroda. Mr. Ushiroda was interested in gaining the trust of Kona’s up and coming coffee farmers so they would open savings and checking accounts in his bank. Not only could Hayata speak Japanese and English, he possessed the perfect personality to convince his countrymen to abandon their secret coffee cans full of cash for the security of a bank vault. As son Paul said, “Mr. Ushiroda had a terrific idea to get my father to talk to the farmers. Because of that, all his life he was a bank teller.” To Paul’s chagrin, it was not until after his father retired that his excellent business sense made him some real money on the stock market.

We live in a crazy world. One year we can drink sake in a saloon as law abiding humans, but let a law change and a year pass, and, in no time, the very same act will pop us in jail. Kona, home of world famous Kona Gold pakalolo, has had to hide its illegal light under a basket for decades. Now, with Colorado legalizing pot sales to anyone over 4 the age of 21 who has money to purchase the stuff, the door to major change has been pried open. Hordes of Americans are longing to rip the door off its hinges and trample it to smithereens. I wish Mr. Suenaga was alive to witness this shift in public opinion and state law. He would totally appreciate the delicious commercial possibilities for striving entrepreneurs and their eager employees.

I must end with a comment on Kona’s delightful winter weather. We have been lucky to get one or two soaking cloudbursts recently and the landscape has responded to this welcome rain with fervor and flowers. The appearance of our Kona Snow, intensely perfumed bursts of coffee bloom, has been nothing short of spectacular. The district has been awash with sweetness as coffee trees break from bud to blossom, a tide of pure white, flooding our district from end to end. For lovers of real snowflakes, the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa have glistened down to the 9,000 foot level. On the higher elevations, `ohi`a-lehua and mamane have displayed their true Hawaiian colors, scarlet and gold, giving every bird in sight a tasty treat. It has been a wonderful start to the New Year. 

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P.S. For more information about Holualoa and the experience of early Japanese immigrants, I would recommend KONA ECHO, A Biography of Dr. Harvey Saburo Hayashi written by Jiro Nakano, M.D., and published by KHS in 1990. I have used this book as a resource for this story. Mahalo to Paul Hirokawa for his historical help. Now 88 years old, he is an avid vegetarian and abstract artist; a kind man who walks two miles every day to keep himself healthy in body and spirit. I think he is a true reflection of his freedom seeking parents.

Aloha no, e Kona.

by Maile Melrose