Kakaako

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Monica Toguchi

 

Monica Toguchi’s ability to adapt and evolve is evident in her role as the third-generation owner of Highway Inn. The Oahu restaurant, which specializes in local favorites, has come a long way from the charming Waipahu establishment it started as 70 years ago, growing into a modern business with a location in the booming Kakaako neighborhood. The restaurants have thrived due to Monica’s ability to lead her family business into the future – without compromising the values that define it.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Aug. 24 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Aug. 28 at 4:00 pm.

 

Monica Toguchi Audio

 

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Transcript

 

My grandfather, you know, having Highway Inn and having the memories of going to this little store on Depot Road with the tall green chairs, it was a time period of people just sitting together as complete strangers and eating, and sharing their foods, you know. And he told my father when my father took over; he said to my dad, As long as you have this business, you can support your family.

 

Monica Toguchi is the third generation owner of Highway Inn, a longtime Hawaiian restaurant that serves up local favorites like lau lau, poi, and pipikaula. She didn’t plan on taking over the business, but she did, and she needed to answer the question: How do you take a beloved but aging business from Waipahu, Oahu and keep it vibrant in the 21st century? Monica Toguchi, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A common dilemma with multigenerational family businesses in Hawai‘i is the question of who will carry on after one generation retires. We see how many multigenerational family businesses have not survived. Under Monica Toguchi, the third generation owner of Highway Inn, the family Hawaiian restaurant has not only survived, but has expanded into new neighborhoods. Monica’s roots are firmly planted in the old plantation town of Waipahu, Oahu, with her grandfather, Seiichi Toguchi, who started Highway Inn in 1947 to feed his growing family.

 

My grandfather was born and raised in Hawai‘i. And you know, my grandfather loved Hawaiian food. He had a lot of Hawaiian friends who taught him how to make pipikaula. But he was picked up by the American government when Pearl Harbor was bombed. My grandmother did not know where he was for about two months. And then, when they did find out, he was in Durham, Arkansas. And so, she and the first three eldest children, my Auntie Barbara, my Auntie Jonette, my Auntie Shirley, they moved to Durham, Arkansas at the time. And then, he was transferred during the war to Tule Lake. And for people that are familiar with Japanese American history, Tule Lake was one of those places that you just didn’t want to go to.

 

It had a reputation; that’s where they sent the troublemakers.

 

Correct. Right; correct. So, from my understanding, or my limited understanding, the American government would classify different groups of Japanese Americans. You know, you’re very pro-Japanese, or you’re moderate. And Tule Lake was one of those internment camps that a lot of people that were assumed to be very pro-Japanese were placed. For reasons unknown to us—my grandfather was no one of prominence during that time, he didn’t have the restaurant, he was just a working husband and father, he didn’t have any power within the community, so it’s huge mystery to us why they picked him up, but they did. And so, towards the end of the war in 1945, my father, who took over Highway Inn, was born in the internment camp. My grandparents left with three children, and came back with five. So, they were pretty busy in the internment camp.   And one of the things the American government did was, they identified people’s occupation within the internment camp. So, my grandfather listed cook. And so, what they did was, they put him in the mess hall along with other Japanese American cooks. And so, that’s why Highway Inn has a history of having Hawaiian and American foods. That’s where he learned how to cook hamburger steak and sirloin cutlets, was from being in a mess hall in an internment camp with other Japanese American cooks from around the country, and my grandfather really had to figure out how he was going to support now five children. And what ended up happening was, he decided to go back. He tried several things before he started Highway Inn. He tried to raise pigs, but the pigs got skinnier, not fatter.

 

Oh.

 

So, he realized, Okay, I’m not a pig farmer. And at that time, a lot of Okinawans were pig farmers.

 

That’s right.

 

So, my grandfather started Highway Inn in 1947. He only had a second grade education.

 

There he is.

 

Yeah. So, that’s my grandfather and my grandmother. They were very, very poor. But it went to my father in the late 70s. At the time that my grandfather was ready to retire, he was considering closing Highway Inn. But my father really felt that, you know, it’s been around for thirty years, and it was something that he wanted to try to continue, even though restaurant and cooking was not his thing. So, I had another uncle who had worked alongside my grandfather, got a lot of his culinary training during Vietnam, and came back to work with him. But he would not pass the restaurant down to this particular uncle.

 

Is this the uncle?

 

That’s my father’s older uncle, my Uncle George. So, my father has two brothers, one older than him, and one younger than him. But the business got passed down to him, and he’s the second boy, which is very atypical for, you know, Japanese American families. And he was the third youngest.

 

Did the other boys want the business?

 

I’m not too sure about that. At that time, my Uncle George was working for Oahu Sugar Mill. And I think my Uncle Gary, my dad’s younger brother that worked alongside my grandfather, helped us to continue the cooking, you know, thirty years after my grandfather had exited the business. So, my Uncle Gary was very instrumental in being able to keep the family recipes consistent to the way that my grandfather had cooked it. And my father was also very disciplined, and I think my grandfather knew that. He typically would describe himself as being a karate man. So, I think my grandfather innately understood that my father had the kind of qualities that a restaurant would require.

 

Under the second generation ownership of Bobby Toguchi, Highway Inn continued to thrive in Waipahu, Oahu. Monica Toguchi grew up around the restaurant and nearby, in the newly-developed planned community of Mililani.

 

So, I was born at Kapiolani Hospital, and I was raised primarily in the Waipahu and Mililani areas. So, Waipahu because my father is from that community, and our business Highway Inn is from that community. My parents bought a house in Mililani, so for most of my upbringing, I went to Mililani Uka, I went to Wheeler Intermediate, and then, I went to Mililani High School thereafter. Every Sunday, my grandfather would cook Sunday meals for all my cousins and his children and their spouses, and we would all gather at his house in Waipahu. And so, we would go to Depot Road and my grandfather would typically either feed us tripe and rice or beef stew and rice.

 

And you loved it.

 

And I loved it. And when my father took over, we ate a lot of beef stew and rice at home. Because my mom at that point had four children, four girls to raise, my father was working long hours at the restaurant, and so he would bring over the leftovers, you know, home. And so, we would pretty much eat what they cooked almost every day.

 

What were your years like after high school? You know, young adulthood.

 

I’m not proud to say this, but it was definitely a time where there was a great deal of unsuccessful relationships and, you know, poor decision making. I had moved out of my parents’ house probably when I was about seventeen, and I ended up getting married at quite a young age, you know, around twenty-one. I had my daughter at twenty-two, I had my son before I was twenty-five, you know, so I was a very young mother. And as a consequence to some of, you know, the not-so-good decisions, I found myself in a very, you know, difficult situation in regards to how do I raise my children on my own. My twenties was really a difficult time, but during that process, the one thing that I stayed true to was my education. So, you know, I finished up my master’s degree in counseling at the University of Hawai‘i. One of my first jobs was working at Waipahu Intermediate School. And on the first day that I was there, there was—and I think it’s gotten a lot better today, but at the time that I was there, there was a gang-related fight. And so, I believe what they called it at the time was a Code Red, which was a really high level of security, and you know, the police get involved. And I was just thinking to myself, you know, I’ve been in this Waipahu community my whole entire life, so it wasn’t that I was a stranger to some of, you know, the issues of our community, but also at the same time, you know, I was a bit nervous to, you know, try to figure out, well, you know, how much is the situation gonna escalate before it gets better. And that experience was one of the reasons why I ended up wanting to get my PhD. I really went into graduate school thinking that, you know, I would try to understand more about juvenile delinquency.

 

Monica Toguchi pursued her new dream of earning a PhD. As a single mom in her twenties, Monica packed up her two young children and moved to the University of Oregon to attend graduate school.

 

You know, a lot of people would ask me, How’d you do it? And I think when you’re young, that’s the beauty of being young. You know.

 

What did your family say?

 

I never really told them what I was doing until it was time to catch the plane. And the response really, was really quite an interesting one to me. It was one, actually, that I didn’t appreciate. It was a very gender and cultural stereotypical response that, as a mother, I really should focus on my children. And in my mind, I felt that, you know, making these educational decisions was really for the benefit of my children.

 

While still working on her PhD at the University of Oregon, Monica Toguchi was abruptly summoned back home to her family in Hawai‘i.

 

My father never complained once of being overworked, and supported his family. And then, he then prematurely had to exit. Like so many business owners, you know, they suffer from high blood pressure. You know, the business is foremost, typically they neglect their health in the process until it catches up with them, and they have a life-changing moment. And so, for my father, it was a brain aneurism in the basal ganglia, which is very close to the brain stem, so it’s one of those situations where if you suffer an aneurism and it’s close to the brain stem, there’s nothing you can do. You just have to wait it out. Amazingly, he survived, but he also had to take it easier from that point on. And when my dad was recovering at, you know, Rehab of the Pacific, my sister Regina and I were in his bed, and my father was trying to get out of the bed. You know, he actually had an alarm. You know, when people, they try to get out of bed and they’re not supposed to, an alarm goes off. So, he had one of those, because he was very stubborn and, you know, wanted to get back to work. But you know, he was in bed, and my sister and I were like, Okay, so who’s gonna take over the business? And she just immediately said, Well, I don’t want to take over the family business, I really just don’t want to have the lifestyle that Dad, you know, has, which is working constantly, seven days a week, hundred-hour work weeks. And my sister was smart enough to think through that and to recognize that that’s not the kind of lifestyle that she wanted.

 

What did you say?

 

You know, I was probably in my late twenties at the time, and I looked at her and I said, Great, I don’t have to fight you for it, then. In many ways, I always felt that it perhaps was my responsibility, it was perhaps my kuleana, if you will. So, I thought perhaps at some point in life, I would need to address that, but what I didn’t anticipate was, I didn’t anticipate that it would come so soon. There was probably an idea in my head, probably mostly created on my own, that you know, it was my responsibility to make sure that if this business was gonna continue, that would be my responsibility to bear.

 

But you had been deferring that.

 

Well, A, I didn’t want to count on it, because I did not know what my father’s plans were. He never explicitly said, This is what I want to do.

 

M-hm.

 

I think he was quite pleased. So, you know, I think as most multigenerational family owners … typically, I think it’s safe to say that most parents don’t force their children. They really want their children to come to that decision on their own. You know, because when people are able to come to those decisions on their own, it really becomes the best decision for that person and for the business itself. Because it doesn’t feel like it was forced upon you.

 

But heavy is the crown.

 

Heavy is—right.

 

If you say no, what happens to the business?

 

Right; right.

 

Do you want to be the one who stepped out?

 

Right. And also too, you know, there’s statistics out there that multigenerational businesses don’t really … there’s not a lot of confidence in succession. So, you know, there’s about thirty percent of businesses that will go from the first generation to the second generation, and then that percentage actually decreases to twelve percent from the second generation to the third generation. And typically, you know, they say that it’s the third generation that screws it up.

 

Or that the third generation is soft.

 

Right. You know, we don’t have the character, you know, traits, we kinda squander away all the hard work that was built.

 

How do you feel about that observation, or opinion?

 

You know, because the restaurant is such a difficult business, you know, my sister used to say this. You know, no matter twelve-hour or fifteen-hour days, failure is just simply not an option.

 

Monica Toguchi’s father Bobby survived his stroke; however, he no longer ran the family business. Monica became the third generation owner of Highway Inn, and eventually gave up her pursuit of a doctoral degree to focus on running the business. And then, in 2011, hard times struck the family again.

 

I lost my son about five years ago. And you know, he died by suicide, and that was a really, really difficult thing. You know, every other day here in Hawai‘i, somebody dies from suicide, and there are so many people that are affected by it, but we don’t talk about it. And the Kakaako store was named in his memory, so I named the business—the legal name of Kakaako is Hoola Mau. And ola is life, you know, mau is to move forward, to move life forward. And that was my thing. But my son really … I think a lot of us, you know, when you’re faced with those kinds of tragedies, you try to make sense, you ask a lot why questions. But really, at the same time, it’s, you know, how do you take something that is so personal and so tragic, and not become paralyzed by it. And I had to just, you know, really keep it together. And Highway Inn and the business itself really, I think, helps me to do that. You know, at that time, we had about forty, forty-five employees, and I knew that if I was paralyzed or incapacitated mentally by my son’s passing and having to address that, go through that emotional process of healing, you know, if that took me under, then the lives of my staff would be affected. And so, that really gave me the motivation to think beyond my own tragedy, and to think outside of myself. And sometimes, when I’m really like in the thick of it all, you know, how I recognize that, you know, this is gonna pass, tomorrow will be a better day. And you know, when you go through something that tough, anything in comparison is really not that challenging.

 

Monica Toguchi persevered after the loss of her son and continued to channel her energy into rebuilding and creating. At the time of this conversation in 2016, Highway Inn has grown to seventy employees, in three locations. The business caters, as well.

 

How many outlets or how many businesses are part of Highway Inn now?

 

So, when I came onboard, we had Waipahu, and at that time, we probably had about thirty-five employees or so on the payroll. And then, the opportunity came to partner with Kamehameha Schools; we were approached by Kamehameha Schools. They came out to Waipahu, and they saw what we were doing, you know, and they felt that it would be a good fit for what was up and coming in Kakaako and what their vision was for their lands in Kakaako. So, one of the struggles for me personally was, how do you take an old business like Highway Inn that in the next year, we’ll be celebrating our seventieth anniversary, and how do you then put that kind of business into a very urban, up-and-coming neighborhood like Kakaako? You know. The natural partnerships in an urban community like that would be to find an operation that was trendy, that was, you know, hip and cool. And here we are, coming into, you know, the coolest part of Honolulu, and we have this very old quaint place.

 

Isn’t there a Hawaiian proverb that says, Look to the future by looking to the past?

 

M-hm; m-hm. Or, you know, you need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. And so, that happened, and we opened our Kakaako location in October of 2013. And then, last year in September, we were also very fortunate. This process had started about a year before the partnership was solidified, but we had the opportunity to partner with Bishop Museum. You know, a lot of things did not come easy for me in my life. A lot of people may think that, you know, because we have Highway Inn and the brand that it has become today, you know, I think it’s easy to assume that I was given a silver spoon, you know, and perhaps, you know, I might have been born in a life of privilege. But it certainly wasn’t that way.

 

What do you think your grandfather would have made of a woman taking over Highway Inn—you?

 

I’m not really sure if he had a premonition of some sort. But my grandfather passed away in 1994. And I had said goodbye to my grandfather. He at the time was hospitalized for a couple months before that. And I went to the Waipahu house, he was in his wheelchair, and I said goodbye to my grandfather. And he cried. And my mother and I went back into our car, and my mother was like, You know, that was really strange for him to cry. And it kind of stuck in my mind. And what had happened was, he then passed away about two months later, and I got a phone call in California, my parents telling me that my grandfather had passed away. So, that was really the last time that I saw him. But you know, I think my grandfather, if he were alive today, he would be about a hundred and one years old. He was a very humble man; I don’t think he would believe what he started would have grown to what it is today. And I think some of my best moments is, you know, like when you feel like you’ve finally arrived. You have those moments where you feel like you’ve finally arrived, is when Senator Inouye came to visit us a couple months before he passed away. And out in Kakaako, Senator Akaka, you know, visiting us, and you know, Governor and former governors, and you know, we have so many movers and shakers.

 

Highway Inn on the map.

 

You know, yeah. And we have so many movers and shakers that we typically read about in the paper that make a difference in our communities, and I don’t think my grandfather would have ever imagined that these are the people that his business would be feeding one day.

 

You know, speaking of the family business, the family is about to look different.

 

M-hm.

 

You’re engaged, you’re going to be married soon.

 

I am. So, I have been very fortunate. When I came back from Oregon, I was, you know, thinking about who I wanted to be with, what kind of person I would be with. And you know, when you gain these kinds of experiences outside of Hawai‘i, it really expands your understanding of the rest of the world. And in my mind, I thought, you know, I really want to date somebody that, you know, can appreciate what is here, and the culture that we have, but also understand, you know, parts of my life that I’ve been exposed to living on the mainland for five years. So, I met Russell, and he’s actually British, and he was part of Aloha Airlines, and then he was part of Hawaiian Airlines, and he eventually became an investor into our Kakaako business. And so, about two years ago, he came onboard fulltime, and so, he’s my chief financial officer, my chief commercial officer, he’s a great visionary, great finance person. What it’s allowed me to do is really focus my time on everything outside of the finance parts of the business. And so many decisions are made on understanding, you know, the data that you collect. You know, how many people come in, what the average check size is, you know, whether your traffic is going up, going down. You know, and you base your decisions on these things. And so, he’s been a wonderful asset. And after nine years, it took us nine years, but after nine years, we decided we would get married.

 

We’re speaking in 2016. As you approach the business’ seventieth anniversary, is it still touch-and-go sometimes in business? I mean, do you assume there’ll be a fourth and a fifth generation?

 

No. You know, so my father had four girls, you know, my grandfather had seven kids. So, there were options there; right? So, out of the four girls, the only, you know, fourth generation is my daughter, who’s twenty-one, and she’s studying in New York. And you know, I always describe my daughter; she’s, you know, artsy-fartsy. It’s not one of those things that, you know, as much as we have done pretty well for ourselves, I don’t think it’s a natural choice, even for my cousins or my cousins’ children, that that’s something that they want to participate in.   Because I think they recognize it’s a lot of hard work. I do hope that it continues. How specifically is a big question mark.

 

Third generation Highway Inn owner Monica Toguchi continues to look toward the future, while honoring the legacy of her family business. In a recent interview with Honolulu Magazine, she said, If you understand who you are and what values are truly important to you, evolving is not as difficult as it may appear to be. Mahalo to Monica Toguchi of Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I have not gotten sick of eating my own food. I try not to eat the lau lau, because the lau lau at Highway Inn is a very precious commodity right now. We just cannot keep up with the demand, so there are times when, you know, we run out of lau lau by the end of the day. And so, I try to not eat the lau lau, because I think if I eat a lau lau, then somebody is gonna come in and not be able to order this item.

 

[END]



“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
–Mister Rogers

Trolley: Thank you for being our neighbor!

Leslie Wilcox, President and CEO of PBS HawaiiYour team at PBS Hawai‘i took a cue from our favorite guy in a sweater, Mister Rogers, and invited scores of neighboring businesses to an open house. After a half-century in Manoa, we’re newbies in a new home across town at Nimitz Highway and Sand Island Access Road. We’re honored to occupy this building created by the people of Hawai‘i.

 

Staff members took individuals and groups on tours through our building, and there was time along the way to stop and get acquainted. “I watched your building going up,” said Curtis Sasaki of next-door office-supplies distributor Conrad Enterprises, a family business. “Thanks for having me over. I’m curious to see the inside, the TV part.” He told us about his own company’s move into the neighborhood, back in 1988, from Kakaako.

 

Our other next-door neighbor is Storage Castle, with the turret wall on Nimitz. The self storage company’s Richard Parry made a good point: “A lot of people think of residential communities when they think of neighbors. But when you think of how much time you spend at work, we need to think of fellow businesses as neighbors and support each other if we can.”

 

We felt terrific support even before we moved in, as the big dog in the ‘hood, Matson, contributed $50,000 to our NEW HOME Campaign.

 

Matson’s affable Gary Nakamatsu motioned to the windows facing Nimitz. “All those drivers go past this area on Nimitz Highway – they just drive right by and they don’t see the great variety of businesses here that do a lot for our state.”

 

Variety, indeed! The Sand Island business district is a crazy quilt of industry and industriousness. Construction companies, candy sales, landscapers, document-shredding, a bakery, garbage collection, balloons, restaurants, dry cleaning, a cement maker, musical instruments. And of course, the Coast Guard. Among organizations that came by to say hi and check out our open, cheerful new work space were Honolulu Disposal Service, McDonald’s, First Hawaiian Bank, New Hope Oahu, Office Pavilion, and a scrappy entrepreneur, Primo Popcorn, owned by the multi-generational Sato family. They’re fearless in translating new flavors to popcorn. Prime rib, end cut? You got it. Kim chee? No problem. Baked potato? Here you go.

 

Each establishment has a story. And of course, we love stories. Our mission is advancing learning and discovery, through multi-media storytelling.

 

We’re glad to add another dash of variety to the neighborhood mix. Thank you, Sand Island area businesses, for being our neighbors.

 

A hui hou kakou—until next time,
Leslie signature

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
Kaka‘ako Development

 

As Islanders see plans turn into reality for the modernization of Kaka‘ako, what thoughts come to mind? Is Kaka‘ako’s building boom of glass towers and other high -rises the right thing? Who will live there and will there be a sense of community in the re-invented district?

 

Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.

 

Phone Lines:
973-1000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

Twitter:
Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights


INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
How Can We Best Help the Homeless?

 

Efforts to deal with Oahu’s homeless population, such as moving them out of parks
and off sidewalks, have only shifted them away from businesses, leading to more
sidewalk tents in Kaka‘ako and Kapalama. Now City Council members want the Mayor
to consider using the former Hilo Hattie site on Nimitz Highway as a homeless shelter.
What could the State and counties do to help? How can we best help the homeless?

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I is a live public affairs show that is also live streamed on PBSHawaii.org. Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email, Twitter or live blogging. You may also email your questions ahead of time toinsights@pbshawaii.org.

 

Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.

 

Phone Lines:
973-1000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

Twitter:
Join our live discussion using #pbsinsights

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar

 

Original air date: Tues., July 23, 2013

 

Leslie Wilcox talks with Honolulu urban artists Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar. Through their nonprofit artists’ collective and street art festival, POW WOW Hawaii, Jasper and Kamea bring together artists from Hawaii and the world to collaborate on murals in Honolulu’s Kakaako district. They also talk about how their experiences abroad have influenced their work.

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

WONG:         Yeah; there’s definitely a lot of convincing.

 

HADAR:         I think it’s Hawaii in general. They’re very supportive.

 

Oh, the supportive part?

 

HADAR:         Yeah. I mean, there’s that conservative kind of aspect to Hawaii, but I think for the most part people are really supportive.

 

When you drive through Kakaako in Honolulu, you can almost see the change happening before your eyes. Quaint mom & pop stores are being priced out of the area, huge condos are in the process of being built or planned. But there’s also a visual liveliness; pop-up stores and restaurants are attracting an energetic night crowd and a thriving arts community has staked out Kakaako as a blank canvas where they can express themselves. Two of these artists are Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar are two up and coming Hawaii artists who have transformed the landscape of Honolulu through community art. As organizers of Pow Wow Hawaii, a nonprofit annual artist collective and street art festival, Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar have been bringing together local and international artists to create large collaborative murals which have added color and culture to the Kakaako district. Both graduated from Kalani High School in Honolulu, and from an early age, they both found themselves gravitating toward the arts.

 

WONG:         I was raised by a single mother who raised three kids. There’s three of us; I’m the oldest, and my dad left when I was about twelve.

 

Have you seen him since?

 

WONG:         I have here and there, but I haven’t seen him for years for a while. Yeah. So, I don’t really know what he does. But yeah, just my mom. And then, my mom owned a bunch of bakeries. Actually, in the beginning, she owned a butcher shop in Kalihi next to the KFC by Farrington. And then later on, she had different bakeries in Chinatown on Hotel Street, and in Market City and stuff like that.

 

Did you end up working in those businesses?

 

WONG:         Yeah, I grew up packing bread and cleaning up, and going on the register and selling baked goods. And after a while, you just hate pastries so much.

 

[CHUCKLE] So, back when you were the butcher’s son, did you know you wanted to be an artist? Did you tell people, I want to be an artist?

 

WONG:         Yeah. I had to spend so much time there growing up at the shop. And I just would just draw all day long. It was always something that I did growing up. In my composition books, there would always be just drawings of comic book characters, or on the side of the page, I would do a flipbook cartoon of like, Dragon Boy characters fighting each other and stuff. It was just always something that I wanted to do. And my mom was always very supportive. She wasn’t that typical Asian mom who was like, I had to be a doctor or an accountant or a lawyer, or something. I was into art, and she found ways to sort of help me. She would buy me books, or she would try to enroll me in classes.

 

Oh, that’s wonderful.

 

WONG:         Or something like that. Yeah.

 

Kamea, were you always drawing and painting at a young age, too?

 

HADAR:         Yeah; definitely. I mean, ever since I can remember.

 

I think that’s where you have something in common, too. Because I think you both credit parental figures with hard work, and your work ethic, and your achievement.

 

WONG:         Yeah.

 

Talk about that; what are your parents like?

 

HADAR:         My parents are definitely dreamers. Definitely. They’re the ones who house all the Pow Wow artists every year up at their estate. It’s called Utopium Estate in Pupukea Heights. And that’s a similar size project to Pow Wow. I mean, it was this crazy dream to have a property and a big house that could house artists and creative types, and have retreats and foster creativity. And it was this crazy, crazy idea, and my parents are like us. They’re talkers and dreamers, and they’re doers. And so, they built the place with their own two hands. And yeah, I think my parents definitely instilled the work ethic that I have and then, the reach for the stars kinda attitude that is necessary to be an artist and to do big things like this.

 

Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar often find themselves traveling the world and participating in other art festivals and gallery exhibitions. The pair are no strangers to this bohemian lifestyle.

 

WONG:         I’ve been lucky where you do art shows and stuff, and then people fly you out to all over the world to sort of like paint and do different things and do design work. This year alone, I have to fly to Germany and Montreal, and Bali and Hong Kong, and just for different things that I gotta do out there. And own a small gallery in Hong Kong too. So, it kind of has led us to a lot of amazing places and to do a lot of amazing things.

 

How much do you think the travel that both of you have done, even before you became professional artists; you both had experience living abroad. How did that help you? I’m sure it helped in some way.

 

HADAR:         Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a huge thing that was instilled into me from a baby, was my parents were always traveling and always taking my brother and I all over the world. And I just grew up constantly experiencing new places and new people, and seeing new things. And I think that to me, you know, just gives you that kinda open-mindedness that is really good for a creative person. Because it just proves to you that there are so many different types of people, and so many different types of point of views in the world, and to never just have tunnel vision with anything. And that the world is huge and the possibilities are endless.

 

WONG:         Yeah; yeah, definitely.

 

You had experience in Japan before you became a working adult. It’s interesting, ‘cause one parent is from Macao, one is from Hong Kong.

 

WONG:         Yeah.

 

But you chose Japan as the place you’d travel to a lot.

 

WONG:         Yeah, I’ve definitely traveled to Japan a lot. [CHUCKLE] I think that’s probably ‘cause I was so interested in the culture growing up. I went there to study Manga at Kyoto Seika Daigaku.

 

Ah …

 

WONG:         And I couldn’t speak any Japanese, and even when I was there, I couldn’t speak anything. So, I just would show up to class and just guess as to what I was supposed to do. [CHUCKLE] But it was fun, though.

 

You have to be brave to go do that, go to another part of the world you haven’t been to, and show up and not speak the language, and take classes.

 

WONG:         Yeah; it was fun. I kind of enjoy those kind of experiences, sort of picking up and leaving, and then going to a city where you know nobody and trying to start over and meet people. It kinda opens up your horizons. ‘Cause I think growing up in Hawaii, going to school here I didn’t even know that art colleges existed, even, and that there was even art high schools too. I had no idea about that kinda stuff. And I thought that if you wanted to be in the arts industry, that you had to either do graphic design or something similar to that. And so, I lived in Portland first for a little while, and I went to Lewis and Clark College. And then, while I was there, I discovered that there was art colleges. So, I transferred myself over to the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and that’s when I got involved more with galleries and doing shows, and learning all that kind of stuff. And I was really into that; I was doing six shows or six to nine shows a year, just because it was just such a new world to me. ‘Cause I never experienced that before.

 

After Jasper Wong studied art in California and Japan, a move to Hong Kong reshaped his career path. It was a move that would eventually impact the art scene in Hawaii.

 

WONG:         I moved to Hong Kong because I wanted to learn about manufacturing.

 

Manufacturing …

 

WONG:         Like, anything. I know that when I went to art college, they teach you concepts and ideas. But then, what is that process to get your idea to the physical form? A shoe, a chair, or anything for that matter. What is that, how do you get that to sort of become an actual product?

 

Was that related to your art career?

 

WONG:         Yeah; yeah. And so then, I wanted to sort of learn how to do that kinda stuff. Because if not, then I’m always just sort of like, I could never really start my own thing without learning the process of sort of getting from Point A to Point B. But then, when I was there, I wanted to keep doing art shows. And then, so I started taking my portfolio, just taking my stuff around to all the galleries. And in Hong Kong, the gallery scene is more finance-based, ‘cause it’s a city of trade. And so, all the galleries were more like, painting inventory stores. They weren’t really trying to push younger artists or doing shows. I mean, it’s a lot different now, ‘cause now they have the art base over there. But then, when I was living there, it was totally different. And at that time, mainland Chinese art was sort of the hot commodity. If you weren’t mainland Chinese, then they wouldn’t care. So, I took my art around, and they didn’t want to show my work because it wasn’t a good investment. There was no potential. So, my choice was to either just give up, or start my own gallery. So, I just ended up starting my own little gallery and just to push my own art, and then push friends’ art. And so, we just did that. And the first show in that little gallery was the first Pow Wow.

 

You came up with the name, Pow Wow?

 

WONG:         Yeah, yeah; Pow Wow. Yeah; ‘cause the Pow was sort of the reaction that art has on the viewer; it’s like a punch in the face. It came from comic books. And the Wow is sort of your reaction to that work. So it’s like Pow and Wow.

 

So, this is not the Narragansett term for gathering. This is completely not that.

 

WONG:         Oh, yeah. No; yeah. But then, when it’s together, then it’s a gathering. So it felt like, well then, the roots came from comic books originally. So, we have the exclamation marks behind each word as sort of like Pow, and then Wow, and then Pow Wow together, it’s like a gathering to celebrate art, culture, music. It felt like it was the perfect term for what we were pushing and what we were doing. And so, it became that, and afterwards, it was like we want to keep doing it, and so, where could we do it. Either we could do it in Berlin, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, wherever there was friends that had spaces. And then Hawaii was a choice too. But growing up in Hawaii, we were always like, was it the best spot to do it? Do you think people would really care about it? And we felt like we should try.

 

Well, what is it? I mean, what is the essence of Pow Wow?

 

WONG:         It is a gathering to sort of bring — just like, if we got that many people together of just all these creative people into one place, then something amazing is gonna happen. And also, we felt like galleries or museums, there’s always that sort of barrier. Like, as an everyday person, sometimes you’re kind of afraid to sort of pass that threshold and go into a gallery, because you feel like maybe it’s not for you, or maybe it’s for like high society or something. So then, if we paint on walls in public, you have no choice. It’s right in front of you. The artwork that you draw, it’s right there.

 

HADAR:         And also, the murals bring other positive things. Not only does it bring attention to their businesses and to their land and buildings. But I think a common misconception is that this is gonna attract vandalism, but it actually does quite the opposite. Once the walls are painted, it becomes not completely untouchable, but let’s say people don’t mess with the artwork. I mean, it’s a big deal to vandalize somebody’s artwork. So, the caretakers of the land have actually told us that they buff out probably a quarter the amount of graffiti that they used to, or illegal vandalism that they used to.

 

Is that respect paid by graffiti artists to other artists?

 

WONG:         We’re also very inclusive of the whole graffiti community. Like, we try to include them into the project as well, and we try to give them a voice through those walls. And I think by doing that, to a lot of them, it make the place to them more sacred.

 

Kamea Hadar grew up with the multicultural backgrounds of a Hawaii-born mother of Japanese and Korean ancestry and a father from Israel. His art studies led him to faraway places like the University of Saint Louis in Madrid, Israel’s University of Tel Aviv, and the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

HADAR:         I had time at the Sorbonne in Paris, and studied in Europe. And so, yeah, I mean, I came from that very classical kind of base. And a lot of the artists in Pow Wow came from the other way around, where they came from the street and they came as graffiti artists that a lot of the stuff they do — actually, almost all of the stuff they started off doing is just completely illegally painting.

 

Is that an odd mix of artists?

 

HADAR:         Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the beauty of it, is that we have all these different artists, and everyone gets along so well.

 

They respect each other?

 

HADAR:         Yeah. The process of creation and collaboration are two of the biggest things that we stress at Pow Wow. So, collaboration not only makes for better, more interesting art many times, but also, it’s a beautiful thing to see artists share their cultures through art.

 

WONG:         We all stay at the Utopium, Kamea’s family’s home up in North Shore, and we make it a point to sort of put them all in one big house together. And that way, you’re sort of forced to sort of —

 

Sounds like a future reality show to me.

 

WONG:         Yeah; it is. There’s always sometimes —

 

HADAR:         Definitely had a whole big campus in that house.

 

WONG:         Yeah.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

WONG:         And so then, they’re forced to hang out with each other. You know, you have no choice but to make a connection with the person that you’re sleeping next to. And then by the time you’re painting, then everyone’s sort of more relaxed and cool, there’s less egos going around. It’s more like, hey, we’re all painting together, we’re all having fun in Hawaii together, let’s just have a good time and let’s just make it happen.

 

HADAR:         Hawaii is a very, very mixed place. I’m hapa, so I have parents from very different cultures. So, I mean, to see that in physical form on the wall painted you can see like an artist from Australia and a Cambodian artist painting together, and you get all these different mixes. And you literally see the art twisting together. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things. There’s a wall near the new Starbucks off of Ala Moana Boulevard, and it was one of the walls that was created by five artists. One was from Australia, one was from Hawaii, one was from London, and one was from Cambodia. The Cambodian artist was the one who I think you’re speaking of, who did the Naga snake, which is that mythical Cambodian snake that kind of weaves throughout the piece and kind of, to me, tied it all together.

 

WONG:         And so, you learn a lot being around a lot of artists, and you sort of pick up different things that they do, and try to apply it to yourself, and it kinda opens your mind as to like what’s possible. ‘Cause I would never have thought, like Rone, when you started using the weed sprayer to paint with.

 

HADAR:         Yeah.

 

A weed sprayer?

 

HADAR:         Yeah. Yeah; I mean, the artist that I painted with this year, one of them, his name is Rone. He’s from Australia, and I mean, he taught me some amazing things. And a lot of the techniques, he developed himself. And he really didn’t have to share his secrets with me, and he did. And I mean, it completely changed the way that I look at a lot of my art. And I even told him that I’m gonna tell people that it’s called Roneing, because I’m naming it after you, or you have to name it after yourself ‘cause these are your techniques. But I mean, I think the best way to get better is to be around people that are on different levels, and it’s amazing how much you can learn. And that’s part of, sharing cultures. You learn about each other’s cultures, and you also learn about art itself and how to create art. How different people create art, and how they have different paints in different parts of the country and different parts of the world, and the tools that they use, and what they have available and what they don’t, and how they find creative ways to get around lack of tools or lack of paint, or lack of places to paint. And it just really broadens your horizons as an artist.

 

And what was the most successful? I don’t know if there is one, ‘cause you’ve had so many really beautiful pieces. What would you say would be the one that people remember the most, so far?

 

WONG:         The one he did, with Rone. Kamea did one on Cooke and Pohukaina, of Shana, of his girlfriend’s face.

 

HADAR:         Yeah; it’s like a whole side of the building and, it’s just a close-up of her face looking up into the sky.

 

WONG:         People love that one.

 

HADAR:         I’ve gotten a lot of amazing feedback on that one.

 

WONG:         The one at 123 [INDISTINCT] that was [INDISTINCT] Slick. And the one on Kaimana Street.

 

HADAR:         Kamani.

 

WONG:         Kamani Street; that’s Ann Namba’s shop.

 

And Ann Namba is?

 

WONG:         Is Kamea’s auntie.

 

HADAR:         My auntie. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah; Ann Namba, the fashion designer. And you’ve done work for her, even as a teenager.

 

HADAR:         Yeah; I’ve been doing graphic design for her, you know, designing her textiles since I was fifteen.

 

So, art runs in the family, obviously.

 

HADAR:         It definitely runs in the family. Yeah. And she’s also one of Pow Wow’s biggest supporters. She helps run our fundraiser, and she really is a believer in what we’re doing.

 

Are there other women artists who participate?

 

WONG:         There’s a ton; yeah. There’s a bunch; yeah. We make it a point to find a balance. I mean, granted, within the street art community it’s definitely male dominant, for sure. But we make it a point to sort of bring in as many females. And we actually have our art school, and our school has about thirty-five students, and the majority or the most talented kids is all girls, all females.

 

How do people find your art school?

 

HADAR:         Right now, it’s been very word of mouth, just ‘cause it’s small as we develop and grow —

 

WONG:         It’s also free, too.

 

HADAR:         Yeah. We fund it, so we just simply can’t afford to teach the amount of students that we want to. I mean, we’re gonna try our best to keep growing.

 

Let me ask you; as former public school students in Honolulu, did you see your art or music classes cut, or did you have them?

 

WONG:         Yeah. No; yeah, yeah, yeah. We were there. I took classes, but we knew that the resources were so limited. And I stay in touch with my art teacher, and then she tells me it’s tough being an art teacher in Hawaii, ‘cause then sometimes you don’t even have the right kinda paint to teach with. Like, they’ll have like a lot of Tempera. You can’t really teach people how to paint with Tempera paint. ‘Cause they can’t afford acrylics or oils, or something.

 

HADAR:         I mean, we’re hoping to create an art school that, when we were that age, we would have loved to be part of. And that’s what we want to create for the next generation, is giving them all their classes are being cut in school, but then they have this outlet over here, and it’s free to them and they can come. And if I had a million dollars to start a school with thousands of kids, I would do it now. Because that’s something that my auntie said she would have loved, that we would have loved. I mean, everyone who’s a creative now said that they could have always used more when they were younger.

 

And sometimes, it’s a lifesaver for kids who don’t have a passion or another outlet that they can access.

 

WONG:         Oh, yeah; some of the students there, it’s like, we also do portfolio reviews and even college counseling to sort of show them that there is way to get into art colleges and stuff. ‘Cause then, I wish I had that. I didn’t even know about art colleges. And so, we’ll do all that kinda work, and we’ve actually helped to get some students into art colleges.

 

The developing arts movement in Kakaako inspired by Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar is not limited to their annual Pow Wow Hawaii event. Other community events such as Eat the Street and Honolulu Night Market have sprung up, perhaps in part because of the popularity of Pow Wow Hawaii. The pair has also established a headquarters in the neighborhood.

 

WONG:         Lana Lane is this five thousand square foot warehouse that Kamehameha Schools sort of helped us acquire, that we turned into a creative studio. So basically, it’s just a bunch of artist studios that we rent out for really, really cheap just to give artists a space to work out of, and to sort of collaborate together with, and we provide the facilities. And we have a variety of people from painters, screen printers, to fabric dyers, to people that work on motorbikes, to video editors, to musicians, and everything. And so, it’s really, to be honest, like an artist favela, ‘cause then everyone just sort of creates their own space in there. And it was a super loft space that we sort of just all worked on, and it’s mostly managed by Jeffrey Gress, who also helps out with Pow Wow as well. So, it’s one of our projects that we sort of created to sort of create more of an arts —

 

So, it was an abandoned property that you rehabbed?

 

WONG:         Yeah; before, it was a concrete company. Before, it was like a tire company; they sort of fixed cars and did tires in there. And so, it’s one of these sort of empty spaces that no one really knew what to do with. And as artists, we sort of see it as an opportunity. And so, we sort of used the space to create something that we wanted for the artist community in Hawaii. And so, it’s become sort of our headquarters and a gathering place.

 

And where is it?

 

WONG:         It’s on Lana Lane. It’s called Lana Lane Studios, but it’s on this private road called Lana Lane. And it’s right on Auahi Street between Cooke and Coral.

 

Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar consider themselves a good duo, because they see themselves as both dreamers and doers with good creative and business sense. They acknowledge that organizing Pow Wow Hawaii is an enormous undertaking, but a task they look forward to taking on again.

 

It’s such a remarkable phenomenon, and yet, you can’t rest on your laurels ‘cause it’s just as hard the next year. Right? And you’re not paying your own money for it, but you’re —

 

WONG:         Well, we make it harder for ourselves by making it bigger.

 

Right. You’re always upping the learning curve for yourselves.

 

HADAR:         Yeah. Yeah; I mean, I guess that’s the dreamer part, is you’re never completely satisfied, you’re always hungry for more, you’re always motivated to do bigger and better. I mean, one of my favorite things that we’ve been doing the last couple years is blacking out and destroying the pieces. Some of them. And people are always shocked when we do that, and that’s one of my favorite things in the world to do.

 

Why is that? ‘Cause you love creativity, and now you’re destroying.

 

HADAR:         Because it just proves that it’s really not about the finished product, that’s something that you’re gonna sell. I mean, every artist needs to make a living, and we have gallery shows and the pieces are for sale. But that’s not the only thing that drives us. It’s also the power of creativity and collaboration. All the artists working together and the process of all of us working together, and to see that happen and to be a part of it as an artist, it’s a beautiful thing. And whatever we create it’s not that important.

 

WONG:         Yeah.

 

HADAR:         It’s not as important sometimes as that whole process.

 

WONG:         It brings it back to sort of how we were when we were drawing or doodling, and painting when we were little kids. None of us were thinking at that age that we were painting or drawing to sort of make a living or to sell this particular canvas. But then, we just did it ‘cause we loved it and it was fun. And I think when you do it that way, when you sort of create it just for the fun of creation, and then destroy it afterwards, it kind of reminds us that it’s really just about having fun and painting, and creating.

 

Artists Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar say they’ll continue to do their part to grow this new art movement in Hawaii. They hope to bring in new groups of artists for collaboration and future murals in urban Honolulu. Jasper and Kamea are also considering expanding Pow Wow into several other countries as well. Mahalo to Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar for sharing their story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

HADAR: You should never be completely comfortable. I think any artist can tell you that if you look at your work from a year ago or two years ago, or three years ago, I mean, you instantly see how you’ve progressed. And if you don’t, I mean, you should; you should be constantly looking at how you can move.