Molokai Pioneer and Humanitarian: Yun Kee Yuen

Y.K. Yuen's Family

Y.K. Yuen’s Family. L to R: Marybeth Yuen Maul; Jane Yuen Chang; Lilyan Yuen Anderson; Lin Tai Chock Yuen, Y.K.’s wife and mother of their children; and John “Sonny” Yuen.

Published in the book Chinese Pioneer Families of Maui, Molokai and Lanai
Molokai Pioneer and Humanitarian: Yun Kee Yuen
By Heidi Chang (granddaughter)

When Yun Kee Yuen opened the first pineapple plantation store on Molokai in the early 1920s, it soon became the hub of the community, and he did whatever he could to help make life more enjoyable for the plantation workers on Maunaloa.

Yun Kee, better known as Y.K., was an enterprising merchant, known for his aloha—always sharing whatever he had and trying to help people. He became a major merchant by the end of the 1930s, operating four grocery stores on the Friendly Island and making many important contributions to the community during those early plantation days. He came a long way for someone with only an elementary school education.

Born on May 7, 1898 in Manoa Valley in Honolulu, Y.K. was the eldest of five boys. His parents, Fong Yuk Yuen and Chun Shee Yuen, immigrated from Siu Yun Village in the Nam Long area of Chung Shan District in southern China.

Y.K.’s father, Fong Yuk Yuen, leased land to grow taro in Manoa Valley, where the family lived among Native Hawaiians and other Chinese families. Fong Yuk was fluent in Hawaiian, and the Native Hawaiians gave them the family name Akana.

As a young boy, Y.K. loved reading and going to Royal School in Honolulu. But everything changed when the owner of the water rights above his father’s taro farm turned off or diverted the water, and the family could no longer farm. Y.K. had to leave school to help support his family. That’s when the twelve-year-old boy began catching frogs to sell as food, doing yardwork, shining shoes, and selling newspapers. Eventually, he landed a job at Libby, McNeill & Libby, where he started out as an office clerk and worked his way up to bookkeeper.

Y.K.Yuen at Keawanui Fishpond, Molokai, 1958

Y.K.Yuen at Keawanui Fishpond, Molokai, 1958

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Maunaloa Town and the Wild West End

Lloyd Arnold Sr., the head of Libby’s in Honolulu, had a lot of confidence in Y.K. and offered him the opportunity to open a plantation store in Maunaloa, Molokai. Y.K. called it the Y.K. Yuen Company. It was a real country store, selling everything from groceries to dry goods and hardware. “I remember great big wooden barrels of shoyu, bagoong [a fermented Filipino fish sauce] takuwan and rankyo [Japanese pickled turnips and onions], lots of pork, and all sorts of meats,” recalls Y.K.’s daughter, Jane Yuen Chang, adding, “You could pick up rope tobacco, palaka shirts, or zoris.”

Jane says her father was very democratic in his principles and treated people equally. “He loved people, whatever race they came from.” Y.K. hired a diverse staff made up of Native Hawaiians, Filipinos, Japanese, Okinawans, Chinese, Portuguese, and haoles. Many of the early Chinese on Molokai first came to the island to work for Y.K. Yuen Co., including Harry Chung, A. C. Lum, A. P. Lum, and K. O. Sunn.

People gathered at the store throughout the day. Then, when the whistle blew signaling pau hana time, the plantation workers would walk in, dusty and covered with Molokai red dirt after working hard in the pineapple fields. Later they’d return again, all cleaned up, to mingle on the store’s open lanai to talk story or gossip.

Everyone woke up to the sound of roosters crowing at the crack of dawn. “We loved living there,” says Lilyan Yuen Anderson, Y.K.’s eldest child. “It was very primitive. When we first went there, there was no electricity.” People used kerosene lamps and crank-style telephones. When darkness fell, most went to sleep early, because there was little to do for entertainment in this close-knit community surrounded by pineapple fields.

But all that changed when Y.K. brought in the first electric generator for his store on Maunaloa and helped build a movie theater. Finally, there were movies! He also installed the first ice plant, so everyone could have ice for their icebox.

Y.K. had a good business sense and he believed in self-sufficiency. “He was innovative,” says Lilyan, reminiscing about her father. “He had his own bakery and saimin shop. He’d bring in the Chinese cooks and they’d make their own noodles.” Y.K. opened a restaurant, barbershop, and pool hall, and he also grew his own vegetables. “In those days, the Hawaiians were just beginning to farm—the homesteaders. He would buy produce from them,” says Lilyan.

Y.K. also invested in a chicken farm with his friend, Thornton Lyman, who was an agricultural expert at Libby’s and came from a kamaaina family on the Big Island.

Nearby, Y.K. raised pigs on a pig farm. “It was a Chinese belief, the presence of a monkey is supposed to prevent cholera in pigs, so a monkey was installed to keep the pigs company,” according to Lilyan, who adds, “The monkey also had great fun riding the pigs.”

Jane says her father was always interested in keeping his employees happy, as well as the people on the plantation. “He was very civic minded and concerned about what went on in the community.”

Y.K.’s only son, John Yuen Sr., says one of the highlights of his father’s career was bringing sports to Molokai. Back then, many of the plantation workers were recruited from the Philippines. “A lot of the Filipino bachelors had nothing to do. And they loved boxing and baseball. So he developed a boxing arena and all that. And then at one time, he brought the world’s boxing champion, Fidel LaBarba, to Molokai for an exhibition match.”

Y.K. encouraged all of the plantation workers and their families to participate in sports. He even built a miniature golf course and also sponsored wrestling matches, as well as volleyball and baseball teams. John says his father was instrumental in getting the best baseball players for Libby’s, and they won all the time. “I think one time they won the championship,” says John. For these multiethnic teams, it was exciting to compete with plantation teams from the other islands, and it helped boost community spirit.

Y.K. Yuen’s Family

Y.K. Yuen and his wife, Lin Tai Chock, raised four children: Lilyan, Jane, Marybeth, and John, also known as “Sonny.” During the school year, the children lived with their grandparents on Poki Street in Honolulu. Each summer, they looked forward to going home to Molokai. That’s when they’d hop on a tugboat towing a barge to Kolo Wharf, or later, to Kaunakakai Harbor. Then they’d ride in a truck on a dirt road up the mountain to Maunaloa. All of the children helped out in the family store. They enjoyed exploring the untouched natural beauty of this rural island, where people were warm and friendly.

Y.K. and his wife worked hard to send their children to the finest schools: Hanahauoli School, Punahou Academy, Iolani School, and the University of Wisconsin. Lilyan Yuen Anderson became the first person of Chinese ancestry to become the editor of the student newspaper Ka Punahou at Punahou Academy in 1938.

Y.K. also helped support his four younger brothers. Yun Chee and Francis Yun Tung worked at Y.K.’s stores during the early years. Y.K. put Jack Yun Hoon through law school, and he became an attorney in China. Fred Yun Kin became an entrepreneur.

When Pineapple Was King

In addition to the Maunaloa store, Y.K. established Central Store in Hoolehua, which served the original Native Hawaiian homesteaders, and Molokai Market, located in Kaunakakai. He also acquired Kualapuu Market, which served the California Packing Corporation pineapple plantation in Kualapuu, later known as Del Monte.

Y.K.’s life was a testament to his love, faith, and compassion for humanity. “He always rooted for the underdog, the underprivileged,” says his daughter, Marybeth Yuen Maul, former treasurer of Kualapuu Market. She says her father always helped people who were struggling, even total strangers. “He’d give them the shirt off his back. He gave them food. Credit. When other people wouldn’t give them credit,” says Marybeth, who was one of Hawaii’s early women attorneys and became a Molokai District Court judge for the County of Maui. “He was loved by many. The Hawaiians adored him. He had honor. Values.”

Marybeth says many kamaainas remember her father’s generosity and often told her how he helped them during the Great Depression. “He’d always send turkeys and baskets of food to families in need to help brighten up their Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,” recounts Marybeth, who retired as the administrator of Kalaupapa Settlement.

In the 1930s, Molokai’s first labor strike impacted many, including Y.K. “When the pineapple plantation workers were forming a union, it was a very difficult time for them,” explains John Yuen. “They were locked out. So they lived down by Kalamaula Beach near the sacred coconut grove.” John recalls his father lost a substantial sum because the workers couldn’t pay their debts. “In spite of his loss, he brought food there for the people. He gave them food, because they gotta live. Out of the kindness of his heart.”

Y.K. was highly respected in Hawaii’s business community. In 1947, many feared a pineapple strike could cripple Hawaii’s economy. After some tense negotiations, a settlement was finally reached at Y.K.’s home in Honolulu. Jane Yuen Chang had just returned from the mainland after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. She remembers greeting the negotiators and serving tea to Harry Bridges, who was then president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin captured the mood of that era in an article called, “Some foot notes to Isle history,” on 12 August 1967. It recounts the role Nathan Feinsinger played in mediating the 1947 pineapple strike:

The University of Wisconsin law professor described labor relations at the time as an “armed truce, with hatred all round. I could feel it.”

The union had power in the sugar negotiations, but it was the reverse in pineapple. . . . Feinsinger said this was the only time he had ever seen a declining wage offer. The pineapple industry offered 15 cents an hour, which if not accepted within a week would automatically drop to 10 cents, and at the end of two weeks to five cents. “I went to the Hawaii Employers Council when the offer had dropped to 10 cents and got them to keep it at that level until I had a chance to talk to Harry Bridges,” he recalled.

Then he got Bridges and Dwight Steele, Employers Council president then, into a summit session at the Round Top home of the late Y.K. Yuen, whose three children had gone to the University of Wisconsin.

Feinsinger said he wanted absolute privacy and he got it. The Yuens’ gardener was a former head hunter, and he was ordered by the Yuens to provide protection from intruders, he said. In that setting, Feinsinger said he got a settlement.

Hukilau with Y.K. Yuen at Keawanui Fishpond, Molokai

Hukilau with Y.K. Yuen at Keawanui Fishpond, Molokai

 

Life on Molokai and Keawanui Fishpond

Y.K. was a gracious host who enjoyed entertaining people and sharing the joy of living on the Friendly Island. In the 1930s, he introduced Bing Crosby to the wonders of Molokai and took him deer hunting. (Crosby was in Hawaii starring in Waikiki Wedding. In the movie, he sang “Sweet Leilani,” which won an academy award for best original song in 1937.) That visit must have made an impression on the movie star. Shortly afterward, Crosby decided he wanted to meet Y.K.’s children, who were attending school in Honolulu. They remember Crosby pulling up to visit them in a big black limousine, accompanied by Waikiki beachboy Chick Daniels. As he was leaving, Crosby thanked the children and said, “I’m so glad you didn’t ask me to sing!”

The Friendly Isle also attracted another movie star: Warner Baxter, who was declared the original “Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai” on the lanai of Y.K.’s Molokai Market. Afterward, Baxter enjoyed a special Chinese feast hosted by Y.K.

Looking back on his father’s life, John Yuen says the Hawaiian way of life had a great influence on his father, who was already very humble and giving. Y.K. believed in caring for the land, ocean, and people. And he passed on those values to his family.

Y.K. spent the last two decades of his life living at Keawanui Fishpond on Molokai’s east end. The ancient Hawaiian fishpond was built around 1500 and is now a state historic site.

“It was a pretty big fishpond,” recalls Jane Yuen Chang. “In those days they had huge Samoan crabs, which we never saw after the tidal waves came.” Mullet grew big and fat. And there were eels and barracuda, too.

Keawanui Fishpond, Molokai | Photo courtesy of Heidi Chang

Keawanui Fishpond, Molokai | Photo courtesy of Heidi Chang

 

“Keawanui” means “Big Cove” in Hawaiian. Y.K. leased the fifty-five-acre pond from Kamehameha Schools, then known as Bishop Estate. He enjoyed the peaceful country life, living there with his dogs and ducks. And he continued to farm, growing vegetables and papaya, and raising fish.

Once a year, Y.K. would invite his employees and their families over for a summer picnic and a big hukilau. Everyone would go crabbing and fishing at Keawanui Fishpond. This was a day to relax, laugh, and feast. Marybeth Yuen Maul recollects, “They’d make hulihuli pig Filipino style and turn it over a charcoal fire. It was really good. The skin was so crispy.” Y.K.’s daughters remember mixing huge vats of poi, and there was plenty of ono fish for everyone.

As time went by, Y.K.’s family grew, and his grandchildren also looked forward to visiting him at the fishpond. They too would catch fish and play in the pond or along the long rock wall that curved around it. Inside his home, Y.K. placed fresh flowers daily and lit incense before an altar that displayed the Chinese Kitchen God, a Hawaiian akua made of koa wood, and a picture of Jesus.

Y.K. loved living on the fishpond until he died on February 27, 1963 at the age of sixty-four. He was laid to rest in Manoa Valley, back where he was born and where his family once grew taro, surrounded by mountains, looking toward the sea.

Today, several generations of Y.K. Yuen’s descendents continue to live on Molokai and contribute to the community. After many years, his son John Yuen Sr. stepped down from managing Kualapuu Market. Now, Y.K.’s grandson Leslie Yuen is carrying on the family tradition, managing Kualapuu Market and also Molokai Wines and Spirits in Kaunakakai.

Yun Kee Yuen’s extraordinary life and legacy continues to remain an inspiration for his family and generations to come. “He was a man of vision,” says Lilyan Yuen Anderson. “A real humanitarian. He really cared.”

Chinese Pioneer Families of Maui, Molokai, and Lanai

Related

Chinese Pioneer Famiiles of Maui, Molokai and Lanai
Many volunteers contributed to this oral history project for the Hawaii Chinese History Center.
The book is distributed by University of Hawaii Press.

One Response to “Molokai Pioneer and Humanitarian: Yun Kee Yuen”

  1. Kalani Mondoy says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful story! I worked for the Yuen family too!


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