MauiTime Machine: ‘Something to Treasure’
A low, street-facing wall extends from either side of two concrete pillars, the columns cresting up toward the pomelo tree’s uppermost branches, drooped with age and rotund, pale yellow citrus. The lintel between them, impressed with the relief of four bold Chinese characters, forms the decorative archway—the most distinguishing characteristic and only significant remainder of what was once the largest surviving Chinese Tong society house on Maui: Vineyard Street’s Chee Kung Tong Society building.
“The characters which appear on both sides of the lintel and are delineated in red translate to ‘Chee Kung Fui Kon’ (the name of the society),” reads the United States Department of the Interior National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. The “once impressive” structure, continues the report, was placed on the State Register of Historic Places in July of 1982, then on the National Register in November.
Rusted hinge pins still protrude from the inside of the columns, upon which once hung a low, picket-style gate. But the crimson pigments that at one time adorned the characters have long-since faded, and barely discernable are the outlines of the text from the panel’s opposite side, visible “as you leave the society grounds,” formerly proclaiming “everyone is equal.”
Built in the first decade of the 20th century, six Chinese Tong clubhouses once stood on Maui (only two of which still stand today)—one each in Keanae, Kula, Kipahulu, Lahaina, and two—the Chee Kung Tong included—in Wailuku. They existed as the fraternal foundations for over 30 secret societies that formed in the early years of the now more than two-century old history of Chinese in the Hawaiian Islands. According to the book Maui Remembers: A Local History (1994) by Gail Bartholomew, these societies were created by and for migrant Chinese workers—most of who were single men contracted to work in the sugarcane industry—and provided religious and political structure, as well as funerary benefits to its members.
But the most important function of these societies—and the houses they centered around—was society itself. For the men so far from home it “was a substitute for the absent family,” says the National Register report, and “an important aspect of cultural and social life for [its] immigrant Chinese members…providing recreational outlets, financial assistance and fellowship… Members would meet to exchange news of China with people from other islands, and read or have read to them Chinese newspapers… Other activities probably included gambling and smoking opium.”
Membership to the societies extended to those aged 16 to 60. After paying a one-time fee, members “participated in rigorous initiation rites and took an oath based on thirty-six codes of morality, brotherhood, patriotism and chivalry,” according to the National Register. These mutual aid societies have their “root in seventeenth century China and the secret Hoong Moon Society,” otherwise referred to as the Hongmen, Hung Men or Hung Meng, an aspect of Chinese Freemasonry. And no membership to a secret society is complete without “identify[cation] by special gestures, secret chopstick maneuvers and passwords.”
Not only a source of camaraderie and cultural preservation, the fraternities also provided an element of self-sustainability. “Large ethnic fruit trees in the front and rear of the site include mango, pomelo, lugan as well as palm trees,” states the National Register of the Vineyard property. Members grew their own fruits and vegetables on the grounds of all the society clubhouses to provide for their needs. The Register also notes that “some of the trees were imported from China.”
Today, the palm and lugan (Japanese name for a type of mandarin) are no longer there, but the rear of the property hosts several small plumeria trees and a patch of untended squash vines, just visible over the peak of concrete steps that, with alter-like air, crown a cracked and root-rutted pathway.
Behind it, concrete foundation posts jut from the tall grass like dried soup bones stood on end, outlining where the “rectangular structure approximately 55 [feet] by 34 [feet] with trapezoid addition,” stood. Maui residents prior to the building’s collapse on April 17, 1996 may remember “[t]he two story wooden building [with] covered verandahs on both floors. Shingled intersecting gable roofs [with] gable ends articulated with fish scale patterned shingles painted in various colors in stripes.”
The architecture of the Chinese Tong Houses is one of the three primary elements described by the National Register that give them historical significance. “The Chee Kung Tonog is the most elaborate… and is a good prototype of ornamental detail combined with ethnic features,” and the smaller Wo Hing (to this day beautifully maintained as a museum) emulates some of its Wailuku counterpart’s structural elements.
Its “[g]ingerbread lintels with applied designs of diamonds and coffered rectangles are set below a band of dentils. Balustrades on the first floor composed of diamond patterns,” says the National Register, “exemplify the simple lines and architectural medium of [the] period.” In a 1905 report of the dedication ceremonies, The Maui News waxed poetic saying, “[a]long the combs of the roof a Chinese dragon with two tails stretches its length, glaring from a fierce head down on the passers by and along the eaves like designs being worked out.”
Though it was removed from the State Register of Historical Places two years after its collapse from disrepair and termite damage, the Chee Kung Tong Society building remains a point of historical interest—and for the sum of $199,000, it could be yours. The approximately 4,769 square-foot property (lacking water meter) is currently for sale, and has been listed for “about six or seven months,” with Commercial Properties of Maui, LLC says exclusive listing agent Grant Howe.
Howe says the property is quasi-public and “any kind of development would be restricted to particular zoning requirements of the area,” as it falls under the Maui Redevelopment Agency’s Wailuku Redevelopment Area. This area, according to the agency’s Web site, “covers approximately 27 acres and includes the business blocks surrounding the Vineyard/Market Street intersection and the housing areas west of Church Street to High Street, and north of Vineyard Street to Iao Stream.”
Commenting on the uniqueness of “postage stamp-size pieces of property [being] available,” there is a tinge of enthusiasm in Howe’s tone. Real estate aside, this tiny jewel of a property—its old trees shading the skeletal remains of a once-opulent Chinese society house—is indeed something to treasure. – MauiTime, Anu Yagi
The next installment MauiTime Machine’s three-part series on the Chinese Tong Houses will feature the Wo Hing Museum, operated by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. On Friday, January 22 from 6-7pm, Society member Brenda Wong will conduct a special Chinese knotting demonstration. For info call 661-3262 or visit lahainarestoration.org.