Front Street’s Wo Hing Museum is a thriving treasure. Whereas in the last installment of MauiTime Machine we explored the ruins of the Wo Hing’s Wailuku brethren, the Chee Kung Tong Society building (Vineyard Street’s up-for-sale plot, upon which little more than foundation blocks, old fruit trees and an intriguing archway remain), the wooden Wo Hing has a freshly-scrubbed colorfulness and is carefully maintained.
One of just two surviving Chinese Society Houses, the former Wo Hing Society Hall—now managed by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation—is a vibrant historical resource and an important local artifact. Best of all, for a paltry $2 admission, it’s open to the public, and its substantial body of century-old documents (most of which surfaced in 1999) are available for research purposes.
All of Maui’s original six Chinese Society Houses were built at the turn of the 20th century, serving as the cornerstones of fraternal structure for migrant Chinese workers who came to work the sugar plantations.
Though founded out of the secret societies of ancient Chinese Freemasonry, the Hawaii societies—by virtue of their geographical separation—naturally came to place an emphasis on brotherhood and distanced themselves from their parent-society’s stronger political themes. Maintaining spiritual and cultural practices gave ground to the moral foundations, fueling camaraderie. The only thriving example of their lifestyle and worship is preserved at the Wo Hing’s upstairs temple.
Experiencing decline in the late ’40s and subsequently severe disrepair culminating in the early 80s, the remaining three houses were placed on first the State then National Register of Historic Places. The Wo Hing boasts the earliest listing, according to a National Register report—it was first listed as part of the National Registered Lahaina Historic District on October 15, 1966, nearly two decades before the Chee Kung Tong or Kula’s privately owned Ket Hing.
Were it not for the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the Wo Hing would likely have collapsed due to termite damage and suffered the same fate as the Chee Kung Tong (which was removed from the State register two years after its collapse in 1996). Rehabilitation of the Wo Hing, beginning in 1983, and operation of the museum is owed to the efforts of the foundation, which cares for 11 major historic structures in Lahaina town.
And it is cared for beautifully. The exterior’s color palette is fresh and inviting, a white wash with its plentiful architecture details painted pale teal. The veranda’s (three sided, on both stories) balustrades are a distinctly Chinese, geometric pattern. The bold crosshatch contrasts with the circular gingerbread detailing, corner posts bearing carved patterns of scrolls and stars.
The soft color scheme of the exterior plays well with the dark wood floors and authentic furniture inside and the deep crimson coloring underlying the bulk of its contents. The bright red, glittery modern décor and quirky accents work aesthetically. True to its museum status, like a carefully packed sea trunk it bursts with unique antiquities such as ornate currency and scrolls. And the modest museum gift shop—more of a gift hutch, really—lets you take home a memento of your visit, while helping support the museum’s maintenance.
Daytime tours—during which you can appreciate the attached cookhouse’s displays of “old cooking woks, steamers and other utensils” of the day—are wonderful, but the museum’s most unique offering is its extended Friday night hours. The knowledge the docents share through cultural demonstrations gives lively air to this unique piece of history, backed by a soundtrack of modern Chinese music, piped outside, floating into the street.
Recently, I participated in a special Chinese knotting demonstration. The instructor, Brenda, told me about growing up on Front Street, playing with siblings and friends on the hall’s grounds while her mother attended church inside.
Brenda teaches two Chinese knotting techniques, the first being a “double coin knot,” which represents overlapping coins and signifies prosperity. Often, merchants would hang these knots from their shops’ entryways to attract wealth, Brenda explained. Her fingers move quickly, and even with a display board and printed instructions, you must pay close attention.
We used sturdy polyurethane cording from the hardware store, as it holds its shape and is easy for beginners to manage. As you become more practiced, Brenda said encouragingly, you can experiment with different types of more delicate cording, and by creating a continuous strand of the double coin knot, can make necklaces and bracelets. Secondly, she teaches a “cross knot technique”—boxed shape on one side, a cross on the other—which, in her display, can make a simple key chain.
Beyond special demonstrations, whether you’re perusing the displays, lighting incense in the upstairs temple or watching the loop of period footage shot in Hawaii with Thomas Alva Edison technology, the Wo Hing is a wonderful spot for everything from casual meandering to hardcore research. It’s just the sort of thing you love to see in a town like Lahaina: a resource for locals and visitors alike. And as the last living and, to our community’s great fortune, public example of a significant part of Hawaii’s history, it is not only something to treasure but something worth keeping alive for generations to come.
Museum Hours: Saturday through Thursday, 10am-4pm; Friday, 1pm-8pm. Info: 661-5553 or www.lahainarestoration.org