Rice Cake Love
“從第一天開始，我一直對來到夏威夷感到遺憾。” – Wong Chur
“I’ve had no regrets about coming [to Hawaii] since day one.”
The Wong family landed in Honolulu on May 2. It was a typical day in Hawaii: partly cloudy, but bright enough to make the adults squint and reach for their sunglasses as they exited the terminal. Slight trade winds blew from the northeast, ruffling their travel-worn hair. Everyone was well-dressed, even after the nine-hour flight from Hong Kong (香港). Wong Chur breathed in deep and smiled as he looked at his wife, Kin Mui, and their three children. They were greeted by Chur’s sister who had immigrated a couple years prior. Chur would raise his family here.
Chur was born on July 23, 1930 in the Zhongshan (中山市) area of Guangdong (廣東省) Province, China. He grew up the third of six children. Chur’s parents were common farmers, working their own rice field for food to eat and sell.
During his childhood, the combination of an unstable political climate, the unequal distribution of wealth, and several consecutive natural disasters led to starvation. For more than sixty years, China’s northern provinces were constantly battling drought-induced famine. This lack of food is often acknowledged as one of the catalysts of the Boxer Rebellion.
Unrest spread throughout China, and the government implemented Western healthcare initiatives in hopes of maintaining some of the waning control over their populace. However, the effects of these policies did not reach the countryside. The rich in the cities grew richer, and the rural poor, like the Wongs, grew poorer. The initiatives only served, as the old proverb goes, to “swat the flies and spare the tigers.” By the end of the nationalist government’s reign, the famine had killed between 1,750,000 and 2,500,000 people. Though 廣東省 never officially declared a state of famine, over the years, the Wong family harvested less and less and had to ration more and more. Then came the day when there was no food at all. Chur and his siblings ravaged the countryside searching for wild potato tubers to eat.
In the winter of 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communist party came into power declaring that “not even one person shall die of hunger” and began to report a false “superabundance” of food supplies. It is rumored that Chairman Mao stripped the bark off of trees and baked them in biscuits to give to the poor, and because they had no nutritional value, many people who ate the biscuits died. That winter, seven million refugees fled China because of famine conditions. Chur was one of them. At just nineteen years old, he migrated to 香港 hoping to find work.
The state of 香港, still under British rule, was better, if only a little. Chur started his own garment-production business, making and selling undershirts. It was at this time that Chur’s parents and the parents of Kin Mui, a young girl from 中山市, arranged for the two young adults to be married on December 24, 1960.
“It is very hard to make a living in Hong Kong.”
Chur applied for a visa to the United States shortly after arriving in 香港, realizing that opportunities for work were still very scarce. During this time in the United States, however, the 1943 Magnuson Act allowed only one hundred and five Chinese immigrants per year, making it nearly impossible to obtain a visa. It was only in 1965 that the Immigration and Nationality Act effectively legalized Chinese immigration by raising the annual national quota to twenty thousand people. Two years later, Chur, a pregnant Kin Mui, and their three children were among the twenty thousand Chinese people who immigrated to the United States. He had been in 香港 for eighteen years.
Only a week after landing in Hawaii, Chur found work as a chef at Holiday Mart. He made fried noodles and other Chinese-inspired dishes for local customers and tourists alike. For extra income, Chur enlisted his children—Derek, Ricky, Jenny, and Gordon—to clean Holiday Mart’s kitchen on Sundays. Derek remembers scrubbing the floors and floorboards and finding loose change, which of course, they kept.
The Wongs eventually settled into a quaint house on Pua Lane. The house was dark and dingy but had a large kitchen and dining room area. Many of the family interactions happened at the table, for it seems that you couldn’t know Chur without knowing his food. Ricky recollects of his father, “My dad knows how to eat.”
But more than just knowing how to eat, Chur knew how to cook.
Derek on his father: “You do someting like dat everyday—fry noodles—how can you not be expert ‘noodle fryer’ with the right ingredients, you know?”
When asked, his children could not pick just one signature dish. Gordon remembers that they’d always ask him to make his black bean clams and Chinese fried chicken, and Derek says that his father “made the best fried chicken, his gao gee was good, his fried noodles were really good.” As their family assimilated into “American culture” (whatever that is), Chur incorporated Chinese food into American holidays, adding custard pie to Thanksgiving and jian dui (煎堆) into Fourth of July celebrations. For his sons’ birthdays, Chur was famous for bringing home a whole roast duck and saying, in his Pidgin English, “Hepi Baady.” Derek said that his father wasn’t into giving presents, “but you know, it’s like ‘Hey, I got a duck for you.’”
After his stint at Holiday Mart, Chur worked as an on-call chef for hotels in Waikiki. Though this brought in more money, the lack of steady working hours was unacceptable to him. Fed up with the cooking industry, he decided to become an entrepreneur for the second time.
Chur had enough money saved to buy a food van. He sold manapua, a steamed bun with char siu bao (叉燒包), and other snacks—chow fun (炒麵), shu mai (烧麦), crispy gao gee (餛飩), bak tong gao (白糖糕), almond cookies, candy, and toys. Chur woke up early each day, went to the Chinatown markets to buy the manapua, rice cakes, and candy he needed, returned home to make his fried noodles and gao gee, and then cruised down the streets of Wahiawa and Waipahu on the west side of Oahu selling his goods. He became affectionately known by his loyal customers as the “Manapua Man.”
Gordon, as the youngest child, worked with his dad for about five years in the van: six days a week in the summer and every weekend during the school year. Gordon admits that he resented working for his dad because he felt that he didn’t have a childhood. But looking back, Gordon now appreciates the time. He remembers getting paid “like a buck an hour,” but “all the candy and soda [he] could ever want” making up for it. Derek, Ricky, and Jenny were employed elsewhere, but they still helped their father with the family business. When Chur went to Chinatown to buy the manapua and candy, his children helped him to carry it. Derek changed the van’s oil, “replaced the starter, replaced the radiator, whatever was needed on the mechanical end.”
Chur served his community on the west side for several years. He would retire from his own business at the age of fifty-nine.
Chur on entrepreneurship: “然後我決定自己做生意，所以我買了一輛卡車並開始銷售叉燒包。當我第一次開始時，它很棒，而且還可以。 它支持家庭。”
“I decided to have my own business, so I bought a truck and started selling manapua. When I first started, it was great, and it’s alright still. It supports the family.”
Chur’s easygoing personality was the initial selling point for prospective customers, but it was his generosity that kept them coming back. One of the many pieces of wisdom he gained as a food truck owner was to always give each customer the biggest piece of rice cake—as a friendly gesture—in hopes that they would return. He would remind his children that “there’s always a biggest piece” in the pan to give away.
In some ways, this love, this display of affection (even in something as trivial as the parceling out of rice cake), was unusual for Chur. His children remember him working long hours as a chef. At Holiday Mart, Chur reported to his job at 9 a.m. and wouldn’t return until late at night, after they were were in bed. Other than weekend activities like going to the beach or fishing for crab, his children had very little time with Chur. His sons, in part, taught him how to love. Derek remembers, “When we were young, I don’t remember getting hugs.” But when they grew up, they hugged their father every time they saw him.
As his children married and had children, Chur’s new role as grandfather increased his capacity for affection. At the close of any family gathering, Chur’s children and grandchildren would say “I love you.” At first, he responded, “Okay, me too.” His children would tease him for his seemingly apathetic farewell response. It took him awhile, but eventually he’d say, “I love you, too.”
Chur captured the attention of Murry Engle, a writer for Hawaii’s local newspaper the Star Bulletin. Engle wrote a local celebrity spotlight entitled “Manapua seller happy he left a life of toil for US.” An undercurrent of the model minority stereotype runs through the piece as Engle emphasizes Chur’s “life of toil” in China. The actual struggles he faced as an immigrant and small-business owner are glossed over, and the audience favorite rags-to-riches story is published instead. Engle also highlighted the fact that Chur was to become a US citizen the Saturday after the article published. Chur, translated by Ricky, told Engle that he was excited to gain American citizenship. At first, he’d held off just in case he ever wanted to return to 香港 or China. But after living in Hawaii for twenty-one years, he “decided that it is the best thing to go ahead and become a citizen.” More than just the logistics of citizenship however, Chur mentions that he likes Hawaii, even saying, “There’s nothing to dislike.”
Chur on becoming an American citizen: “這會讓我很開心。”
“That will make me very happy.”
I met Chur for the first time on September 11, 1997. Or rather, you could say he met me. I am Gordon’s daughter; Chur is my paternal grandfather. He flew all the way from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Kansas City, Missouri, for my birth. I would learn to call him Gong Gong (公公).
I have always had a bond with my 公公. Perhaps this was because my mother’s last meal before she went into labor with me was his Chinese fried chicken. I didn’t know him in his “Manapua Man” days, but food was still central to our relationship. I always remember him with a a dish of food between us.
Though he was my grandfather, I never felt I knew him because of that great divide that is a language barrier. By the time I was born, he had been living in the United States for thirty years, but still spoke very little English. I never learned how to speak Chinese, except for the few greetings and strings of food terminology I picked up when eating dim sum.
At restaurants as a child, my 公公 (via translation by my father) would encourage me to practice ordering in Chinese. Though I didn’t know how to speak the language, I did know how to produce the sounds required to eat my favorite dishes. The waitresses, however, would often answer in kind, and I’d only hear in response a flurry of sounds. It was embarrassing to inform them—or rather, have my father inform them—that I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
“Oh wow!” They would muse in response, “Her Chinese is so good.” (A polite way of acknowledging my language deficiency.) But my 公公 always smiled and told my father to tell me that he was proud.
The many times we ate with my 公公, I could only ask how he was doing (你好嗎?), impress him by ordering the newest addition to my growing list of memorized dishes, and pour him tea like a good Chinese granddaughter while he and my father talked in a language I didn’t understand.
Most of his life remained unknown to me. Our lack of communication never bothered me until I realized that our relationship was different from that of my friends’ with their own grandparents. In fact, my cousins and I are the only ones out of our extended family who do not know how to speak Chinese. We jokingly call ourselves “the disappointment family.”
Derek on Chur and his grandchildren: “Every time when he saw the grandchildren, his face would light up, you know? You could just see it in his eyes.”
“I love you, too,” were the last words my 公公 said to me. My father took me to see him the balmy July afternoon before I left to study abroad in Liverpool. 公公 was recovering from a surgery six months prior—an attempt to remove colon cancer. His physical decline was somewhat of a surprise to me as it had all happened while I was away during my first semester of college. As I waved goodbye, he gently smiled and waved back. I fully anticipated seeing him when I returned in November.
A few months later, early in the morning on September 25, 2016, Wong Chur passed away at Kuakini Medical Center following complications from colon cancer.
That day—which was September 26 for me—I had planned to eat dinner at an overpriced pizza restaurant with good Yelp reviews. I had been waiting in line for about forty-five minutes when I got a text from my mother saying that my 公公 had passed away.
I didn’t understand. That night, I stayed in the hostel room alone and cried. I was sad and confused. I kept coming back to the question: “How can I grieve someone I don’t even know?” Our physical distance at the time of his passing coupled with our emotional distance made the already painful mourning process even more complex.
Of course, I knew things about Chur. I knew that he smoked cigarettes for most of my childhood because he always smelled like a mixture of smoke and Chinese menthol medicine. I knew that he was missing most of his teeth. I knew that he was hard of hearing because he often asked me to repeat myself when I rattled off my few rotating phrases to him in restaurants. I knew that every time I went to his small apartment he would offer me the boiled peanuts that sat on his weathered coffee table.
I also knew that my 公公 was a nice, kind man. But everyone knew that. His sons knew, later remembering him as “chill,” “laid-back,” and “kindly.” His customers knew, dubbing him “the Manapua Man.” Even Murry Engle knew: Chur “flash[ed] a smile that seemed always to be waiting to light his face, which otherwise is the epitome of serenity.” I knew because 公公always smiled, with or without teeth, whenever I came into the room and gave me lai see (利市) on any and every applicable holiday. When we ate dim sum, he would order all the dishes I liked best even before I arrived.
When he died, I realized the many things that I didn’t know about my Gong Gong. I didn’t even know his favorite food.
During the holidays, my parents, uncles, and aunts will retell their favorite stories of Chur. This one took place when my father was a child:
Chur and Gordon sat next to each other at their round dinner table. It was covered in newspaper, and the large dining room adjoined the even larger kitchen. The walls reflected the sheen of grease. Kin Mui worked in the kitchen, getting dinner ready. Chur and Gordon had been commanded to set the table and after finishing sat down for a moment of rest. Chur breathed in deeply, relishing the smells coming from the kitchen. He looked at his son and picked up one of the rice bowls they had so neatly laid out.
“What do you see in this bowl?” he asked.
“That bowl is cracked in half, but now it’s fixed,” Gordon replied.
“Isn’t it interesting,” began Chur, “that we use this bowl every single night and the first thing that you notice about it is the crack?”
Gordon stammered, afraid he’d said something wrong.
Chur continued, “That’s how people are. We focus on the negative in what we see—this crack—instead of focusing on the positive—that we use it every single night. When we look at people, too, the first thing we notice is the negative.” He paused and looked at Gordon. “Maybe we should be more positive.”
Gordon looked as if he was about to say something, but at that moment Kin Mui, sensing their idleness, called them both to carry the food to the table for dinner. And Chur, ever serene, flashed his famous smile, which always seemed to be waiting to light his face.
In an ideal world, this would be Chur’s autobiography. We would sit down one day, he would tell me all about his childhood, his immigration experience, and his days being the “Manapua Man,” and I would merely record his words. Unfortunately, I only have fragments of his life: newspaper clippings, water-stained pictures, and fuzzy childhood memories.
I think I’ll always grieve not knowing Chur better when he was alive. I’ll always wish for one last dim sum, one more time to hear the words “I love you, too.” But, the nineteen years that I knew him taught me about how to live in this world. His life reminds me of the power of food in bringing people together. I knew he loved me when I arrived to dim sum and my favorite dishes were already ordered. He taught me there’s always the biggest piece of rice cake in the pan to be given away.
Engle, Murry. “Manapua seller happy he left a life of toil for U.S.” Star Bulletin. 1988.
Personal Interviews with Derek Wong and Gordon Wong.
“Republic of China 1912–1949.” http://www.chinasage.info/republic.htm.
Rummel, R. J. China’s Bloody Century. https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/CHINA.CHAP1.HTM
Wemheuer, Felix and Kimberly Ens Manning. Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China’s Great Leap Forward and Famine. 2011.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.