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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 19, 2001

Ex-camp residents return to their roots

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

PA'IA, Maui — The camps had names like Orpheum, Hawaiian and Spanish, and the rainbow of ethnic groups who lived in them were the backbone of the sugar industry on Maui.

While work in the fields was hard, life on the camps was "open and friendly ... a family thing," said Barbara Chong Kee.

Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum

Today, the plantation camps of Pa'ia are all but gone. But the memories remain, and yesterday they spilled out among the more than 1,200 people who attended the Greater Pa'ia Reunion at Pa'ia School.

"They were good years,'' said Priscilla Pico Vivetris of Pukalani, who lived in School Camp, named for the old Japanese School.

"The people all knew each other. There weren't any delinquent children like you see today. You could leave your door open. You could leave your house at night with your lights on, and when you return, everything was the same.''

The three-day event, featuring entertainment and food, historical displays and tours of the closed Pa'ia sugar mill, has been in the works for more than a year. Organizers said they expect up to 2,000 people by the time the reunion ends today.

Yesterday was a time for meeting up with old friends and family members, catching up with the years and retelling old stories.

"When we were kids we were rascals,'' recalled Dr. Sakae Uehara, a retired surgeon who was born and raised in Nashiwa Camp. He remembers as a youngster going into the pineapple fields to steal pineapples and playing a game that involved pulling cane stalks from railroad cars as they rolled by.

"It was dangerous. Some people got killed,'' he said, adding that he got lots of scoldings from his parents.

Today, he said, a lot of people mistake the old Pa'ia with the new Pa'ia, a section known back then as Lower Pa'ia, a center for commerce. With its proximity to world-famous Ho'okipa Beach Park, the new Pa'ia is now closely associated with windsurfing.

Tommy Medeiros, formerly of Skill Village, greets Carole Abalos Baybayan, who lived at Orpheum Camp.

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

"When we were kids, they didn't even have windsurfing," Uehara said. "We couldn't surf. We couldn't afford a surfboard."

The camps were established when Henry Baldwin and Samuel Alexander started their vast sugar plantation in 1878 and began bringing in scores of workers from Portugal, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere.

In the isolation of the cane fields, the camps evolved into self-contained communities, each with their own housing, stores and churches. In time, the communities grew into towns with athletic fields, gyms and theatres.

Before 1950, the workers for Alexander & Baldwin's Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. were housed in more than two dozen plantation camps, segregated by race and spread across the Central Maui slopes of Haleakala, from Ha'iku to Kihei.

But worker demands for more independence following World War II led to the development of fee-simple housing in Kahului. And with the sale of homes to HC&S workers, the plantation began to shut down the camps at Hamakuapoko, Pa'ia, Spreckelsville and Pu'unene, plowing the grounds back into cane fields.

Barbara Chong Kee said that while her parents were happy to finally own their own house in Kahului, she was honestly sad to move away from Skill Village camp in 1963 at age 14.

Mildred Pico Tavares points out her childhood home on a map of Pa'ia's School Village while her sister, Priscilla Pico Vivetris, looks over her shoulder.

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I missed camp life,'' said Chong Kee, who also lived in Orpheum Camp. "It was so open and friendly. It was a family thing. Even though we all lived in different camps, they were open to everyone. I miss that.''

Carole Abalos Baybayan, 59, of Makiki, came to the reunion with her husband, Celedonio Baybayan, a former Hamakuapoko Camp resident, whom she married after meeting up with him at a Maui High School reunion.

She said she has nothing but fond memories of her childhood in Orpheum Camp.

"Everything was so innocent,'' she said. "It was safe to walk around. There was no thought of being raped or anything.''

Perhaps Pa'ia's most celebrated alumna is U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, who was born at Pa'ia Hospital and grew up at Hamakuapoko Camp.

"Pa'ia has always been part of me, part of my being, part of my motivation," Mink said yesterday in her address to the reunion attendees. "I treasure everything about this place. It meant everything to me.''

Mink's dad, the late Suematsu Takemoto, was a surveyor who was hired by the company in 1922.

"I would never be where I am today except for the fact that the plantation existed and gave my dad an opportunity,'' Mink said.

While the memories poured out like water yesterday, some wondered how long the river would continue to flow. The first Pa'ia reunion, held in 1985, attracted some 4,000 to 5,000 people.

Chong Kee, who helped organize the latest reunion, said many of those who came to the previous event have since died, her father among them.

As time goes by, she said, fewer and fewer people will remember the old plantation. Many of those who came this time, herself included, were merely children in the camps.

"This may be the last one,'' she said.

But Ha'iku resident Tommy Medeiros, 60, who grew up in Skill Village, said he hopes the tradition continues. "My kids are really interested,'' he said.