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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, January 31, 2003

Wah-Chan Thom, festival founder

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wah-Chan Thom

Chinese community leader Wah-Chan Thom, founder of Honolulu's Narcissus Festival and a man who embodied the virtues of learning, business and culture, died Wednesday at age 102.

The son of immigrant owners of the old Wah-Chan store in Waikane, Thom supported himself through McKinley High School, won a University of Hawai'i scholarship from merchants after he saved one of them in the 1926 Chinatown fire, and earned a master's of business administration degree from Northwestern University in 1929.

He served as president of a dozen Chinese organizations, ran a series of businesses, fought to the U.S. Supreme Court for civil rights, and was repeatedly honored as a calligrapher, poet, father and citizen.

"We knew growing up," daughter Lois Mui said yesterday, "that he was 'not just anybody.' "

But what she and sister Adele remember best was this outwardly stern and extremely busy man building for them an aqua-blue double study desk, or lying with them in their Bingham Street yard and watching the clouds to see what creatures they resembled.

They also remembered the centenarian's prescription for a long and healthy life, which left him of sound mind up to his death.

"He used to say, 'I never smoked, I never drank, I never ate chocolate — and I never exercised, and I made sure to eat lots of good, fat pork,' " Mui said.

Thom came up with the idea of the Narcissus Festival pageant in 1949 to preserve Chinese culture — and to generate more business in Chinatown.

After he retired in 1969 from a career in real estate, retailing and Kona coffee merchandising, Thom turned to Chinese calligraphy and poetry, for which he was recognized as a Hawai'i State Cultural Treasure in 1988, and invited by the Smithsonian Institute to the Festival of American Folklife in 1989.

He headed the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and several organizations, including See Dai Doo Society, Chung Wah Chung Kung Hui (Hawaii Chinese Labor Association), Chung Shan Association, Hawaii Chinese Education Association and Chinese Cultural Association.

After World War II, he helped re-establish the legality of language schools that had been banned in Hawai'i, turning for help to the American Civil Liberties Union in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mui said he was not only an example for his family, but also a window into the adventurous lives of his immigrant parents, Heong Thom and Yook-Heong Ching Thom.

His father emigrated from China to California to make a fortune panning for gold and serving as camp scribe for other Chinese, lost it all and then came to Hawai'i to buy a rice farm in Hanalei and later the country store in Waikane. The new language the couple learned was Hawaiian, not English.

Wah-Chan Thom was married to the former Jannie Kwai-Jun Luke from 1932 until her death one month short of their 66th wedding anniversary in 1998.

He is survived by his brother Wah-Hui; sisters Ruth Au and Florence Chiau; daughters, Lois Mui and Adele Chang; son Roland; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be 3 p.m. Thursday at Borthwick Mortuary, followed by a service at 5 p.m., and interment at 11 a.m. Friday Feb. 7 at Manoa Chinese Cemetery. The family requests no flowers.