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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 11:46 a.m., Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Hiram Fong dead at 97

Hiram Fong served 14 years in the Territorial Legislature before winning a U.S. Senate seat right after statehood. He served 17 years in the Senate. The painting in this photo, taken in Fong's Bishop Street office, is of Fong in his younger days.

Advertiser library photo by Bruce Asato • March 14, 2003

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By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Former U.S. Sen. Hiram Leong Fong — lawyer, entrepreneur, tycoon and statesman under five American presidents from Eisenhower to Ford — died early this morning at the age of 97 after an epic life rich in fortune and drama.

Gov. Linda Lingle this morning was making preparations to lower Hawai'i's state flag to half-staff on state buildings around the Islands in Fong's memory.

Fong was a Republican who won the hearts and votes of Democratic-dominated Hawai'i to become America's first Asian-American U.S. senator; a father of four whose final years became entangled in a hurtful legal feud with his youngest son; a self-made millionaire several times over who watched his financial empire collapse into bankruptcy.

As his health deteriorated and the lawsuits dragged out with his son, Marvin, Fong thought of his supporters when he spoke to The Advertiser in one of his last interviews, in March 2003.

"You tell my friends not to worry," Fong said in his Finance Factors office on Bishop Street. "I'm going to be all right. I've gone through many, many, many battles, and this is one in which I'm taking just like the others."

Since 2002, Fong had been undergoing dialysis treatment three times a week at St. Francis Medical Center for kidney failure. He had trouble adjusting to hearing aids. And since 2003, he had relied on a walker after slipping on the steps of his home in 'Alewa Heights while picking up a newspaper. The fall left him with a pair of broken ribs on his left side and a compressed vertebrae.

Although his body was failing him, friends and family insisted that Fong's mind remained sharp and his will defiant.

Fong died at 1:40 a.m. at St. Francis Medical Center.

"He came from a very poor family and he rose to become the first U.S. senator of Oriental extraction," his youngest son, Marvin, said this morning. "People will remember him for the good things and they'll forget the bad things."

Fong was born into poverty in Kalihi on Oct. 1, 1907, as Yau Leong Fong. He became known by the first name of "Ah," which translates as "master."

Fong once called his parents uneducated but understanding.

His father, Fong Sau Howe, left China's Kwangtung Province in 1872 along with some 45,000 other Chinese immigrants who came to the Islands to work the once-sprawling sugar plantations.

Once in Hawai'i, Fong Sau Howe earned $12 a month as an indentured sugar laborer. Fong's mother, Fong Lum Shee, arrived in Hawai'i when she was 10 years old and worked as a maid.

As he attended Kalihi-Waena Grammar School, Fong — the seventh of 11 children and the fifth boy — helped the family by selling fish and crabs he caught by hand.

He shined shoes, delivered poi, sold newspapers, led tourists to shrines and caddied nine holes of golf for 25 cents, which ruined any desire he may have had for the game. At McKinley High School, Fong also peddled bags of beans on the streets of Honolulu.

He was a member of McKinley High School's famous class of 1924. The 216 students in the senior class, many of them first-generation immigrants, included businessman Chinn Ho, former Supreme Court Justice Masaji Marumoto and real estate magnate Hung Wai Ching among the doctors, educators and executives.

"We never knew we would amount to anything," Fong said in 1974 at the class' 50th reunion. "All we thought about was finishing school and then going to work."

He was the first Hawai'i resident to receive the Horatio Alger Award for overcoming poverty to achieve outstanding success in law, business and public service.

At the University of Hawai'i, Fong edited Ka Leo, the student newspaper, and served as associate editor of Ka Palapala, the yearbook. He was a member of the volleyball, rifle and debate teams and president of the YMCA and Chinese Students Alliance — all while working at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard as a supply clerk.

Although he never liked ROTC, Fong joined at UH because it paid 30 cents a day to senior cadets — "and that paid for my lunch," Fong said.

As a student, Fong got a taste of political life while delivering speeches for Patrick K. Gleason, a candidate for Honolulu sheriff, which led to an invitation to help Fred Wright's successful campaign for mayor.

In 1930, Fong graduated with honors from UH after only three years.

He spent the next two years with the then-Suburban Water System, then attended Harvard Law School in 1932. When he graduated in 1935, Fong returned to Honolulu to work as a deputy city attorney.

The year 1938 brought several professional and personal changes.

He helped found the law firm of Fong, Miho, Choy and Robinson, considered one of the most racially mixed law firms in Honolulu for its time. The same year Fong married his high school sweetheart, Ellyn Lo. Their marriage resulted in four children, Hiram Jr., who went on to become a state legislator and Honolulu city councilman; Rodney L., and twins, Marvin-Alan and Merie-Ellen Fong Mitchell.

Also in 1938, Fong entered and won his first seat in the Territorial House of Representatives at the age of 31. He then forged a coalition of independent Republicans and Democrats and won election as speaker of the House.

It was the beginning of 14 years of service in the Territorial Legislature — including three terms as speaker of the House — that led to 17 more years in the U.S. Senate.

His political career was interrupted by World War II, when Fong was called to active duty with the Army Air Corps. He served as judge advocate with the 7th Fighter Command of the Seventh Air Force and attained the rank of major. He later retired as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

As he prepared for military service, then Territorial Rep. Fong changed his name in 1942 to "Hiram."

"I took the name Hiram for no particular reason, just because it was a good name," Fong said at the time. Others speculated that Fong picked the name in honor of Hiram Bingham, one of the first New England missionaries to reach Hawai'i in the 1820s.

As a legislator, Fong supported laws designed to help organized labor and ordinary people. In 1945, he worked to pass the landmark "Little Wagner Act," which allowed agricultural workers to unionize.

As Democrats began taking control of Hawai'i politics, Fong lost his first race in 1954 by only 31 votes.

Out of politics at the age of 47, Fong turned his energies to building a financial empire based on land, real estate, insurance and investments.

He founded more than a half-dozen Honolulu firms, many with the word "Finance" in their titles, including Finance Factors, Finance Realty, Finance Home Builders, Finance Investment and Finance Factors Foundation.

When Hawai'i gained statehood in 1959, Fong ran for one of the two new, Senate seats at the age of 52. It was a second chance at a political career.

"Being the first Asian there in the Senate," he said, "I was very, very careful. I knew that if I did anything that was in the line of dereliction of duty, why it would shame me or shame my family. It would shame those of my ethnic background and it would shame my people of Hawai'i."

He retired from the Senate on Jan. 2, 1977, the ranking Republican on six committees from agriculture to retirement.

Fong said at the time that the travel between Honolulu and Washington, D.C., nine times a year left him drained.

Back home, Fong returned to his businesses. But a series of financial missteps followed in the decades ahead.

In 1978, Marvin became involved in the family's real estate investment group and discovered that rent had been collected on various properties but never paid to the banks.

Three years later, Fong bought a 1,200-ton, $3.6 million four-tiered barge that had come from Hong Kong. He opened a Chinese-style show boat restaurant on Honolulu's waterfront called The Oceania, which ended up bankrupt.

Fong also met opposition from Windward residents in 1982 when he tried to open Market City Ltd., a 15-acre shopping complex and lagoon subdivision in Kahalu'u. The project was denied by the City Council.

A milk distribution business also went broke.

Eleven years after retiring from political life, Fong established a 250-acre botanical garden in Kahalu'u, which he named "Senator Hiram Fong's Plantation & Gardens."

The operation included groves named in honor of the five presidents he served and a library of his papers. By 2003, the plantation faced more than $700,000 in debts and was foreclosed. But three of Fong's children and eight grandchildren made the winning bid at a foreclosure auction to keep the park in the family.

It was one of the few financial victories for Fong in an otherwise dreadful year.

Fong's ongoing financial disputes with Marvin became public in 2003 during a series of lawsuits over control of various Fong-family assets, including Market City Ltd., which owns the Market Center Shopping Center in Kapahulu; Finance Factors Ltd.; and the Ocean View Cemetery Ltd., whose holdings include the Ka'ahumanu Building in 'Aiea, a retail center in Oregon, a 50 percent interest in the historic Kress Building in Hilo and the Ocean View Cemetery near Kahala Mall.

In one lawsuit, Marvin alleged that his father and Hiram Jr. earned unspecified payments by investing $1 million of Ocean View Cemetery money into a Laotian gold mine that turned out to be a "scam."

In March, 2003, Hiram and Ellyn Fong filed for bankruptcy protection, citing at least $937,000 in debt.

"The actions taken by my son, Marvin, and his wife, Sandra, have left me with no other options," Fong said at the time. "After suing his mother and me, they have refused to settle the differences between us. It is most unfortunate when people 'bite the hand that feeds them,' especially when it's your own son and his wife."

The same day, Finance Factors Ltd., which Fong helped found in 1952, announced Fong's immediate resignation "for personal reasons."

The problems between father and son at the time reminded senior U.S. District Judge Sam King, Fong's longtime friend, of a line from Shakespeare's "King Lear":

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."

"Sen. Fong's situation," King said at the time, "is tragic."

But this morning, Marvin said he and his father made up on Friday when Marvin visited him at St. Francis.

"I just told him that I was sorry that I was a disappointment to him," Marvin said. "I asked for his forgiveness and I told him that I forgave him. ... I told him he was very blessed. And he knows that."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.

Correction: The maiden name of Ellyn Fong, former U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong's widow, was incorrect in a previous version of this story.