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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, August 19, 2004

HIRAM FONG | 1906-2004
Political pioneer led Hawai'i into statehood

 •  First Asian in U.S. Senate broke barriers
 •  Photo gallery
 •  Highlights from an historical life and career
 •  Share your condolences and memories

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 yesterday after an epic life rich in both fortune and drama. He was 97.

Former U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong in his downtown office, where he displayed a painting of him in his younger days.

Advertiser library photo • March 14, 2003

Fong died in bed in his home on 'Alewa Heights around 12:30 a.m., said his son Hiram Jr., a former legislator and Honolulu city councilman.

The former senator's wife, Ellyn, was asleep at the time. But his daughter, Merie-Ellen Gushi, was by his side, Hiram Jr. said.

"He expired at home," Hiram Jr. said. "He went peacefully, fortunately. It was very quick."

Hiram Fong was officially pronounced dead at St. Francis Medical Center at 1:40 a.m.

"He was 97. He had a very, very full life," his son said. "He had a lot of accomplishments, which he was very proud of."

Gov. Linda Lingle yesterday ordered the U.S. and Hawai'i flags lowered to half-staff on state buildings around the Islands for a man who helped reform immigration laws and ease the way for unions to organize.

The flags will remain at half-staff until Fong's burial, probably later this week, a Lingle spokesman said.

State Deputy Sheriff B. Sato lowers the flag to half-staff at the Hawai'i Capitol in honor of the late Hiram Fong.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

State officials and family members were discussing the possibility of Fong's lying in state in the Capitol atrium. Funeral services were tentatively scheduled for tomorrow at Nuuanu Memorial Park, with a private burial to follow.

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 in his later years.

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 March 2003 during one of his last interviews.

"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 underwent 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 relied on a walker after slipping on the steps of his home 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, Fong's friends and family insisted that his mind remained sharp and his will defiant.

He was known for a once vigorous and voracious appetite. And Fong still loved to eat pork-hash and half-moon dimsum from the Mei Sum restaurant in Chinatown and the pepeiau from Char Hung Sut.

Marvin Fong, the youngest son, and his wife, Sandra Au Fong, had battled the Fong patriarch over the family's business matters. Yesterday, Marvin Fong said: "Although we recently had some business disagreements, we loved each other very much."

Advertiser library photo • April 29, 2003

But recently he had stopped going in person to the New Liberty Grill next door to Finance Factors, where he nearly always ordered the prime rib, owner Kim Gould said.

"I guess he was sick for a while," Gould said.

Marvin Fong, the youngest of three sons, said his father "came from a very poor family and he rose to become the first U.S. senator of Oriental extraction. People will remember him for the good things."

Fong the politician and the half-dozen financial companies he founded helped legions of ordinary people and their businesses.

Most modern-day immigrant merchants in Chinatown are unaware of the Fong name and his accomplishments, said Winfred Pong, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i.

But to an older generation of voters and business people, Fong was a legend, Pong said.

"The current merchants that are on the street today are probably not aware of the great contributions that he has made to improving the business environment," Pong said.

"They don't know that a large part of the opportunities they have are due to his efforts in Congress and his experience as a banker, as well as his numerous contributions to the community."

Humble beginnings

Fong was born into poverty in Kalihi on Oct. 15, 1906, as Yau Leong Fong. He became known by the first name of "Ah," which translates as "master."

Fong once characterized his parents as uneducated but understanding.

His father, Fong Sau Howe, left Guangdong province in 1872 along with some 45,000 other Chinese emigrants who headed for Hawai'i to work the sugar plantations.

Once in Hawai'i, Fong Sau Howe earned $12 a month as an indentured sugar laborer.

Hiram Fong's mother, Fong Lum Shee, arrived in Hawai'i when she was 10 years old and worked as a maidservant.

From the ages of 4 to 7, Fong picked kiawe beans to sell as cattle feed, charging 10 cents for a 30-pound bag. 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 that he caught by hand.

He then moved on to shining shoes, delivering poi, selling newspapers, leading tourists to shrines and caddying nine holes of golf for 25 cents, which ruined any desire he may have had for the game. On a good Sunday as a caddy, Fong could earn as much as $1.50.

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's 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 the Reserve Officers Training Corps at UH because it paid 30 cents a day to senior cadets — "and that paid for my lunch," Fong said.

Politics takes hold

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, after only three years at UH, Fong graduated with honors.

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 Ellyn Lo, whom he had met at the First Chinese Church of Christ across from McKinley High School.

Their marriage produced four children, Hiram Jr.; Rodney L.; and twins Marvin-Alan and Merie-Ellen Gushi. The children produced 10 grandchildren.

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 Air Force Reserve.

As he prepared for military service in 1942, then Territorial Rep. Fong changed his name 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. That work earned him the unwavering political support of the ILWU, the union representing plantation workers.

As Democrats began taking control of Hawai'i politics, Fong in 1954 lost a political race for the first time, 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, including Finance Factors, Finance Realty, Finance Home Builders, Finance Investment and Finance Factors Foundation.

Historic election

When Hawai'i gained statehood in 1959, Fong ran for one of the two new seats in the U.S. Senate. At age 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.

Fong said at the time that traveling nine times a year between Honolulu and Washington left him drained.

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

In 1978, Marvin Fong 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, Hiram Fong bought a 1,200-ton, $3.6 million four-tiered barge that had come from Hong Kong. He opened The Oceania, a Chinese-style floating restaurant on Honolulu's waterfront but it eventually went 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 what became a 725-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.

Feud becomes public

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 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, 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 Marvin said yesterday that he and his father had made amends during a visit on Friday.

At the urging of his cousin, Marvin visited his father at St. Francis Medical Center, where they sat together during the former senator's dialysis treatment.

"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. ...

"Although we recently had some business disagreements, we loved each other very much."

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

• • •

Photo gallery

Vice President Richard Nixon congratulates Fong and Oren E. Long after swearing them in as U.S. senators from the new state of Hawai'i.
Advertiser library photo • August 1959

U.S. Sens. Hiram Fong and Dan Inouye examine a weapon during a visit to the 29th Brigade at Schofield Barracks.

Advertiser library photo • 1968

Fong celebrates his election victory in 1964.

Advertiser library photo • 1964

Eleven years after retiring from politics, Fong established what became a 725-acre botanical garden in Kahalu'u.

Advertiser library photo • April 20, 1988

Front row, from left, Mrs. Hiram Fong Jr. holding daughter Jennifer; former Sen. Hiram Fong and his wife, Ellyn; their daughter Merie-Ellen. Back row, the Fongs' oldest son, Hiram Jr.; youngest son Marvin; and middle son Rodney.

Advertiser library photo

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