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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 22, 2005


Chinese society turns 100

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

People join the Pacific Club and Outrigger Canoe Club to gain social status. Another club, the See Dai Doo Society, is celebrating its 100th birthday today. Its historian, Richard Jin-Pei Ching on Kilauea Avenue, said its members had a similar reason for joining up: to get an address.

"Remember, you don't speak the language," Ching explained. "You have no home except a corner, a bed in a rooming house in Chinatown. When you die, nobody knows. You think the landlord is going to chase you around to give you mail? The most important reason for joining a Chinese society was that you have an address."

So you're not just anonymous flotsam: You can get mail.

Ching said he learned the hard way. He was born in Hawai'i, orphaned at a young age and shuttled among foster homes. He was picked up by police. The judge asked him, "Why don't you go home to your parents?" Ching said, "I don't have any." The welfare department placed with him in a Hawaiian family.

He sold newspapers for a living during World War II, then went to San Francisco and lived at the YMCA while he learned how to be an electrician. "I joined a Chinese club to have an address," he said.

Our hero had no interest at all in the history of Chinese in Hawai'i until he retired and came back. His research shows that 18 people, including one of his ancestors, founded the See Dai Doo Society in 1905 by donating $5,000 to purchase an old school building at 285 N. Vineyard Blvd. for a clubhouse.

Besides an address, the See Dai Doo Society bestowed other benefits on its members, Ching said. They could play mahjong with immigrants from their same village in southern China.

When you die, "these societies put you in the ground," Ching added. "After a number of years, maybe 10, they pick you up and send you home back to China. That's because when the leaf drop, it will return to the root."

In other words, the society saw to it that the bones of its members were returned to the ancestral village in the approved manner. However, this became illegal and now there are bones at the Manoa Chinese Cemetery waiting patiently for their return home.

These days, Ching said, the society has some 2,000 members and a full schedule of activities in its club rooms on the third floor of its building. The lower two floors are rented out to support the club. The society hires a full-time executive secretary and has an annual dance get-together.

Activities include a Friday mahjong session, a Saturday cooking class and Chinese language instruction paid for by the society. There's also a program that provides tuition grants for students at the University of Hawai'i.

The society will celebrate from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today with ethnic dances, a heritage exhibit and a display of drawings of Ching's ancestral village.