Ching's humble roots uncovered
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
Before he was commissioned to write a book about Clarence T.C. Ching, the only thing that writer Lance Tominaga knew about Ching was that his name was on an athletic field at the University of Hawai'i.
Ching, who died in 1985, was a developer whose projects — including Kukui Gardens, Moanalua Gardens, Salt Lake, the Chinese Cultural Plaza and others — changed the face of several Honolulu neighborhoods. He was a philanthropist whose Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation has given several millions of dollars to Island schools and other institutions (and continues to do so). He was a man who used his considerable connections to aid such organizations as St. Francis Hospital, several Chinese societies and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. He was a founder of Hawaii National Bank.
But today, most people know him only from the four buildings on which his name has been placed (at UH, Saint Louis, Chaminade and Maryknoll). If that.
Reading Tominaga's book, "A Prophecy Fulfilled: The Story of Clarence T.C. Ching," it's clear Ching would have liked the anonymity. He sought it throughout his career.
"The fact that he was so private was a real challenge for me in doing this book. There was so very little information about him because when you're so private, you're not in the newspapers a lot. A lot of people who knew him best are gone. It was hard to dig up much," said Tominaga.
What Tominaga did "dig up," presented with context drawn from news reports on Ching projects and on the landmark "Land and Power in Hawaii" by George Cooper and Gavan Daws (UH Press, 1990), paints a picture of a man who outstripped his roots but never forgot them.
Ching was raised poor by parents who insisted their children contribute to the family's well-being through daily labor, and moved from Kaua'i to O'ahu to assure those children had educational and career opportunities. Ching followed their example with his own three children, and nieces and nephews as well — not handing out largesse even when he could afford it, but insisting they live humbly and work hard.
After making his millions, he went about methodically giving them away, with bequests to his family, of course, but most significantly through the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation and through development of the low-income housing project, Kukui Gardens, from which he took no profit.
Tominaga interviewed Ching's relatives, his longtime secretary (also his niece) and remaining friends to uncover as much as he could of Ching's character, in addition to the more public facts.
Their insights are revealing of a man who would rather listen than talk, but who was invariably listened to when he did speak.
He was, by all reports, extraordinarily kind to his employees, and anecdotes illustrate how he enjoyed giving away money. He could be "direct and abrupt" in business situations and, when he had the gavel at meetings of the many companies and agencies he served, there was "no wasted talk or energy," according to attorney Peter Ng, who served with Ching on several boards and is now treasurer of the Ching Foundation.
In his three months of research, Tominaga said, "I began to get a great respect and admiration for him."
The "Prophecy" of the title was one made by Ching's father, when the boy was young and sickly and his parents feared he might not live to adulthood.
His father saw something different. "If he survives," predicted Ching Koon Hook, "he will become an important, prosperous and outstanding man, and he will help the rest of our family."
Tominaga's book was commissioned by the Ching Foundation to answer a question it so often hears: "Who was Clarence T.C. Ching?" It shows how that prophecy was fulfilled.