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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chinese school preserves language


By Lee Cataluna

"I started this school because I wanted my daughter to understand me," said Chee Ping Lum, principal of Sui Wah School. The Chinese language school in Downtown Honolulu has grown from 13 students in 1986 to 150 students this year.

The school celebrated the Year of the Tiger on Sunday with a gymnasium full of craft activities. Demonstration tables were set up for calligraphy and Chinese knots. A jar full of cocoons the size of mynah bird eggs sat next to a pot on a hot plate where members of the Hawaii Handweavers Hui demonstrated silk reeling, a stunningly intricate process where a single tiny thread is unwound from the silkworm's handiwork. At another table, students worked on traditional Chinese paper-cutting techniques. The youngest kids who couldn't quite navigate the scissors were happy to color tiger outlines instead.

Most of the students are like Lum's daughter: Hawai'i-born with at least one Cantonese-speaking parent originally from Hong Kong, South China or Vietnam. Some are non-Chinese. The littlest students are 3 years old. Lum encourages them to stay all through high school so they can transition into language classes in college. Several years ago, Sui Wah added classes in Mandarin to the Cantonese curriculum.

Lum received her degree in Chinese literature from the University of Hong Kong and taught high school in China for nine years. She moved to the Islands in 1976 when she married Wing Tek Lum, a Hawai'i man she met in China. She shortens that story with this joke: "In Chinese, there's a saying: 'If you marry a dog, you follow the dog. If you marry a chicken, you follow the chicken.' "

Following him to Hawai'i would shape her vision as principal of the school.

"I was feeling so scared at the time because I was worried I couldn't learn new things about this culture, and at the same time, I was losing my identity. I had to find myself again."

Lum and her staff try to build family relationships and bridge cultural differences through language.

"For the immigrant older generation who don't speak English the majority still speak Cantonese it makes for a happier kind of family situation. For the students, learning the language makes it easier to understand their cultural background and gives them a sense of belonging."

Lum says the way we celebrate Chinese New Year in Hawai'i isn't so different from how it is celebrated in Hong Kong, save for one big thing: "In China, New Year's has a 10-day vacation," she said, laughing because her students think this is terribly unfair. "But I tell them that's OK, the most fun day is today."