Tale of five families:
 • Moon family
 • Kim family
 • Woo family
 • Lee family
 • Choi family


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Top: Harry Kim, mayor of the Big Island, is one of the first elected Korean American officials in the United States.

Tim Wright • Special to The Advertiser

Above: Kim's 1956 Hilo High School yearbook photo.
There comes a point when hard work is so ingrained that it becomes impossible to relax. The Kim family reached that point long ago growing up in Ola'a on the Big Island, and that work habit propelled them to success.

In Kee Kim, the father of eight children who survived and two who died, would leave before dawn for his job at Ola'a plantation. When he returned home he would begin his work in the garden, where he raised vegetables to sell.

His wife, Ya Mul Kim, oversaw the family's lauhala weaving business, a taskmaster who supervised her children as they worked on weekends, holidays and after school each day in a shack next to their rented Ola'a home, weaving until long after dark.

The baby of the family, Harry, would strip the lauhala to different lengths, while other family members wove the leaves into place mats, purses, baskets and other items before boxing them up to ship to Honolulu, usually for sale on military bases. The family needed the money to survive.

Harry Kim, who is now mayor of the Big Island and one of the first Korean American elected officials in the United States, recalls the work demands on each child left no time for homework, so the Kim youngsters did not study. There were few books or newspapers around the house, but the parents still pressed the children to excel in school. Although In Kee and Ya Mul didn't have the money to send their children to college, they urged their children to find a way to go.

"They said you don't want to be working so hard, like our parents did," said Harry's sister, Diane. Most of the Kim children indeed worked their way through college, and then went on to be teachers, business people, entrepreneurs, a forest ranger, an engineer and a politician.

Harry Kim said the lifestyle and hardships his family experienced in Ola'a are difficult for people today to comprehend. "We worked so damn hard that now we get together, none of us knows how to play," he said.

Most of In Kee Kim's past before his arrival in Ola'a remains a mystery to his children. Although he was kind and warm toward his family, he volunteered little about his past, and his children said they did not probe too deeply.

No one knows exactly when In Kee arrived in Hawai'i, but Harry Kim said he believes his father's family lived in what is now North Korea, and that most or all of his relatives were killed during the struggle surrounding Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910.

In Kee's wife was more outgoing, and her children know more about her. Ya Mul Lim left Korea from Pusan as a picture bride in about 1919 because she wanted to work in Hawai'i and send money home to her brother to help him obtain an education.

Ya Mul's brother went on to become a vice minister of commerce, but Ya Mul Lim's arranged marriage in Hawai'i ended. "All I was told was he was not a good man in regard to family," Harry Kim said of his mother's first marriage.

Ya Mul and In Kee's children said they do not know how their parents met or married, but they do know that In Kee moved to a house in the forest near the railroad tracks connecting Hilo and Ola'a — now known as Kea'au — because he was determined to farm as well as work in the Ola'a sugar mill.

The prominent Shipman family of the Big Island rented In Kee the one-bedroom home and allowed him to farm as much land as he liked, and he lived there until his death in 1956.

The Kims' one-bedroom Ola'a house had catchment water and no electricity, and the children slept three to a bed. They wove lauhala, raised vegetables and ran a chicken farm to sell the eggs.

There were few Korean cultural artifacts or adornments around the house because the family was busy surviving. But the value of work was passed on, along with some traditions such as a New Year's dish of meat and cabbage dipped in flour and egg and fried, which Ya Mul liked to make.

"We never had toys, we just didn't have a normal childhood," said Han Sung Barry, one of Harry Kim's older sisters. "That made us more independent and a stronger person. We didn't have all the things kids have nowadays. We had to work for it, and we appreciate it more."

"Of course, we never learned to relax," said Barry, owner of Mrs. Barry's Kona Cookies, a successful Big Island business. To this day, the family members rarely take up hobbies, and gravitate toward work. When they get home from their jobs, they feel drawn to yard work or home repair.

"I guess you work so hard from childhood and growing up, and I guess you just carry on," she said.

Ya Mul had no formal education, but Diane remembers her mother as an intelligent woman with a remarkable head for business. She spoke Korean and pidgin English, and learned Japanese from her closest neighbor in Ola'a. That same neighbor helped deliver Ya Mul's babies.

She never retired, said her eldest daughter, Ann Lee. After most of her children had left home in the mid-1950s, Ya Mul started Kea'au Kim Chee.

When she was in her mid-60s, Ya Mul took her savings and money from that kim chee business and built a home for herself on Olu Street in Hilo for $20,000.

"She was very proud of herself; she said nobody needed to help her financially. She was very self-supporting," Ann Lee said. Ya Mul died in her sleep in 1984, a month before her 82nd birthday. WOO FAMILY>>

— Kevin Dayton



THE TALE OF FIVE FAMILIES: Moon | Kim | Woo | Lee | Choi
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