Every family get-together, every Thanksgiving, every Sunday dinner was spent at the home overlooking Waikiki. The distinct smell of kim chee and pulgogi filled the kitchen and living room, calling the kids to eat.
That Spencer Street home became a savvy real estate investment for Mary Woo, who managed to raise 10 children practically on her own. She built apartments in the house, rented them out and survived the Depression.
"My grandmother kept the family together," said Jerry Park, 58, a disabled veteran and real estate executive with Meridian Properties & Mortgage Co. "She was as solid as a rock."
Mary Woo was a picture bride, sent for by Chong Cho Woo, who was living and working on Kipu Plantation in Hule'ia, Kaua'i. The two were immediately married in 1914.
Twelve years and 10 children later, Mary Woo struggled to keep the family together.
Her husband turned to alcohol after his hand got caught in a machine at the sugar mill, leaving him disabled and unable to work.
For extra money, Mary Woo tailored and laundered clothes for single men in the camp. She learned how to make Portuguese potato bread and doughnuts, and sold them to plantation workers. She raised chickens and pigs. She even secretly brewed and sold her own beer, a potent drink as clear as filtered water.
Every Sunday she would make saimin, rolling the dough on the kitchen table and flattening it with a long bamboo rod. She would cut the dough into long, thin strips, boil them and serve the noodles in a beef broth with strips of scrambled eggs, green onions, boiled pork and a hot dipping sauce.
During the summers, the children worked in the cane fields from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. for 25 cents a day.
All 12 of them lived in a three-bedroom plantation house. The two younger sons slept with their parents; the rest crammed into the other rooms.
Poor but happy, the children never complained. They hold fond memories of living in Hule'ia, from swimming in a nearby reservoir, to picking mountain apples and guavas, to dancing at bon festivals. The neighborhood children would pile into the back of a plantation truck and head to baseball and basketball games in Lihu'e.
"We had a lot of fun," said Dora Lee, 84, the fourth-oldest in the family. "We would spend practically all day at the pond in the cane fields swimming. I was so dark, people thought I was Hawaiian."
In 1939, the family moved to Honolulu, into a modest three-bedroom cottage on Dayton Lane in Liliha and later to Spencer Street.
The following year, Chong Cho Woo turned 61. According to Korean custom, Mary Woo threw her husband a lively birthday party, because to turn 61 means you have lived your whole life. Chong Cho Woo died later that year from pneumonia.
Both he and Mary Woo spoke Korean, never English. But the second generation of Woos had embraced American ways so much, they didn't carry on Korean customs or language.
The one thing they all remember, though, was the food.
Mandoo, kim chee, pulgogi and guk staples on Korean dinner tables are the only tangible ethnic culture the Woo children have passed down.
Neysa Park, Mary Woo's great-granddaughter, remembers with fondness the cucumber kim chee her grandmother, Sarah Park, used to make. Sarah died in 1990.
"I'm regretful I didn't get the recipe," said Park, 28, manager of corporate accounting at Aloha Airlines. "I'm so mad that I let that slip. I'll never do that again."
Park decided to learn more about her Korean and Japanese heritage. Able to speak Japanese after 10 years of Japanese school, and aware of her dual ethnicity, she found an appreciation for not just her own heritage but others as well.
Two years ago, she was the first Korean American to win the title of first princess in the 48th Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual pageant that until four years ago accepted contestants only of full Japanese descent.
"I was out to prove that (being multiethnic) doesn't mean I appreciate the culture any less than anyone else," Park said.
Three years ago, the youngest of the 10 children of Chong Cho and Mary Woo, Buster Woo died from a coronary stroke after a bout with diabetes. An obituary published in Hawai'i and California, where he lived, sparked a reconnection with family members who had grown apart.
The obituary had a Web site for the funeral home, which posted messages from family and friends who wanted to send condolences. Buster Woo's oldest son, Robin Woo, saw messages from cousins he hadn't seen in decades.
A year later, the Woos had their first family reunion at Ala Moana Beach Park. More than 150 people attended, from as far away as Japan and Florida.
"We should've had this reunion before my father died," said Robin Woo, 51, a real-estate broker in Sacramento, Calif. "But it was his passing that shook me. I wanted to get reconnected. Maybe that was my way of mourning, my way of reaching for support, which I got big-time. Just showing and seeing everyone, there was a lot of love going around. It was such a rush." LEE FAMILY>>
Catherine E. Toth
|THE TALE OF FIVE FAMILIES: Moon | Kim | Woo | Lee | Choi
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