Living History

It’s been a long time since I read James Michener’s Hawaii, and while I remember that I really enjoyed the book, I don’t remember a lot of the detail … and as is always the case with Michener, there was a lot of detail! But when they told us we were going to a place called Hawaii Plantation Village to do a project about Chinese Hawaiian history, I felt something clench. I knew there was a lot of ugly history in that book, on the island, and a lot of ugly history of how the Chinese have been treated in America, and the word “plantation,” well, it has connotations.

This isn’t that kind of plantation.

It’s impossible to know in a few hours, of course, the whole history of a place, and I’m not saying that life on the Hawaii sugar and taro plantations didn’t sound pretty medieval and difficult. Wages were 10 cents a day, partially sucked up by the company store, but apparently enough for the Chinese workers to send home what seemed like a real windfall to their families in China.

I particularly enjoyed the cook building … it was a source of fascination for most of my group, in fact — we spent most of our time in the kitchen building, and my partner and I were not the only ones to create our project around food.

For me, the biggest highlight was an older gentleman, a custodian of the museum, with whom we spoke at some length after coming out of the cookhouse. He had grown up right there on site, where his parents had worked the taro and sugar plantation before it became a museum.

We asked him about the foods he particularly liked as a child, and he emphasized that his family, while loving, were extremely poor, but he remembered particularly eating soup made with chicken feet, and crawfish they caught themselves. He described catching frogs for eating, too, baiting a hook with a hibiscus blossom as a lure above the water that the frogs would jump for.

Finally, I leave you with the taro plant that, alongside rice, was the primary crop of what is now Hawaii Plantation Village.

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