Descendant of Chinese immigrants establishes scholarship endowment

University of Hawaiʻi
Posted: Jul 10, 2001

By all accounts, Wong Kit lived the great American dream that inspired so many immigrants to leave their homeland in search of a better life. Born August 16, 1873 in Canton, China's Guandong Province, Wong Kit came to the Big Island of Hawaiʻi around 1900 as a contract laborer.

After a lengthy career in the sugar industry, he opened a general store in Honomu, a crack seed shop and ice cream fountain in Downtown Hilo, and later a bar that bore his name. But its doubtful Wong Kit knew when he died in 1935, that the organization he and other immigrants formed would be helping to shape the future for Americans of Chinese ancestry more than 60 years later.

The organization formed in the 1920's was known as the Lin Hing Society. Though founded as a social and religious club, the Lin Hing Society became a central focus in the lives of many Chinese contract laborers.

"These men came here in search of a better life, but found the going tough. They were primarily bachelors, alone in a unfamiliar place, and this caused them to have second thoughts about staying," said Rodney Wong, grandson of Wong Kit. "Many became homesick and wanted to go back, but could not do so at the time for various economic reasons," Wong said.

The Lin Hing Society helped them adjust to life in their new homeland, by providing these Chinese immigrants with a network of social and religious activities. Wong estimates that there were around 30 members at one time. By pooling their financial resources they were able to purchase a building on Kilauea Avenue, across from the present Pizza Hut location, which was converted into a temple. But it also became a rooming house for others, who would ultimately live out the rest of their lives there.

"The Lin Hing Society was an important part of their lives. In the absence of their loved ones, the society became their extended family," Wong said. "I remember visiting their place. They had an old style Chinese kitchen, with a big wok and took turns cooking, shopping and performing typical household chores," he said.

The society also provided a variety of services to help newly arrived immigrants adjust to their new homeland. Wong's father, Man Chong Wong handled the immigration paperwork and bookkeeping duties.

"My father was well suited for these responsibilities since he could both read and write English, which most of the members could not do," Wong said. "They would usually write their name with an X and my father would have to sign for them," Wong added.

Man Chong Wong also invested the money each member put aside each month, which many hoped would eventually pay for their return to China. Anything left over after living expenses were deducted was put into savings accounts and certificates of deposit.
"I think as years went by, the members who wanted to return to China began to recognize they would not be going back," Wong speculated. "At that point, they were hoping the money would support their retirement. To that end, my father invested whatever they gave him, and over the years it just grew and grew," Wong said.

One by one, the members of the Lin Hing Society began to pass on. Some had family members who inherited their share of the proceeds. But others did not, and their money stayed with the society. The diminishing numbers prompted the society to sell its building, which was purchased by the County, as part of the Kaikoʻo Redevelopment in the aftermath of the 1960 tsunami that devastated Hilo. The remaining members took up residence in an old shack near the Chinese graveyard on Ululani Street, where they lived out their lives.

By the early 1990's, Man Chong Wong began to confront the possibility that he might someday find himself the sole surviving member of the Lin Hing Society, and the beneficiary of its financial assets. Wong says the idea made his father uncomfortable.

"My dad had very high morale standards, and believed it would be wrong for him to accept the money" Wong said. "What he wanted to do was find some way to bring honor to the men who invested their sweat and blood," he added.

After much consideration, Man Chong Wong donated the remaining proceeds of $40,000 in January to the University of Hawaiʻi Foundation for the establishment of the Lin Hing Society Endowed Scholarship Fund. The fund will provide scholarship assistance to students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and Hawaiʻi Community College. In the spirit of the Lin Hing Society, preference will be given to applicants of Chinese heritage from Hilo, the Big Island or Guandong Province, China.

"We deeply appreciate Mr. Wong's generosity," said Dr. Rose Tseng, Chancellor, UH Hilo. "Whether you're a student, or an educator, you can never overstate the value of a scholarship. This gift will make it possible for more people to pursue a college education and the dream of a brighter future," she added.

Man Chong Wong passed away in May. But Rodney Wong believes his father's decision to establish the endowment scholarship ensured that the Lin Hing Society would live on and continue to make a difference in people's lives.

"The Lin Hing Society wanted a better life for their generation and beyond," Wong said. "The common bond among its members was an unspoken commitment to take care of each other, and this gift from their generation to future generations carries on that tradition," Wong added.
Wong doubts that his grandfather's thought process ever extended beyond fulfilling the Lin Hing Society's commitment to the first generation. But he's certain that the members who entrusted his father to invest their money would be pleased with the final transaction he conducted on their behalf.

"If any of them were around today, I think they would view this as the next logical step," Wong said. "This money by itself is only a small portion of what our ancestors have given us. But what better gift could you leave to future generations than a college education," he added.

Wong Kit would probably be the first to agree.