Her Name was Violet, by Stephanie Namahoe Launiu


One of the activ­i­ties Iʻm most proud of is found­ing and pub­lish­ing Pūpū A ‘O ‘Ewa Native Hawai­ian Writ­ing and Arts. Everyone—students, fac­ul­ty, staff, and com­mu­ni­ty members—was invit­ed to sub­mit, regard­less of eth­nic­i­ty, and the only require­ment was that the work be some­how relat­ed to Native Hawai­ian cul­ture. From 2011–2016 we pub­lished over 100 videos, music, pho­tos, and sto­ries. Those works are archived at Pūpū, but I think my blog is a good place to fea­ture some of them again. The works and their cre­ators deserve to be seen and appreciated.

In her beau­ti­ful per­son­al his­to­ry, Her Name was Vio­let, first pub­lished at Pūpū in 2014, Stephanie Nama­hoe Lau­niu describes writ­ing about her grand­moth­er, Vio­let Wong Hoe, as a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence: Grand­ma was born only two years after annex­a­tion at a time when Hawai­ians weren’t free to speak their native lan­guage or open­ly prac­tice their cul­ture. She was so very Hawai­ian to the core. Stephanie and her fam­i­ly live in Hilo. Now retired, she vol­un­teers with non­prof­its to help Hawai­ian inmates and their fam­i­lies on the Big Island. A free­lance writer, Stephanie is writ­ing episodes about Hawai’i for an audio trav­el app com­pa­ny, “doing my best,” she tells me,  “to sen­si­tize vis­i­tors to wahi pana and kana­ka oiwi.” Maha­lo nui, Stephanie.

Her Name was Violet

Violet-Wong-Hoe-1919Her name was Vio­let Kawaikoeahiokekuahi­wi Wong Hoe, and she was my father’s moth­er. Born in 1900 to a pure Hawai­ian woman and a Chi­nese labor­er who came to work on a sug­ar plan­ta­tion, Grand­ma was the sin­gle most influ­en­tial per­son in my life. She was my link to being Hawaiian.

Grand­ma was tough stuff, born just sev­en years after a group of Amer­i­can busi­ness­men ille­gal­ly over­threw the Hawai­ian monarch, Queen Lil­i­uokalani, and insti­tut­ed a straw gov­ern­ment rec­og­nized by the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca. At five years old, she cried on a boat dock as her father (who she said looked like Hop Sing on the old Bonan­za show) jumped onto a ship to return to Chi­na. His con­tract with the plan­ta­tion had end­ed, and he most like­ly had a wife and chil­dren back home. We haven’t had any luck trac­ing our blood­line to Chi­na, so it’s one of those things we just had to let go. She remem­bered the day when she was nine and some men came to her house and dragged her moth­er away, kick­ing and scream­ing. She nev­er saw her moth­er again. And as Hawai­ians of the day were taught, she nev­er talked about it.

After years of research, we found out last year that our great-grand­moth­er had been dragged away that long-ago day and tak­en on a boat to Kalau­pa­pa, Molokaʻi, where she was checked into the lep­er colony for Hawai­ian cit­i­zens and nev­er allowed away from that iso­lat­ed spot again. She died there after remar­ry­ing and hav­ing three more chil­dren. We don’t know if she ever had lep­rosy. In the ear­ly 1900’s when the fear of lep­rosy was ram­pant, Hawai­ians were rou­tine­ly arrest­ed and tak­en to Kalau­pa­pa for the rest of their lives on a whis­pered sus­pi­cion that the spot on their face was lep­rosy. I vis­it­ed Kalau­pa­pa sev­er­al years ago before I ever knew my great-grand­moth­er died there, and it is a beau­ti­ful but God-for­sak­en place sur­round­ed by blue, blue ocean and sheer cliffs that humans couldn’t escape.

Grand­ma fin­ished high school, mar­ried my grand­fa­ther, and had 12 chil­dren with­out ever see­ing the inside of a hos­pi­tal room. I told you she was tough stuff. But on top of that, she had a pay­ing job! My grand­fa­ther was the jail­er at the Hilo jail on the east­ern side of the Big Island, and she was what they called the ‘matron’. They lived in a house on the jail grounds and she took care of the women and girls who dared to com­mit such crimes as run­ning away from home, pub­lic drunk­en­ness, or worse yet, pros­ti­tu­tion. She nursed her babies while over­see­ing the meals for the male and female inmates.

It was after my grand­fa­ther died and she retired as matron that I was born. She was 52 by then, with lots of time on her hands to dote on her many grand­chil­dren. Grand­ma was thrifty and fru­gal, to say the least. She didn’t need to get 5 cents back on a bot­tle to make her recy­cle; she lived sus­tain­abil­i­ty. When she caught a fish, she ate every bit of it includ­ing the eye­balls. She didn’t believe in waste, and she nev­er wast­ed a minute either. Some­how between rais­ing 12 kids, super­vis­ing women inmates and feed­ing the male ones, she learned how to make things. She sewed, cro­cheted, quilt­ed, knit­ted, baked bread, canned and pre­served. She knew which type of fish could be caught where, and she gath­ered the ocean’s boun­ty and ate it all – opi­hi (limpet), limu (sea­weed), pip­ipi, vana. If some­one caught too much fish in a day, she gave away some and dried the rest. A meal for her was some dried ahi, chili pep­per water, a lit­tle limu on the side, and a bowl of poi.

I grew up in the Hawaii of the 1950’s before state­hood. Life was sim­pler for every­one back then. We lived in Hilo but every week­end we’d dri­ve the 50 miles or so over the vol­cano to Punalu’u in the Ka’u dis­trict where Grand­ma had a beach house. The rou­tine was to park the sta­tion wag­on, open the house and all the win­dows to air it out, light the Cole­man lanterns (no elec­tric­i­ty), my dad would spray a lit­tle DDT to get rid of any mos­qui­tos in the house, get water from the well and make the Fri­day night din­ner. We’d spend a lazy week­end on Punalu’u’s black sand beach fish­ing and swim­ming. Tur­tles weren’t a pro­tect­ed species then; we ate tur­tle soup and kept the shells as a sou­venir. At night we’d crowd around the lantern to pore over the Sears cat­a­log or to play cards. I have nev­er seen a more star-filled sky than from Punalu’u in the 50’s. Of course, I had plen­ty of time to look at the stars dur­ing trips to the outhouse.


With­in a few years after Hawaii became a state in 1959, my father moved our fam­i­ly to Los Ange­les for a new job. I cried for days. Hat­ed it. After being free to run and swim until after dark, we lived in a duplex apart­ment on the way to my father’s dream of a bet­ter life. I heard a lan­guage I’d nev­er heard before – Span­ish. I saw my first “col­ored” per­son. I rode a bus. I went to Disneyland!

Days turned into years, and I got used to Cal­i­for­nia, but my heart nev­er left Hawaii. We had become trans­plant­ed Hawai­ians – lis­ten­ing to Hawai­ian music, eat­ing Hawai­ian food, and look­ing for oth­er Hawai­ians in crowds. Our fam­i­ly got big­ger with more babies born, and my par­ents nev­er made enough mon­ey to send us back to Hawaii to visit.

Grand­ma trav­eled to Cal­i­for­nia every year to vis­it her grow­ing fam­i­ly there. Many of her oth­er chil­dren had also moved there over the years and she soon had more grand­chil­dren on the main­land than she did in Hawaii. Grand­ma nev­er changed. She was authen­tic in every way. She enjoyed a Big Mac but missed her dried ahi when she was in Cal­i­for­nia. When it was time for her to return to the Big Island, she sobbed qui­et­ly at the air­port and waved her white hand­ker­chief in the air­plane win­dow so we would know where she was sitting.

Called Home

By 1990, I was mar­ried with six kids and a full-time job. I thought of Grand­ma often and I missed her. My par­ents had moved back to Hawaii to help take care of her as she got more frail. It had been almost five years since I had seen her when that call came in April that Grand­ma had died just a few months short of her 90th birth­day. As the Gods would have it, she nev­er got sick. She just went to sleep one night and woke up in heav­en. I would like to think they had a plate of dried ahi, chili pep­per water, a lit­tle limu on the side, and a bowl of poi wait­ing for her.

In 1990, we were all inno­cent trav­el­ers. There was no TSA. The twin tow­ers still stood in New York City. You didn’t need an I.D. to get on a plane. You could even buy an unused air­plane tick­et from some­body and fly under their name with a bot­tle of water and a box cut­ter in your purse. I don’t remem­ber how we scraped togeth­er the mon­ey or even who watched our kids, but my hus­band and I along with my broth­er and sis­ter flew home to Hawaii for Grandma’s funeral.

Home on the Big Island

Grand­ma had been liv­ing in a lit­tle plan­ta­tion house in Kapa’au on the north­ern tip of the Big Island. She had grown to love the Koha­la dis­trict after she remar­ried at the age of 60 and moved there with my new Fil­ipino grand­pa. I told you she was tough stuff. Grand­pa had died years before and the beach house in Punalu’u had long ago been car­ried away in a tidal wave, so Grand­ma spent her lat­er years there in Kapa’au.

When I walked into that small sin­gle-wall house after dri­ving from Kona air­port, it struck me how sim­ple the house was. I had nev­er been there before. But it was just like Grand­ma. Doilies on the couch, pic­tures of grand­kids on the walls, kitchen as clean as a whis­tle, and Bible by the bed.

We were going to be on the Big Island for a week, and Grandma’s funer­al was a few days away, so we want­ed to make the most of every­day and soak up what we had missed all those years. We began the next morn­ing by going to Naito Store. Naito’s was a coun­try store that allowed locals to run up a tab, so we set­tled Grandma’s bill and left a lit­tle extra.

Then we drove to where the orig­i­nal stat­ue of Kame­hame­ha the Great stands. This stat­ue in Kapa’au is the orig­i­nal cre­at­ed by Thomas R. Gould, a Boston sculp­tor. The oft-pho­tographed stat­ue of Kame­hame­ha in Hon­olu­lu is a copy. Just like Grand­ma, the real deal was in Kapa’au.

Although he was dubbed a “King”, Kame­hame­ha was an ali’i nui, the high­est of high chiefs. Ancient chants say that he was born in the month of ‘Ikua on a storm-tossed night in North Koha­la when a bright star they called “Kokoi­ki” appeared in the skies, trail­ing a long tail behind it. His­to­ri­ans have found that in Novem­ber 1758, Halley’s Comet streaked across the Hawai­ian heav­ens and this has been con­sid­ered his year of birth in his­tor­i­cal accounts.

Because of the prophe­cy sur­round­ing his birth, the baby was believed to be in dan­ger if he was allowed to grow up and chal­lenge the polit­i­cal play­ers of the day. Ancient chants tell of how his moth­er Chiefess Keku’iapoiwa wrapped her infant son in soft kapa cloth and entrust­ed him to Nae’ole who ran with the baby through hid­den lava tubes into the val­ley called ‘Awi­ni north­west of Waipi’o Val­ley where he was raised in secre­cy until return­ing to Pololu Val­ley at the north­ern tip of the island to train for greatness.

We drove to the look­out at Pololu Val­ley and mar­veled at the panoram­ic ocean view and sheer iso­la­tion of the val­ley below. The north­ern­most tip of the Big Island is known as Upolu Point. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, the major island of the Samoan Islands is named Upolu. Could the Samoan canoes have been the first to land at this point cen­turies ago, and would they have named the place for their home­land across the sea?

The Funer­al and the Ride to Hilo

Neigh­bors and Grandma’s friends from church had been bring­ing us food for days. We nev­er had to cook. We spent the days rev­el­ing in the mem­o­ries of a life well lived.

The hearse arrived at the church and for the next two hours Grand­ma lay in the church hall sur­round­ed by those who loved her. She looked young and beau­ti­ful again. Chil­dren ran up and down the halls. Uncle Kindy Sproat, who was known for his beau­ti­ful falset­to voice, sat at the foot of Grandma’s cas­ket play­ing the ukulele and singing Hawai­ian songs for two hours straight. Peo­ple sang along; oth­ers would walk up to the cas­ket and bend down to kiss her or talk to her.

None of us real­ly want­ed to close the cas­ket because we knew that would be the last time we would see her on this earth. But the time had come.

I don’t remem­ber much of the funer­al ser­vice itself, but I do remem­ber that some­one read from Proverbs 31..”who can find a vir­tu­ous woman”? And it seemed to describe Grand­ma to a T.

After the funer­al, we pre­pared for the two hour ride to Hilo. Grand­ma was to be buried at Home­lani Ceme­tery over­look­ing Hilo Bay. The hearse would lead the way. We looped back around from the church to go past Grandma’s house one more time. The hearse stopped and my Dad got out to pick some flow­ers and put them in the back with Grand­ma. She loved her garden.

I will nev­er for­get the 90 mile ride from Kapa’au to Hilo. Every sin­gle car com­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion pulled over to the side of the road out of respect for the funer­al pro­ces­sion. No cars behind sped up to pass us. Every­one allowed us to dri­ve Grand­ma to her rest­ing place in dig­ni­ty. Just for a lit­tle while, the world slowed down.

Com­ing Home

For me, it was see­ing strangers pulling over to the side of the road to let a griev­ing fam­i­ly pass by. It was the coun­ty work crew remov­ing their hats as we went past. For my hus­band, it was the beau­ti­ful sight of Hilo Bay as we round­ed a bend on the Hamakua coast. Both of us knew instinc­tive­ly that the Big Island is where we want­ed to live.

With­in a year we had moved our kids and every­thing we owned to the Big Island.

It’s been over 20 years since Grand­ma died. I still think of her near­ly every­day. All of our kids are mar­ried with fam­i­lies of their own now. Some of my grand­chil­dren live in Hilo but most live on the main­land. I know how that feels now when I make my year­ly trip to see them.

Maha­lo, Grand­ma, for show­ing me the way home…

Pho­to cred­it: Stephanie Nama­hoe Launiu

2 thoughts on “Her Name was Violet, by Stephanie Namahoe Launiu”

  1. Thank you for shar­ing Ms. Lau­ni­u’s fam­i­ly sto­ry. I was moved to tears. Grand­moth­ers have a spe­cial place in our hearts.


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