If you find yourself in Wai‘ōhinu or Nā‘ālehu on the south end of Hawai‘i Island and you need a snack or a staple food item, or let’s say a six pack, don’t even think of finding a supermarket. Going west, the nearest one is 15 miles away.
Going east, you’ll drive 50 to 60 miles! What you do is imagine yourself in grandma’s day and walk into a mom-and-pop store like Will and Grace’s in Nā‘ālehu or the Wong Yuen store in Wai‘ōhinu. No crowds, no big parking lot, you can talk story with the owner at the cash register. If they don’t have what
you need, they may order it and it will take several weeks or months. Or you adjust your needs just a bit and buy what they have. Their inventory is determined by local market needs and not a central, mainland purchasing department. That’s local-style market research. Consider the four-tier shelving
rack of rubber slippahs among the canned goods at the Wong Yuen store, a few beach toys and popular Japanese candies like crack seed. There’s a substantial beer inventory and an ice cream freezer.
Lately, business is booming there. “Our biggest boost in business was when the Island Market [in Nā‘ālehu] closed,” says store owner Roy Kamitaki. “When the big dog is gone, the chihuahuas try to keep up,” he says in his typically laconic style. Roy hardly ever smiles, but he has a twinkle in his eye that challenges you to get his joke.
If Roy is not minding the cash register, he is pumping gas at the adjacent gas station. Yes, really, they still pump it for you— from the three gas pumps or one diesel!
Unlike the mainland, Hawai‘i is full of small, family-owned general stores. They dot the landscape on every island and are usually in the third or fourth generation of ownership. A story in Honolulu Magazine called them “humble to the point of ramshackle,” and that’s an apt description, for sure. The buildings are propped up with a few extra beams and braces, while the floors sometimes sag in the well-trod places. Cash registers are old-fashioned and the shelves are handmade. Roy says his closing time is whenever he feels like going home.
In Wai‘ōhinu, the Wong Yuen store is a recognized landmark. A colorful mural by artist Pearl Maxner spans its well-worn, east-facing exterior wall, depicting life in the town in the late 1800s. It shows Hawaiian families, missionaries, sugar-cane workers, Mark Twain during his famous visit here, and the historic Kauaha‘ao Church that, until recently, stood at the intersection of Hwy. 11 and Kama‘oa Road.
Wai‘ōhinu was once the recognized capital of the district of Ka‘ū during Territorial times, with a courthouse and jail building on the site of today’s county base yard. One source says the building housing the Wong Yuen store was also a post office. The town also had a larger population before people moved to the plantation towns of Nā‘ālehu and Pāhala.
The Wong Yuen store is a landmark, too, as a main stop on the Hele-On Hawai‘i County bus line. Bus passengers wait on the front porch or across the street in the morning for the bus to Hilo or to Kona.
Lifelong area resident Walter Wong Yuen’s grandfather named the Wong Yuen store, although he says the name might be backward. He sits with me on the rustic front-porch bench at the Wong Yuen store and tells the story.
“Grandpa died before I was born. We can’t figure out why he named the store Wong Yuen. It’s about understanding the Chinese,” says Walter. “They say the last name first; it tells what bloodline and where they’re from. His last name was
Wong; first name Yuen. He did business here the way they did it there. His birth certificate in Hawai‘i? Yuen Wong. I’m one of those few that when my parents answered the question about the name for the birth certificate they said Wong Yuen. Everybody knows my relatives around here as those Wong Yuen kids, because of the business. There’s the Wongs across the street, and others are Yuen, then us oddballs named Wong Yuen,” he laughs, “but we’re all related. That’s why, when we compete at cards, we always say the Wongs vs the Wong
Mr. Yuen Wong, Walter’s grandfather, was born in 1880 in the territory of Hawai‘i, in Honolulu. His parents came over as merchants, importing goods from China to sell, especially to the sugar plantations.
“My grandfather was something else,” Walter said. “He was well educated at all the best schools on O‘ahu. After traveling around and graduating from a tailoring school in New York, he came to the Big Island first as a Chinese-English translator for the Chong store in Pāhala in 1913. Four years after that, he wanted to work for himself and opened a dinky little tailor shop in Nā‘ālehu. There’s a lot of Chinese in Nā‘ālehu. After his first wife from China died, he married a Hawaiian, my grandmother Julia. So I am Chinese Hawaiian.”
Tailoring wasn’t enough to support his family, so Mr. Yuen Wong added merchant goods and later expanded. “He bought another shop from another Chinese guy. Chinese families always take care of their own, family to family. When he was there, he got wind of this building [in Wai‘ōhinu]. Other Chinese people owned it. ‘I’ll help you out if you want to do something,’ the owner told him. It was 1935 and the store was still in good shape, though the house in back was deteriorating. Grandpa still had the business in Nā‘ālehu while getting this store going and rebuilding the house to live in.”
The buildings are pretty much the same as they were then. You can even recognize the store in a 1945 photo with an old truck in front. “In the back of the gas station was a warehouse, where they kept all the goods,” says Walter. “Cases and cases of canned goods and chicken feed. One day a week the supplies came in. Everybody in town had animals in their yard—chickens, goats, pigs. Feed was a big seller, and another big seller was kerosene for stoves and water heaters. There was no [propane] gas.”
There were a lot of cousins and Walter says, “It was part of our requirement as family—you had to help in the store. It could be unloading goods, and at Christmas we always had to come in at night and do inventory just before the end of the year. ‘Every kid get a piece of paper and count the cans’. At that time it was totally different goods. A lot of people used canned goods. Everything fresh came from the backyard. People baked, but it wasn’t a big thing like now, because they had to use kerosene in the stove. Pastries came from Hilo bakeries
like Love’s. The store sold candies, Coke and Pepsi and all your fruit flavored sodas like orange, root beer and grape, some of them made in Hilo. Ice cream was a big seller with kids and old folks.”
When his grandfather died in 1945, Walter says, the business was divided among the siblings, most of whom didn’t have any interest in running the store. Pointing to a photo from the 40s, he says, “This is Jack. He didn’t want to run the business, but he got stuck with it.
My grandmother was the administrator. She divided the land and gave the gas station portion to one of my uncles and the store to the Wong Yuen estate. Everybody had shares. My uncle inherited the other portion but never did anything. It’s all run together.”
Trained by his father since he was a kid, “Jack did everything,” Walter said. “It was all he did until he died. The biggest problem he had—and took a loss—was when people used to charge and say, ‘I’ll pay you later.’ Write it down, and at the end of the month they’d come in with their paycheck, cash it and pay the bill. People always charged everything.” The store served as a bank, too.
The Kamitakis Take Over
In 1998, Jack heard of plans to put in a new gas station in Nā‘ālehu and one down the street by the Shirakawa Motel. Roy Kamitaki’s family owned land in Nā‘ālehu where the Ace Hardware is today, and he was thinking about putting in a gas station. Jack Wong Yuen came to visit. “’I heard you’re going to put one gas station here,’ Jack said. ’Do you want to buy mine?’” Roy relates. “So I was doing estimates and had to do a lot of changes for placement of a gas station in Nā‘ālehu. Of course Jack comes in with old stuff and the building in back needed repair.” Even so, they made the deal.
“I walked in with an apprenticeship and this simple 20-year lease document.” Roy had substantial retail experience in his family, too. His grandparents came from Japan as Maui plantation workers. Roy was born in Kahului, Maui. “Dad had
seven stores, two on O‘ahu, two or three here. Both my grandmothers in Maui had small stores just like this.”
He met his wife, Theresa Lyon, also from Hawai‘i, at Pomona College in California. “She’s the brains; she does payroll and bookkeeping.” The store has four part-time employees. After moving to Hawai‘i Island, the Kamitakis lived in Hilo, had two daughters, and settled in Nā‘ālehu when the girls were in kindergarten.
“This project was to raise the children,” Roy says, referring to the Wong Yuen store. He proudly says that both have graduated college. Living in Arizona, one is working, and one in grad school. They don’t plan to work in the store, but the store has worked for them.
“To pay for an expensive, top brand school is a lot,” Roy says. “It’s done. I plan to retire at the end of the lease in 2018.” The future of the Wong Yuen store after that is unknown.
Contact Wong Yuen store: 808.929.7223
Contact writer Karen Valentine: firstname.lastname@example.org