Tuesday | April 28, 2015
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Treasured traditions

An explosive celebration of color and noise occurred Sunday outside of the Tong Wo Society building in Halawa, North Kohala.

There, sequined lions danced, drums banged, firecrackers popped, incense burned and prayers were offered. The festivities, part of the 15-day Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, are meant to bolster the yang, energize everyone, add jubilation, share blessings and appreciate history.

The Chinese Lunar New Year is known as a time of spiritual renewal, fresh starts, reverence to one’s ancestors and goodwill to others, said Douglas Chong, Hawaii Chinese History Center president and a cultural historian for the local Chinese community.

2013 is the year of the Black Water Snake. While the water snake is usually associated with being a good year, particularly one lucky with money, the color black is taken as a warning to plan ahead, venture carefully and proceed with a level of caution, he added.

Throughout the free event, Chong shared the history of the Chinese in Hawaii, particularly those that lived in North Kohala, where his wife, Valerie, is from. He revealed the purpose of the Tong Wo Society building, which was one of the early formal meeting places for the Chinese immigrant workers, a social center, as well as a place for the secret White Lotus Society that pushed for and funded the overthrow of the Manchu government in China.

Built in 1886, it is the oldest standing Chinese building in the state. The patron saint in the main room upstairs is Kuan Kung, the god of war. There are two shrines located in the side rooms, dedicated to the ancestors, or Brothers of Shaolin, on the right and Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, on the left, Chong said.

The Tong Wo Society building is only open to the public once a year during the Chinese Lunar New Year. Though the society is a nonprofit organization, it does not receive funds from foundations and relies solely on the public’s generosity. Donations were sought throughout the event Sunday. The funds will be used for maintenance and restoration work done by society members Clyde Wong and Gordon Oshiro, both of Hilo, as well as volunteers and friends in the community.

The Tong Wo Society is still trying to raise approximately $30,000 to purchase and install a new 50-year light weight shingle roof for the building, Wong said.

This year’s celebration was particularly special for Waimea resident Betty Lau, whose grandfather was from China. She had seven grandchildren performing the lion dance, and the youngest, 2-year-old Hulali Wong, became brave enough to wear the mask earlier this week. Sunday was Wong’s big debut and Lau was beaming with pride for all her family members participating. She spoke about the importance of nurturing time-honored rituals, as well as teaching the next generation about their culture and history.

This was the third Chinese Lunar New Year celebration Becky Tyson of Elkhart, Ind., had attended at the Tong Wo Society building. Her favorite components of the event are the firecrackers, lion dancing and community togetherness. Tyson attended Sunday’s festivities because she enjoys learning more about other cultures and traditions. By keeping those traditions alive and sharing them, there’s an opportunity to not just respect each other, but also celebrate and value diversity, she said.