Bittersweet: Contextualizing Sugar Plantations, and the Line Leading to Me

Gabriella Green
9 min readMay 18, 2021
My tutu, my dad, and me

When I was seventeen, my father took me to visit his mother, my tutu, in Hawaii. We spent every other summer with her there in Pahoa, a small town just outside of Hilo. A relatively rural area, the town was sleepy and sweet, like the bottles of POG I would drink in the morning with a bowl of longanisa and eggs on the lanai.

This trip, on our way to the airport home, my dad had us stop for malasadas, and the Hawaiian Plantation Museum in Papaikou. It was a dusty, one-room museum, full of black and white photos, old farm equipment, and stacks of papers and books in glass cases. The museum itself is in what used to be the Onomea Plantation Store, when the plantation was still open and running.

Whenever we would meet kanaka in the store or on the streets, there’s an inevitable game of Hawaiian geography to be played. What high schools your parents went to, who are your distant cousins, etc. My dad would always say, “My mother was a Papaikou girl.” I never really understood what that meant, what complexities that phrase held.

My grandmother was born on the Papaikou sugar plantation in 1939. Papaikou had been absorbed into the Onomea Sugar Company in 1888, but its residents held onto their Papaikou-centric identity, a sense of belonging. My tutu was born to Filipino parents who emigrated specifically for work on the plantation, also known as contract labor or indentured servitude.

My grandmother, a cousin, and a family friend on the Papaikou plantation.

(Apologies for the paragraphs of facts about dead white colonizers, but I think you kinda need the context to understand our story.)

Onomea was considered one of the most lush and beautiful plantations in Hawaii, and one of the most technologically advanced. Onomea, Paukaa, and Papaikou were consolidated in 1888, with Papaikou owned by Charles Whetmore and E.G. Hitchcock, Paukaa owned by Jonathan Austin, and Onomea by Judge S.L. Austin and E.H. Allen.

Papaikou was the site of the nine-roller mill for the plantation, the first of its kind on the island. Onomea was notable for its usage of flumes and water to efficiently transport the sugar products. By means of the 55 miles of flume systems, 1600 bags of sugar could be loaded in an hour.

And while these aquatic systems worked for a while, Onomea was slow to mechanize its systems, due to being located in Hilo, one of the rainiest parts of Hawaii. It was one of the last plantations to cut sugar by hand. The road building project of 1903 wasn’t finished until 1956. (When my grandmother was seventeen.) Onomea was also the first Hawaiian plantation to use commercial fertilizer, a necessary action because the heavy Hilo rains often washed away all the fertile topsoil. For a time, Onomea was the leading sugarcane producer of Hawaii.

(I have a hazy memory, the kind that I’m not even sure is true or invented; My tutu told me when she moved to California as a teenager was when she learned what sugar was. She knew the sugar in cane form, but had never seen the white, granulated product until she was on the mainland.)

By 1926, the plantation grew from 300 acres to 27,427 acres. Families came from China, Japan, Portugal, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and more to work the plantation and live in one of 450 company owned homes in one of the six villages on Onomea land. Countless came as indentured servants, with the company paying for their passage to Hawaii. The workers had free medical care, and labor unions helped to improve the conditions.

Placard denoting wage breakdowns for various ethnic groups. (Hawaii Plantation Museum, 2014)

In 1935 (four years before my grandmother was born), the Tydings-McDuffie law restricted Filipino immigrants (like my family) to 50 per year, but the Hawaiian sugar companies lobbied and were able to get an exemption to continue having a steady source of labor from the Philippines. By 1941, over three thousand people lived on the plantation, including my (then two year-old) grandmother.

My grandmother and other children at church, Papaikou plantation.

The families who lived on the plantations had active social and activist lives, and raised generations there. They had their own church ministries, sports leagues, and social organizations. Ron Takata, a volunteer at the museum, said in an interview, “You know, the workers, they didn’t make a lot of money, at least not until the strike, but they had everything they needed. They were from different places, spoke different languages, but they had a village. They had hospitals. They had gyms…They had a community.”

Pamphlet and register for the 1946 Sugar Plantation Strike (Hawaii Planation Museum, 2014)

The strike he’s referring to is the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Hawaiian sugar strike of 1946, where about 26,000 sugar workers and their families (76,000 people total) began a 79-day strike on September 1, 1946 that completely shut down 33 of the 34 sugar plantations in the islands. For the ILWU and the 1946 strikers, housing, medical care, pensions and wages were key issues for the workers and their families.

However, I guess activism in plantation life could be a divisive concept.

Second Annual Territorial Filipino Council Convention, featuring my great-grandfather Kenneth L. Alcosiba, a representative for the Onomea Sugar Company and appointed by the council directors to five years as publicity chairman. (November 22–24, 1945)

Curious about this photograph depicting my great-grandfather at the Second Annual Territorial Filipino Council Convention, I found this passage in my research,

“A number of Filipino organizations took the side of the [Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association], especially if their leaders happened to be working for the plantations. One such association was the Territorial Filipino Council of Hawaii which held its second annual convention in Volcano Camp on the Big Island on November 22–24. Those present at this event passed a resolution supporting the position of the sugar and pineapple industry and instructing ‘that all organizations opposing the proposed importation of Filipino laborers be urged to reconsider their position.’ A copy of the resolution and a cover letter from its secretary, Vicente F. Arkangel of Olaa, were forwarded to the ILWU’s Jack Kawano on December 15.” (Okamura pp.80)

Very likely, not even my own family initially sided with the 1946 sugar strike. It turns out, many Filipino families were reluctant, being consistently in the bottom wage tier and social caste in plantation life, and having organized numerous failed strikes among Filipino workers in the past.

(I never met my great-grandfather Kenneth. What I wouldn’t give to be able to ask him what he was thinking or how he felt about it all. I don’t know at all how he voted. Did he dissent? Or did he think maybe it’s better the devil you know?)

In terms of the 1946 strike, it was the first time workers of multiple ethnic backgrounds united as one cohesive group, and the strike succeeded in giving plantation workers a say in their working conditions and regulations. The plantation owners agreed to increase the wage by 19 cents per hour. The average hourly wage became 31.5 cents. Federal minimum wage in 1946 was 40 cents.

Table of when various ethnic groups started arriving as contract laborers. (Hawaii Planation Museum, 2014)

Prior to 1876, Hawaiians made up 80% of the sugar cane workforce, but when the native population became severely reduced by disease, plantation owners turned to contract labor. The contract workers were mostly single men or men who left their families behind. It wasn’t until the 1920s that women and children started coming over as well to live on the plantation. Various ethnic groups were kept in separate housing, mostly due to the language barrier, and multiple plantation newsletters existed in various languages.

Overall, the Hawaiian plantation system was indicative of larger settler colonial issues and systems that had been in place on the islands since the illegal annexation. Largely Asian and Latine populations were brought as contract laborers to support the business interests of American tycoons who had engineered the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. While disease became a weapon for the colonizers against the native Hawaiian population, contract laborers became another weaponized source. These racialized bodies were deemed less threatening and easier to control than the native populations, so they were allowed the illusion of success and upward mobility.

The lives of the families on the plantations were full of recreation and the accoutrements of a traditional American life, yet their existences were still controlled and monitored by the plantation owners. They lived on their land, in their houses, and spent their wages at the company stores. It introduced an interesting paradox, where these Asian contract laborers were subjugated by their white plantation owners, but also aided in the oppression and annihilation of the native Hawaiian population. Where does that put us?

Pages from a program from the 1993 reunion of Papaikou families, chaired and organized by members of my family.

That day, I wandered the Hawaii Plantation Museum for about an hour. I flipped through binders with faded yellow letters and looked through tin boxes of old paperwork, until I stumbled across a program from the thirty year reunion of the Onomea sugar plantation families. The organizers of the reunion? My great-uncle, my tutu, and my dad. I looked around at all of the history that somehow led directly to me. I couldn’t stop thinking how it was the first time something I saw in a museum, in a history book, that related directly to my existence.

You’re probably asking yourself: why have I written this strange essay that is a mixture of an Asian-American studies final paper and family heirloom photos? I wanted to show this interesting, not so black-and-white perspective on what it meant for my Filipino family to emigrate to Hawaii, and eventually to the U.S. The importance of contextualizing personal history in larger societal contexts cannot be understated. When life can be directly traced to history, it not only creates a sense of being seen in the historical narrative, but it provides the chance to think critically about the biases and notions we’ve been raised with as truth.

Me, with a mural featuring scenes of planation life by Hilo-area artist Kathleen Kam. (Hawaii Plantation Museu, 2014)

Speaking the truth, however complicated it might be, is the only way I know how to honor the ancestors who could hardly dare to dream I’d be where I am today, with the education and privilege and life I have.

I’m resisting the urge to tie it up with bow, and instead choosing to recognize each grain of the story: the delicacy, and the beauty in the bittersweetness.

References

“1946: The Great Hawai‘i Sugar Strike.” Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawai‘i — West O‘Ahu, www.hawaii.edu/uhwo/clear/home/1946.html.

Aquino, Belinda A. The Filipino Century in Hawaii: Out of the Crucible. University of Hawaii at Manoa Center for Philippine Studies, www.core.ac.uk/download/pdf/5103850.pdf.

Beechert, Edward D. “Creating a Permanent Labor Movement.” Working in Hawaii: a Labor History, University of Hawaii Press, 1985, pp. 296–322.

Bender, Thomas. “Commentary: Widening the Lens and Rethinking Asian American History.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 76, no. 4, 2007, pp. 605–610. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/phr.2007.76.4.605.

“Culture and Lifestyle in Hilo.” History and Culture of Hilo, www.hiloliving.com/Hilo_Culture.html.

Fuchs, Eckhardt. “Introduction: Contextualizing School Textbook Revision.” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society, vol. 2, no. 2, 2010, pp. 1–12. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43049348.

Halagao, Patricia. “Teaching Filipino American Students.” (2004). Multicultural Review. Spring. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312985679_Teaching_Filipino_American_Students.

“Hawaii Plantation Museum.” History | Hawaiian Airlines, www.hawaiianairlines.com/island-guide/hawaii-island/places/arts/hawaii-plantation-museum.

“Hawaiians Strike against the Sugar Industry in Hawai’i’ (Hawaii), 1946.” Global Nonviolent Action Database, Swarthmore College, Peace and Conflict Studies, the Peace Collection, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, www.nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/hawaiians-strike-against-sugar-industry-hawaii-hawaii-1946.

Okamura, J. (Ed.). (1996). Filipino American history, identity & community in Hawaii. (Social process in Hawaii, Vol. 37). Honolulu: Department of Sociology, Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa.

“Register of the MAUNA KEA SUGAR COMPANY (ONOMEA SUGAR COMPANY).” Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association Plantation Archives, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library — Hawaiian Collection, www2.hawaii.edu/~speccoll/p_maunakea.html.

Stewart, Colin M. “Sugar Plantations Take Center Stage at Museum in Papaikou.” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, 31 Mar. 2013, www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/2013/03/31/hawaii-news/sugar-plantations-take-center-stage-at museum-in-papaikou/.

Tarleton, Catherine. “A Depository of Stories: Hawai’i Plantation Museum.” Ke Ola Magazine, 1 July 2017, www.keolamagazine.com/culture/depository-of-stories/.

Tsutsumi, Cheryl Chee. “Cane Haul: Hawaii Plantation Museum a Treasure Trove of Sugar-Era Artifacts.” Hawaii Magazine, 21 Nov. 2014. www.hawaiimagazine.com/blogs/hawaii_today/2014/10/16/Cane_Haul_Hawaii_Plantation_Muse um_Sugar_Hilo.

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