Immigrant Organizing for Care in the Territory of Hawai’i: The Chinese Old Men’s Home

Julia Katz // How do non-citizens lobby the states and societies that exclude them for greater investment in the welfare of their communities?  The case of the Chinese in post-annexation Hawai‘i reveals a unique moment in the midst of global Progressive reform when racialized migrants ineligible for citizenship mobilized claims of economic exceptionalism and autonomous care to lobby the state for greater investment.  While a seemingly triumphant story of migrant perseverance, their demands ultimately relied on the colonialist property relations that had stripped Native Hawaiians of their lands, and mobilized a troubling precursor of neoliberal logic that tied state investment in the wellbeing of communities to their economic output.[1]

The story began with the problem of bachelors: retired fieldhands who had outstayed their welcome in the islands.  A metonymic symbol for the Chinese community as a whole in the wake of American takeover, these elderly, indigent, former contract workers had refused to repatriate following the completion of their service to the plantations that had remade Hawai‘i into a hub of American financial investment.  Community efforts to care for indigent Chinese predated annexation, and had been a central function of huiguan, immigrant mutual aid societies, since their establishment.[2]  But in the decades after territorial incorporation, the era of American moral order and Progressive sanitary reform, Chinese community advocates looked to new models of care.  As military police cleaned the notorious streets that bridged bases and plantation encampments, respectable Chinese activists sought to organize a sustainable system of care for marginalized subjects struggling without access to social services.

Before annexation, and the consequent extension of Chinese Exclusion Laws to the islands, which transformed a multi-generational diasporic outpost into a colony of undesirable aliens, Chinese community advocates had emphasized their alterity and autonomy to gain exceptions from local laws.  Chinese migrants had secured the unique right to consume opium in a kingdom that forbade it, and had established their own hospital under the republic exempt from mainstream public health policies.[3]  But such organizing strategies of diasporic citizenship designed to preserve the flexibility and prerogative of a highly mobile community had failed to protect their fundamental rights during the fraught process of American takeover.  A new politics emerged post-annexation: a program of settler entrenchment that emphasized the rootedness of Chinese in Hawai‘i at the very moment it had become most precarious.

This shift in strategy reflected a gradual process of accommodation and assimilation to the norms of American territorial order, and was most evident in the campaign to convert the defunct Wai Wah Chinese Hospital to a care home for elderly Chinese bachelors.  For decades, immigrant advocacy organs had enabled states to outsource the governance of pluralized communities to their elite leaders; now these organizations demanded state investment in communities that were not satellite outposts, but settlements.  Ironically, it was the rigid restrictions of the new immigration regime that had influenced this trend toward stasis and settlement over customary patterns of mobility and circulation.

The politics of care and belonging mobilized by Chinese community leaders relied on an economic narrative of model non-citizenship.  Even those subjects who had ultimately failed to perform were rendered deserving of care based on their past productive output for the plantation economy.  This strategy of entitlement had supplied the rationale behind the original petition submitted by the United Chinese Society, the central advocacy organ of Chinese in Hawai‘i, in 1896, requesting a government land grant on which to build the first Chinese hospital.[4]  Addressed to President Dole by the Chinese “residents and taxpayers” of the Republic of Hawai‘i, the authors framed their request as an appropriation for a deserving community.  “The Chinese are an industrious law abiding and hard working people and form a desirable and profitable portion of the population of this Republic,” the authors contended.  Even as the petition posited the legitimate needs of “sick,” “aged infirm and helpless Chinese” who would be served by the intended hospital, the overarching argument of entitlement based on economic output spoke to the insecurity of Chinese belonging in Hawai‘i.[5]

Production had been the very pretext for Chinese migrants’ collective presence in the islands.  While exclusionary policies sought to suppress their political agency, migrants found means of calling on the state to recognize their modicum of rights by leveraging their past, present, and potential economic value.  This translation of entitled subjecthood into economic logic was necessary in the context of a plantation colony that had deliberately disenfranchised racialized migrants as aliens ineligible for citizenship.  Nevertheless, the strategy of bargaining with the state to substantiate rights based on performance and production reinscribed the contingent terms on which Chinese subjects claimed belonging in Hawai‘i.  That contingency reasserted itself over a decade later when the territorial government moved to revoke the land grant made to the United Chinese Society under the republic.

The creation of the Chinese Old Men’s Home entailed a protracted legal battle with the governor of the Territory of Hawai‘i over the grounds of the former Chinese Hospital.  Opened in 1897 and funded almost entirely by the United Chinese Society, the Wai Wah Chinese Hospital operated according to its own codes of traditional care, beyond the bounds of local public health policy.  After ten years the hospital lost its license and became defunct.  The state under Governor Pinkham and the Territorial Land Commission sued to reclaim the lands.  Aware of the growing problem of impoverished former plantation workers, the renowned entrepreneur and advocate Chung Kun Ai, who served as president of the United Chinese Society from 1901 to 1905, proposed to repurpose the facility as a charitable care home, and fought to recoup the Society’s considerable investment in constructing the hospital.[6]

The government lands originally appropriated by the republic for the welfare of the Chinese community were an amalgamation of public and crown lands seized from the Hawaiian monarchy during the overthrow of 1898, and recodified into a public trust that dissolved the unique claims of Native Hawaiians to determine their disposal. [7][8]  Thus the literal terrain over which the United Chinese Society and the territorial government scrabbled was itself overlain with the sovereign claims of Native Hawaiians.  In calling for the land and fighting to maintain it, the civic leaders of the Chinese community enacted a politics of settler entitlement, demanding a share of “public” resources that were in fact the product of colonial expropriation. The legal fight over the land grant was not merely symbolic of the settler premises and projections of the Chinese struggle for inclusion in an annexed Hawai‘i, but a material investment in the colonial process of claiming indigenous lands.

The Society’s leaders argued that, despite the hospital’s closure, their substantial investment in the land justified their retention of the grant.  In one particularly pointed letter, Ai challenged Governor Pinkham to count “the number of dead Chinese that the hospital had buried” on the lot.  He pressed his point even further, demanding the territorial government reimburse the United Chinese Society $90,000: “By burying our own dead, we had saved the Territory that cost.”[9]  With these figures, Ai brazenly appraised the indebtedness of the state, which had benefited from the necessary self-sufficiency of a marginalized community that had cared for its own sick and buried its own dead.  While Chinese migrants contributed enormously to the wealth of the territory, they remained excluded from the social contract of citizenship and care.  Ultimately, the territorial senate settled the dispute by ordering the land returned to the government, and compensated the United Chinese Society $5,000 for the building they had constructed.

The Society was effectively evicted from the house they had built.  These were the unstable terms of contested belonging.  But despite losing the land grant, Ai and the rest of the Society leadership remained determined to provide for the welfare of their infirm and indigent constituents.  In 1917, using the $5,000 settlement payment and raising an additional $2,000 through charitable donations, the United Chinese Society purchased land and buildings in Pālolo Valley.  Three years later, they opened the Chinese Old Men’s Home.  With the Social Service Bureau acting as trustee, the home secured the public support and legitimacy that the former Chinese hospital had critically lacked.[10]

By 1917, with a generation of Chinese contract laborers retiring without a safety net beyond the provisions of benevolent societies, the United Chinese Society recognized the urgent necessity of delivering sustainable social services.[11]  While municipal clean-up campaigns attempted to reorder public space along the lines of American hygienic and moral norms, steerage companies began offering to repatriate elderly Chinese men for two-thirds the normal rate.  Ai recalled the “shameful sight” of Chinese beggars who hustled alms and lodgings from their compatriots in downtown Honolulu.[12]  These were the targets of the Old Men’s Home, whose case files revealed that the majority of indigent elderly Chinese residents had been plantation workers whose productive capacity was compromised by illness and injury sustained without compensation.[13]

There was no formal system of social security to relieve them from their poverty, beyond the intermittent care of huiguan that occasionally fed and housed them, sending their bones home to China if funds permitted.[14]  The home actually institutionalized a limited system of insurance by securing charitable donations from major plantations at a rate of five cents for every ton of sugar produced.[15]  In the absence of a state mandate to provide social security for retired contract workers, the home organized payments from former employers within the framework of charity, substantiating a pecuniary ethics that justified care through the concept of indebtedness–without enshrining it as a legal right.

The Chinese Old Men’s Home cared specifically for those migrants whose disposal was encouraged, whose settlement was undesired, and whose public presence indexed the intractable racial realities of a plantation colony.  Their removal from public space reflected a rare confluence of ambitions between Chinese leaders, social reformers, and territorial authorities.  While the home operated on a small scale, unable to lure the most subaltern targets, who balked at the facility’s admissions criteria of sobriety and zero-tolerance drug policy, it managed to successfully sustain its operations through a modernized model of community and public support.[16]  Operated by the Social Service Bureau, an umbrella organization that coordinated benevolent work across Hawai‘i, the home attested to the salience of elderly Chinese indigence as a social problem with diverse stakeholders.[17]

But the conditions of possibility for the creation of a facility designed to care for elderly Chinese, an institution conceived as permanently entrenched in Hawai‘i with an ongoing mandate to deliver care into the future, were problematic logics reliant on the racialized claim of productive residence and model economic behavior.  Care was not a right of all human subjects harbored by the islands, but a benefit bargained and earned from a colonialist state based on decades of extractive capitalist output.



[1]  This essay is based on research conducted for the author’s doctoral dissertation.  See Julia Katz.  (2018).  From Coolies to Colonials: Chinese Migrants in Hawai‘i (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).  Rutgers University.

[2]  Yucheng Qin discusses the primary function of huiguan as benevolent societies in The Diplomacy of Nationalism: The Six Companies and China’s Policy toward Exclusion (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 2009) 122, 44-45.

[3]  For a thorough comparison of laws regulating opium use in Hawai‘i under the monarchical, republican, and territorial periods, and discussions of specific exemptions for Chinese subjects, see Lily Lim-Chong and Harry V. Ball, “Opium and the Law: Hawai‘i, 1856–1900,” Chinese America: History & Perspectives – The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America, San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America with UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2010 and Julia Katz, “The Politics of the Pipe: Opium Regulation and Protocolonial Governance in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i,” in Imagining Asia in the Americas, eds. Zelideth María Rivas and Debbie Lee-DiStefano (New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 2016).

Exemptions from public health policies included permitting Chinese physicians to operate within the hospital without Hawaiian medical licenses.  “Chinese Hospital Sends in Petition,” Pacific Commercial Advertiser, August 27, 1897.

[4]  Document 101: File 9: Box 1: Series 401.  Numbered Documents, Foreign Office and Executive, Hawai‘i State Archives.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Ai recounts the establishment of the Chinese Old Men’s Home, including the legal battle with the governor over the grounds of the former Chinese Hospital, in his memoir, My Seventy-Nine Years in Hawai‘i (Hong Kong: Cosmorama Pictorial Publisher, 1960), 307-311.

[7]  Ibid., 307.

[8]  For a thorough history of the creation and seizure of the crown lands, see J. M. Van Dyke, Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawai‘i? (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 2008).

[9]  Ai, 310.

[10]  Xin Liu offers a concise history of the Chinese Old Men’s Home, with brief reference to the Wai Wah Chinese Hospital, as part of a case study of immigrant assimilation in Hawai‘i.  See Liu, Xin. (1990).  Palolo Chinese Home (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).  University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, 34-35.

[11]  Xin, 15-16.

[12]  Ai, 311.

[13]  Xin, 11.

[14]  Ibid., 23-26.

[15]  Ibid., 52-53.

[16]  Ibid., 37-38; Ai, 311.

[17]  Xin, 33.



Ai, Chung Kun.  My Seventy-Nine Years in Hawai‘i.  Hong Kong: Cosmorama Pictorial Publisher, 1960.

Katz, Julia.  (2018).  From Coolies to Colonials: Chinese Migrants in Hawai‘i (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).  Rutgers University.

—.  “The Politics of the Pipe: Opium Regulation and Protocolonial Governance in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i,” Imagining Asia in the Americas, edited by Zelideth María Rivas and Debbie Lee-DiStefano.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 2016.

Lim-Chong, Lily and Harry V. Ball, “Opium and the Law: Hawai‘i, 1856–1900,” Chinese America: History & Perspectives – The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America, San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America with UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2010.

Liu, Xin. (1990).  Palolo Chinese Home (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).  University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa.

Qin, Yucheng.  The Diplomacy of Nationalism: The Six Companies and China’s Policy toward Exclusion.  Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 2009.

Van Dyke, J. M.  Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawai‘i?  Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 2008.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s