I Guess You Never Heard: Filipinos in Hawaii

by: Michelle Mendoza

The Philippines, an island only slightly bigger than Arizona, is located in Southeastern Asia between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea (www.cia.gov). This small island has seen its fair share of struggles throughout the past few centuries. Originally a Spanish colony, the Philippines was conquered by the United States in 1899 during the Filipino-American War (Takaki, 132). Being an American colony had its advantages, but it definitely opened the doors for many hardships as well. Hawaii, an island in the Central Pacific Ocean, was also colonized by the United States. This island saw a flood of new races in the early 20th century including a high concentration of Asian Americans. One of the Asian American groups introduced to Hawaii were Filipinos. Most of the history books do not cover the colonization of Hawaii, especially the minorities that provided the labor on the islands. However, from the sugar plantations to the labor organizations, the presence of the Filipino community is very much a part of Hawaiian history.

The island of Hawaii was turned into a commodity, using its sugar plantations as a business. The United States quickly brought Asian American and Portuguese laborers into the island of Hawaii. The Japanese population began very high in the plantations. The unity among the Japanese population was something the plantations owners were not able to anticipate. Many “blood unions”, labor unions based on ethnicity, began to arise. The Japanese union was one blood union that arose and started the Japanese strike of 1909. The pay rate between all of the different ethnicities working in the plantations was unequal. In response to this, the Japanese strike protested “against the differential-wage system based on ethnicity, the strikers demanded higher wages and equal pay for equal work,” (Takaki, 150). In order to break the strike, the plantation owners hired a new wave of Asian Americans including “Koreans, Hawaiians, Chinese and Portuguese” (Takaki, 151). Additionally, they imported “massive numbers of Filipinos to counterbalance the Japanese laborers” (Takaki, 151). As the years progressed, the plantations saw an increase in Filipinos.

The living and working conditions in the plantations were not ideal for any of the laborers but they were forced to live through it in order to earn a better life. The plantation housing patterns were depicted to resemble a pyramid. This pyramid system was illustrated as, “At the top of the hill was the big house, the luxurious home of the manager; below were the nice-looking homes of the Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese lunas; then the identical wooden-frame houses of Japanese Camp; and finally the more run-down Filipino Camp. Moreover, the organization of the housing hierarchy was planned and built around its sewage system. The concrete ditches that serviced the toilets and outhouses ran from the manager‘s house on the highest slope down to the Filipino Camp on the lowest perimeter of the plantation, (Takaki, 155-156)”

Despite the growing number of Filipinos working in the plantations, they still were not near the top of the food chain. The labor camps were ordered in a way that put the Filipino workers at the very bottom, housing them in run down camps closest to the sewage ditches. And the conditions inside the Filipino camps were even worse.

It is not uncommon to see four or five college students sharing a two bedroom apartment in order to afford rent. As uncomfortable as it might seem to share a bedroom with one or two other people, this would have been a luxury to the Filipino laborers in Hawaii. Plantation workers in general lived in crowded camps and an investigator for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters‘ Association revealed the conditions in which Filipino laborers had to live, “Filipinos on one plantation were housed in congested camps. In many instances, six men occupied a small eight-by-twelve foot room and two families had to share a single room,” (Takaki, 158). An eight-by-twelve foot room is just slightly smaller than my room which I have to myself. I could not imagine having to share a smaller room with five other people, much less crowding two families into one room. These conditions seem hardly livable and to think that these workers had to endure this lifestyle just to make a living is a sad reality. Considering these living conditions, it seems fitting that these laborers had to find some way to unwind and distract themselves.

The American pastime is arguably said to be baseball. On the plantations, Filipino laborers not only had baseball and other sports to distract them, but also gambling, taxi-dance halls and food. Filipino laborers enjoyed gambling but one type of gambling was most popular amongst them- cockfight gambling. One laborer said, “On Sundays I just sat around playing Sakura [a Japanese card game] and talking stories… But mostly, I watched the cockfights,” (Takaki, 161). This was not only a form of entertainment; it was also a way to make their hopes come true. Similar to playing the lottery nowadays, Filipino laborers spent on gambling hoping to win as much money as they could to take home to their families. But like millions who play the lottery, the laborers lost more money than they gained.

Another popular pastime amongst Filipinos was taxi-dance halls. At the halls, “Filipino men crowded the taxi-dance halls, craving the company of women… Filipino string bands, traveling from plantation to plantation, played music at dances… Filipino men eagerly purchased tickets that offered them momentary joy, three minutes to hold, touch, and dance with a woman,” (Takaki, 161). The sad reality of their lives is that they did not have their wives, girlfriends or even sufficient women to spend time with. Filipino women were so rare on the islands that men were willing to pay up to $50 for three minutes with a woman (161). Sadly, men in cities as big as San Francisco think there are not enough women to choose from; if only they had lived the lives of the Filipino laborers.

Reminiscent of the other immigrant laborers, Filipinos brought a huge part of their culture with them- food. Food was another thing that kept Filipinos entertained, nourished and closer to home. Filipinos cooked their traditional adobo, which is stewed garlic pork and chicken as well as boggoong, salted fish, with rice (Takaki, 166). These types of foods can still be found in Hawaii. Food might seem like a small thing but it is actually a huge part of culture and identity. The laborers in the plantations left behind their families, their homes and even part of their identities when they arrived in Hawaii but their culture remained in their hearts. Food is comforting and can take one back to home and family. When I am away from my family, I can easily cure my homesickness by eating a Salvadorian tamale. Something as small as a tamale is a simple way to remind me of my family and of my culture. Adobo and boggoong were some of the foods that kept Filipino laborers in touch with their culture and with their families.

I cannot explain how this began but there is a stereotype about Asian Americans and their supposed tendency to be passive. It is said that Asian Americans remain on the sidelines and take the heat from anyone who has more power. I do not know where this came from but I know I have personally seen the complete opposite. I have seen many strong, independent and outspoken Asian Americans like the Filipino and Japanese laborers who stood up to the plantation owners in 1920. In December 1919, the Japanese Federation of Labor (JFL) and the Filipino Federation of Labor (FFL) tired of the injustices they felt in the plantations (Takaki, 152). Both groups rose up, separately, and submitted demands to the Hawaiian Sugar Planters‘ Association in which they asked for higher wages, eight hour days, insurance for old retired employees and paid maternity leaves (Takaki, 152). These demands were soon rejected by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters‘ Association (Takaki, 152). However, the JFL did not take “no” for an answer. Instead they agreed to strike if their peaceful requests failed (Takaki, 152). The JFL decided it would be best to join forces with the Filipinos and to plan for a ―long strike‖ and a “successful strategy” together (Takaki, 152). Yet the FFL wanted immediate action.

On January 1920, head of the FFL Pablo Manlapit called for a strike. This strike was powerful, with “3,000 Filipino workers on the plantations of Oahu” on strike (Takaki, 152). Manlapit requested for the Japanese to join, calling for “interethnic working-class solidarity” between all ethnicities but mainly calling for the union between the Filipinos and the Japanese (Takaki, 152). However, the Japanese workers hesitated and were then criticized by Japanese and Hawaiian newspapers (Takaki, 152-153). This critique probably embarrassed the JFL and their response came later on in January. The JFL ordered a February 1st strike; a Japanese and Filipino united front (Takaki, 153). On February 1st, 1920, 8,300 Filipino and Japanese laborers united in Oahu stopping all plantation work (Takaki, 153). These groups made sure that their voices were heard; they were definitely not passive. This Filipino up rise is not in the history books but it is an important part of Hawaiian history nonetheless.

Everyone‘s history is equally important but Filipino history is important for me. I am half Filipino but unfortunately, I was never taught the history of Filipino Americans. I was not raised with the Filipino side of my family and none of the textbooks throughout all of my years in school have covered Filipino American history. If it was not for this class, I still would not know anything about my ancestors‘ history. It is important to realize that the colonization of Hawaii, like many other countries, was not achieved by just one race. Of course, the United States colonized Hawaii, but they could not do it alone. “Conquering” a country is only the first step, the next is maintaining the land and “Americans” did not do this alone. Through the labor of many races, including Filipinos, the United States was able to reap the benefits of the Hawaiian island. Even though it is not talked about, Filipinos are an important part of Hawaiian history and this should not be ignored.
Works Cited
“CIA – The World Factbook.” Welcome to the CIA Web Site — Central Intelligence Agency. Ed. The World Factbook 2009. Central Intelligence Agency, 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2010.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers From a Different Shore. Boston : Little, Brown, c1998.


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Filed under 2010-2011, Research

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