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Lahaina community helps celebrate Carolyn Kam’s 80th birthday

By BY LOUISE ROCKETT - | Dec 11, 2020

From left, Alton, Laurie Lei and Whitney DeGama, and Carolyn Kam, greet drive-by guests on Carolyn’s birthday.

LAHAINA — At this time in the world, when COVID-19 weighs heavy over us all daily, who doesn’t need a warm fuzzy?

This story guarantees a quiet smile, a recall of memories of Lahaina in the day it was a sleepy plantation town by the seaside. Specifically, it is about Hop Wo Store, since 1917, at 728 Front St. — one of the last mom and pops — and Carolyn Kam.

Last week, Carolyn turned 80, and there was a lively drive-by celebration in her honor in front of her home in south Lahaina with plenty of horn honking, balloons, confetti, bouquets, orchids and an overflow of love, laughter and friendship.

Following the parade, I sat down with Carolyn, and she told the Lahaina News what it was like growing up in a family with 13 siblings in the back of the store overlooking Luakini Street.

Her mother was Soon Moi Ho; her father Kiang Kam.

“He came from China, Canton, when he was 17, because my grandfather had a store. They made him come to Hawaii. My mother was a picture bride from Wailua; she married him when she was 17,” Carolyn added.

All of the children of Soon Moi, with the exception of one, were birthed at their home with the help of a midwife.

Carolyn lived there until mid-life.

The Front Street establishment was open seven days a week.

“Never close,” Carolyn stressed.

Hop Wo was big in her memory; she worked there most every day.

Close your eyes. What do you see?

Jars of cracked seeds; boiled peanuts; roast pig; Richard, her brother, behind the counter; and Carolyn in her white apron dusted with flour.

“On Sundays, we make our bread. All the people line up to buy the bread,” she described. “That was the biggest day. It was like $25 cash sales every other day. When we make the bread, we had $100.”

The bread was cooked in a wood oven.

“We got the wood from Kihei — Kihei has lots of wood,” she observed.

“We buy, and they would deliver in the truck. Then we would hire Makekau; he would chop the wood.”

Rose Marie Duey has mouth-watering recall of that era: “My dad used to stand in line to get his keawe oven bread. Hop Wo bread was the BEST; every Sunday with hot chocolate made the old way with water and Carnation cream.”

There were fond memories Carolyn recalls growing up in old Lahaina Town.

“When I didn’t have anything to do, I would go fishing by the harbor. It isn’t anything like it is today. Spend all day. I would go look for shells, too. All day looking for shells,” she added wistfully.

“It’s different from today. No TV. No computer. Play outside. Play marbles. Jump rope,” she explained.

Carolyn graduated from Lahainaluna High School, Class of ’59. After high school, like the rest of her siblings, she attended college.

She went to business school on Oahu. After two years, she came home.

“My mama was working too hard; I came back to help her. She was too old; never stop. I was in my 20s,” she recounted.

After a stint in the military, deployed to Korea during the war, brother Richard joined her back home and became a regular fixture in the store.

“We work hard in the store,” Carolyn voiced, understating their toil.

And so it went from the 1960s to the ’80s.

Well almost — Carolyn’s daughter, Laurie Lei, was added to the scene in 1975. She has her own memories of those early times interspersed with a vivid imagination.

“All of the policemen used to come at like 3 or 4 in the morning — to come and get their bread in the back. I thought there was a raid or something like that… That was in the Jimmy Walker days,” Laurie Lei (now) DeGama recollected.

“I remember the kitchen. I remember doing all the baking. I faintly remember Blue Max,” she added.

“Then times changed,” Carolyn observed. “Everyone wasn’t coming in to Lahaina Town. It was slow. So I said to my brother, ‘Maybe it would be better if we rent?’ “

It was in the mid-1980s, and the duo proceeded to lease the valuable Front Street location to Nancy and Jim Killett of Lahaina Galleries.

And they moved out of the store lock, stock but not barrel. She took the bread maker with her and donated it to the Sacred Hearts School Cafeteria in exchange for a smaller model, Puanani Felicilda said.

The end; she lived happily retired thereafter.

Not Carolyn — not that lady with the 200-horsepower drive. For 20 years, she worked for various entities, but mostly for her daughter and son-in-law, Alton DeGama, at No Ka Oi Deli.

(Close your eyes again. Visualize Carolyn on a moped in her sixties tooling around Lahaina delivering lunches!)

When the popular eatery closed in 2016, Carolyn finally retired.

Well, almost. Retired is not in her vocabulary.

She confided in me in a guilty voice, “I sometimes get bored.”

She doesn’t just sit at home and watch TV.

She is well-traveled. In her youth, she traveled on the bus with her family across the U.S. — $85 for 85 days — from Los Angeles to New York and other points continental.

Later in life, “I went to Thailand. I went to China,” she boasted.

She was proud to tell me, “I even rode an elephant!”

She goes to Vegas once a year.

She is the president of the Wo Hing Society at 858 Front St.

Busaba Yip Douglas is the Wo Hing Museum docent and cultural director. She speaks highly of their friendship.

“I first met Carolyn Kam at the celebration of Chinese Ancestor Day (Pai San ceremony) at the Wo Hing Museum in April 2001. Since then, we have become friends, and she has touched my heart deeply.”

They traveled together, both locally and internationally.

“In Honolulu’s China Town, we visited many Chinese societies and temples as part of our Wo Hing research project,” the docent advised.

The docent complimented Carolyn’s “diligence in keeping all her family records and sharing them… it keeps our Lahaina Chinese history alive.”

Longevity is in the Kam blood. Her sisters, Mitzy Young and Myrtle Hussey, lived well into their nineties. Richard is 85.

“I never believe I live this long,” she said.

I asked her if she had any advice.

She answered without a thought, “Don’t worry; that’s all.”

What does she love about Lahaina?

“The people,” she said.