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Manoa 17.1 (2005) 99-102

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Home Away from Home:

Photographs from the On Char Collection

The On Char collection consists of more than 90,000 negatives donated to the Bishop Museum in Hawai'i by the Chinese American photographer. Born in 1889, On Char ran the City Photo Studio in downtown Honolulu from 1911 to 1954, except for a two-year period during which he went to New York and Chicago to study photography. The On Char collection consists of his life's work.

A Family Portrait

The first print was a photograph of Lum Choy taken by On Char, a Honolulu photographer, in his Chinatown studio. In the second print, Lum Choy is joined by his wife, Lum Chu She, and their infant son, Lum Sai Wong. Examining Lum Chu She closely, one can see a light shadow around her head. Her feet do not look as if they are supported by the ground, and they appear to be floating. The image of mother and son was shot in China and was superimposed upon the original photograph of Lum Choy. This type of doctored photograph was one way that families separated by the Pacific Ocean could be reunited.

The Lum family portrait and other such photographs represent an important part of the Chinese historical experience in Hawai'i and the continental United States. The Lums were one of thousands of Chinese American families that suffered untold hardships due to the forced separation of parents and sons, wives and husbands, and fathers and children. By the beginning of the twentieth century, thousands of Chinese men in Hawai'i and the U.S. had wives and children in China. Many men married on return visits to China; it was common for parents to arrange marriages for their sons on these visits. Often the chosen brides were very young. When the men returned to Hawai'i, these young wives were left behind to raise children and to carry out their obligations to their husbands' parents, destined to live their lives in painful solitude, separated from husbands who became virtual strangers. These families, separated by the Pacific Ocean, were often apart for years, decades—sometimes for a lifetime. [End Page 99]

Despite thousands of miles of ocean and extended periods of separation, many of the families, like the Lums, still thought of themselves as a family. Although not physically together, they kept in contact through letters. Photography provided another vital link. Family portraits were created by placing suitably proportioned photographs of family members against a studio backdrop and re-photographing the images as if everyone were together. It was through such innovative photography that family members could each have a family portrait to enjoy in the years when they were apart.

The impetus for these photographic reunions was legislation passed by the U.S. Congress. On April 30, 1900, the U.S. Organic Act officially created the Territory of Hawai'i. Consequently, American laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which prohibited the immigration of laborers into the U.S., applied to the Hawaiian Islands. As a result, these exclusionary Acts had a profound impact upon the Chinese community in Hawai'i, as they had on the Chinese community on the mainland U.S. The Chinese responded to these laws and the anti-Chinese movement in numerous ways. Thousands returned to their homeland. Others were able to circumvent the exclusionary laws using paper names, the fraudulently purchased identities of persons who could legally establish American residency. Some immigrated to the U.S. and the Territory of Hawai'i under exempt categories: teachers, ministers, physicians, bankers, and merchants. However, between the years 1852 and 1940, the majority of Chinese men still came as laborers, often leaving loved ones back home.

Lum Choy and Lum Chu She

In 1880, Lum Choy was born in a simple clay house in San How Village, Sun Wui County, China. Lum was an only child, and in 1896, he left his mother, Lum Lai She, and migrated to Hawai'i. Lum's first...