April 29, 2022

A Barefoot Boy From Hilo

Starts to Make It Big by Selling Flowers

(Part of the Mas Hongo Interview Series)

Interviewed by Leonard Chan (L) and Susan Tanioka (S)

With transcriptions by Mina Harada Eimon

Edited by Leonard Chan

Vanda orchid like the ones that the Hongos grew in Hawaii (photo taken by L. Chan)

This transcription of interviews done with Masanori Hongo is a continuation of the article we did in February 2022.

Because it’s spring time, we decided to skip ahead to after World War II, to when Mas got into the flower growing and selling business. Upon coming back from his military service and finishing college, Mas and his family had a successful flower growing operation in Hawaii which would eventually lead him to flower sales on the mainland, and then becoming the manager of the California Flower Market in San Francisco (the CA Flower Market was a significant Japanese American owned business that will be covered in a future segment of the Mas Hongo Interview Series).

The Mas Hongo Interview Series continues:

Mas: So what was the year?

S: 1949?

Mas: 49…so anyway I got called by my mother that my father was sick, for me to come home, cause he had a severe asthmatic attack.

Yeah, and so… he was growing some orchid and so I went back and … we were growing vanda orchids in our yard and so when I went back…

S: Who started that? Your dad?

Mas: Yeah. In the home.

L: So your dad was into insurance, but did he get out of the insurance business to start the farm, or was he doing that at the same time, or…?

Mas: He was still in insurance. He was all his life in insurance.

S: So the orchids were kind of his hobby… Then you and your brother did the orchids?

Mas: Yeah, it was like a hobby for him.

L: How big was this, to start with?

Mas: Just a yard, between the house and the rental house. So, it was maybe three times larger than this whole room. 

L: That’s how big it was to start with?

Mas: About three or four times as large as this room.

L: You had a big yard!

Mas: Yeah, we had a big yard. Because we had two duplexes across the way.

L: Was it primarily vandas? Or were there other orchids?

Mas: No, that, and, wood roses… Some ti leaves, foliage, and wood roses… We grew a lot of wood roses.

L: The tea leaves were an actual cash crop that you sold?

Mas: Yeah.

L: I didn’t know you grew tea in Hawaii.

S: No it’s not tea. It’s not the drinking tea. It’s the long ti leaves that they wrap stuff in and cook.

L: Oh, oh interesting.

Wood rose, what’s that like?

Mas: Oh, it’s in the morning glory family…

L: Susan just showed me a picture of wood roses. Is this what wood roses look like?

Mas: Yeah.

L: A kind of yellowish color?

Mas: Brown.

L: That’s the only color they came in?

Mas: Yeah. They’re dried. That’s what they look like.

S: It comes out and looks like a wooden rose.

Mas: We grew about a million of those.

S: Wow, was it that much in demand? … I never thought they were very pretty.

L: But I guess they were very rare? Was that what was unique about them?

Mas: Well, you know, they sold. I don’t know if they were unique, or sell! They look ugly, but they bought it! So, the ugly is the one they buy! You know, you sell all kinds because Hawaii, you only had so much, so to speak, natural resources. You don’t have oil, you don’t have this, you don’t have that...so, you grow a lot of things, and only in the tropics can you grow those things

L: I think you were telling me you also used to sell to Australia?

Mas: Yeah, we sell… the guy from Australia came, I used to meet him in Honolulu, and we used to sell wood rose to him. We would ship down into Australia, England, France, and Italy.

L: These were dried goods, you said?

Mas: Yeah, dried. Dried flowers.

L: … wood roses were easy to ship because you don’t have to worry about them dying, right?

Mas: Yeah, I used to ship all over....all over the world. And I ship it. And I used to ship it by boat, because all the stuff they go by boat, in the refrigerator is by pound. And wood roses, they only about 6, 7 pounds, right? The cube is big. So we send by refrigerator, because cheaper. They go by pound. They don’t go by cube. So yeah, you gotta take advantage of the tariffs, you know.

L: Okay, so you said your father had an asthmatic attack and you went back to Hawaii. (Mas was living in California after World War II – finishing college.)

Mas: Yeah, and so… we were growing vanda orchids in our yard and so when I went back, we leased 10 acres … and then we opened up another 20 acres in Kapoho…

so we leased 10 acres, from somebody in Pana'Ewa Forest… and I wanted to get… the property in Pana'Ewa Forest… directly for myself, from the state… actually in those days it was still the territory of Hawaii… from the territory of Hawaii, I wanted directly from the government, Hawaii government, for a master lease.

L: A master lease? What’s that?

Mas: Master lease, I was going to sub-lease from someone else, I wanted to get master lease. So I went to Honolulu.

L: You once told me how you could walk into some government official’s office…

Mas: So I went into to see… , John Ushijima, he was a senator over the territory of Hawaii. And so I went to see John, I want to get this property, so he took me down to the land office across the street and tells the guy, help this man, whatever he wants he can have (Mas gives a bit of a laugh).

S: Because you were a GI?

Mas: No because I knew him. (everyone gives a bit of laugh)

L: How did you know him?

Mas: I went to school, he was a year younger than me, but I knew him. I knew his sister, was in my class.

L: In school in Hawaii?

Mas: Yeah.

L: And so you get the land.

Mas: So I get the land, so I got the master lease on the land from the state…from the territory of Hawaii…And… we…

L: What made you think you could be successful orchid growers?

Mas: Well you have to create demand. So I had to go down to Honolulu and sell the orchids. You gotta go ahead and you gotta push it, you know. So I used to go to Honolulu from May until November.

L: A good portion of the year.

So they had a flower market and a…

Mas: No.

L: Or you just went shop to shop.

Mas: No. Lei makers. We sell to the lei makers. Before, when you went to the airport, they to have the lei sellers, right? They had about a dozen of them. So I used to go and to sell to them.

S: Mostly lei makers?

Mas: Yeah. Those days, it was popular, you know. People go away, they used to give away leis, you know?

L: So how did the business work, then? You would just to go to the lei making...do they do it at the factories, or at home?

Mas: No, right there.

L: They put them together at the airport?

Mas: Yeah. Right there at the airport.

L: So what did you do day to day?

Mas: I go out and sell. You have a lot of free time but you know, usually I go there in the afternoon, because most of the planes those days fly at night, because they fly in the evening, and they get to California in the morning. And it took about 8 or 9 hours flight, those days. Propeller planes. And it was Pan American, primarily.

S: When you sell to the lei makers, did you take the flowers to them, or did you have them sent to them?

Mas: No, I go there, and then I gotta sell to them.

S: So were you flying back and forth to get fresh flowers all the time, to bring?

Mas: No, I was in Honolulu. I was selling. I gotta push myself everyday, I go down...

S: So then your brother would pack the flowers, and send them to you, and then you go sell them to the…

Mas: Yeah. Every, you know, we send...five thousand, ten thousand flowers…

S: So your brother kind of took care of the growing part. You did the selling part.

Mas: Yeah.

L: Out of curiosity, is it growing year round? Are they flowering year round, the orchids?

Mas: Wintertime, it’s down. Cold. All nature gone outside. Primarily summertime, in those days, people used to come to Hawaii in the summertime, you know?

L: So it corresponded with the seasons of the flower itself. But the plant themselves, were they putting out flowers?

Mas: No. Wintertime they don’t. Too cold.

L: I mean, during the season. 5 months or so, when you were in Honolulu. Were they...did you have to set up, like, different varieties of orchids…?

Mas: No, only one kind! Vanda orchids! Only one kind! Vanda!

S: So did you only sell yours, or did you buy from other people?

Mas: No, mine. Only mine. Gee, we had over one million plants, you know?

One box, had 500? 300 flowers. And we used to sell them for 5 bucks and 7 bucks. Those things were cheap, you know.

S: 500 to 1500 in a box?

Mas: 500, no, 500 to maybe 700 flowers in a box.

You get these guys. You know, they’re Hawaiians, all of them, because...the lei makers all got, by law, only Hawaiians got to sell leis at the airport…

And you sell them, and you gotta collect the money. And you know, it’s not that easy. To collect money, what I used to do is, was I used to go there in the evening. When they sell the leis, the planes leave in the afternoon...late afternoon, the evening, then I go there and collect money. And that’s the hard part, you know. I know they get money when they sell the leis, so I used to go in the evening.

(To Be Continued)