June 30, 2022

A Barefoot Boy From Hilo

Growing and Selling Flowers, Volcanic Devastation, and the Changing Market

(Part of the Mas Hongo Interview Series)

Interviewed by Leonard Chan (L), Susan Tanioka (S), and Jamie Miracle (J)

With transcriptions by Mina Harada Eimon

Edited by Leonard Chan

When we last left off, Mas was telling us about how the Hongo family farm was selling flowers to the lei makers in Honolulu.

L: (Jamie Miracle, one of our board members, sat in for a short time during this portion of the interview) We were talking about vanda orchid… he was a vanda orchid grower in Hawaii. He grew vanda orchids and…

J: Oh.

M: We were one of the larger…largest vanda orchid…

L: So when did the business expand into selling in the States?

M: Well, we were shipping some orchids and ti leaves to Los Angeles market. I used to go to LA market, San Francisco. I flew to Seattle, Vancouver, New York, Michigan, Chicago.

So I would sell to one guy. I didn’t want to sell to three, four guys in the market because they’re going to compete against each other. When they get somebody, the...you know, so to speak, you know, the franchise, I sell to only one person. Then I come to San Francisco, I sell to one person. Then I go to Seattle, I sell to one person. I go to Vancouver, I sell to one person. I go to New York, or Philadelphia, I sell to one person.

L: I think I remember, one of our conversations, you were telling me about how you would make cold calls, when you got to a town, you would look up in a phone book, and find the flower market that you wanted to sell to? Could you describe that?

M: Well, there’s only 3-4 markets in the United States... There’s only 3-4 markets in the whole United States! San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New England someplace.

L: But I think in our conversation, you were telling me about how you would kind of build up the relationship with one seller and…

M: Yeah. Sometimes I get information about somebody, but sometimes I make a cold call. I go to Seattle, I make a cold call. I go to Vancouver, I make a cold call, you know. I go to Chicago...but I knew that there was somebody who was selling certain things, or certain materials, so I go to him.

L: Were they selling vandas there, too?

M: We were selling some vandas, yeah. Not much, like Honolulu.

L: You mentioned that you had samples you would give out, or something like that?

M: Yeah, well I always had a sample that I used to carry with me. When I would go on a trip, I would have a box of dried material, fire grass, wood roses.

S: What kind of grass?

M: Fire grass... It just looks like wheat, you know. It’s all dried.

L: Looks like wheat?

M: Wheat.

L: And people buy this?

M: Yeah.

L: Was it like a filler, for…

M: I don’t know. I don’t know! I don’t know anything about fillers or not! I just sell that stuff! I’m not a designer!

S: You grew fire grass?

M: I didn’t grow. We used to gather them from the...There are certain areas they used to grow fire grass, where they used to pick ‘em.

S: So kind of like a wild…

M: Yeah, wild.

L: And they would just collect it from the hills?

M: What do you mean, hills? They’re no hills in Hawaii, what are you talking about? That’s a mountain, that’s all! There’s no hill!

S: How many people did you hire out to do all that?

M: Oh, we had about 5-6 people. And they used to be...They used to work sugar plantation but when sugar was out, so they used to be, you know, field workers, so we used them. We used to hire them. 

L: I think at some point you come over state side (on a more permanent basis)?

M: I came because I had a small business and the business started expanding. I was… I had this guy… he was cockroaching.

L: huh?

J: He was cockroaching. He was sort of stealing. That’s when you take something like a cockroach, right?

M: Yeah.

S: Where was this small business? The orchid business?

M: Yeah, the wholesale outlet over here.

J: I haven’t heard that term in awhile.

M: So (Mas clears his throat) I felt that I should come and eventually run the thing. So then… I had some differences… because I was… because it was part of Hongo Nursery, but then they wanted to split it off. So they wanted to give me this outlet here. But I was buying stuff from Hongo Nursery, I owe some money to them.

S: What nursery?

M: Hongo Nursery. I was buying stuff from them.

S: I’m lost.

L: Yeah, we’re a little confused about the details of the business… You’re growing orchids, you have an interest in some business over here state side that’s selling flowers.

M: Yeah, we open up a wholesale outlet over here in San Francisco, but there was no sub-lease. But I have some friends that got me the first sub-lease. They didn’t allow any sub-lease before. So I was the first one that they got sub-leased.

L: So you were mainly selling stuff from your farm?

M: Yeah, so I was selling stuff from Hawaii. They came from Hilo and one table.

L: That’s how you started off?

M: Started out, yeah, and that’s how it started out.

L: You also did stuff in LA too, right?

M: Then I bought a place in LA.

L: This was like a year later or so?

M: No no, few years later because we were shipping to LA and the guy that owned the store in San Francisco and LA, he owed us some money. So… we thought, he’s not going to pay us, so then we came here and then we made an agreement, he was going to sell us the Los Angeles outlet. So it became Hongo Nursery’s property… and that was part of Hongo Nursery. When I opened up here, I open up as Hawaiian Orchid and Foliage Company in San Francisco… And I use to have stuff shipped in from Hongo Nursery in Hawaii and then I owed them.

L: Who did you owe this to?

M: To Hongo Nursery in Hilo.

S: I thought you were owner of that business.

M: No, but there’s two different entities.

S & L: Oh.

M: We got separate companies. You cannot put, you cannot mix the whole thing together. How are you gonna do that?

L: We’re unsure, because it’s Hongo …

M: California corporation and Hawaii corporation. They’re two different things.

L: Okay and this one in California was more centered on actually selling it to the… it was more…

 M: Wholesale.

L: Whereas, back in Hawaii it was more the farm.

M: Yeah, okay.

S: So the one in San Francisco is known as the Hongo… Hongo Orch…

M: No no, Hawaii Orchid and Foliage.

S: And the one in Hilo is known as the Hongo Nursery.

M: Yeah.

L: I guess you were like loaning from one business to the other, the money. So what’s the significance of the money that was owed to the Hongo Nursery?

H: I owe on the order of something like 11 thousand dollars. So… they decided to make it a separate corporation, all together. So I got the outlet in San Francisco.

L: So you stuck with the operations in California.

M: Yeah in California.

L: Who was taking care of the farm? Your brother?

M: Yeah, my brother… my father and my brother.

L: And that’s how you ended up in California?

M: Yeah, so… so I move my family over here… And you know, business goes up and down…

S: Something flashed through my head but I can’t think of it now...Oh, I know! When the volcano came to Kapoho, where were you?

L: You were already stateside?

M: I was...I was in Hilo.

Q: Tell us about the incident where your farm was decimated by the volcano?

M: Well, in Kapoho, we had land we leased, this Hawaiian guy. What was his name? Anyway, all the land, he owned a lot of land. Thousands of acres...who, he would only lease the land. And he never sold the land, because somebody who go something, and it would be abandoned, and he didn’t want that. So, I think it’s part of the Lyman family. Old time family.

Q: So what year was the volcano eruption that decimated the field? The farm?

M: Sixty something. 1960 something…

Q: So, I think you mentioned once, the struggle to recover from that?

M: Well, you know, we used to borrow money from the FHA... FHA had the funds to lend. And so, anytime there was a disaster like this, they say, “Oh, don’t worry, don’t worry.” They would...the bank, and the FHA would give us special...time to pay back the money because it was all tied up with the farm bureau insurance.

And the governor came, and I knew the land agent. I used to go drinking with him. Bill Murray. So Bill…oh, his name was Charles Murray. So he introduced me to the governor when the governor came. So he told the governor, “This man needs land in the Pana’Ewa Forest,” so the governor told him, “Whatever land he wants, he can have.”

S: But didn’t you already have 10…

M: No, but the volcano came.

S: But you had 10 acres in Pana’Ewa Forest already, didn’t you?

M: Yeah but that was not enough.

S: Oh, so you got another piece in Pana’Ewa.

M: Yeah, I have to open up. I have to move all the plants because the volcano’s coming.

L: How much of it were you able to save? Were you able to save all of them?

M: I saved all the plants. But the costs...you know, like 60,000 dollars, those days, but now, it’s like 700-800 thousand dollars, it costs. It costs a lot of money. And my father was...just happened to be in Japan. And so, the banker came and he told me, “Don’t worry about the money. We can get the money for you.”

L: So the plants were growing in green houses?

M: No, it’s all outside.

L: How did you move…

M: 10 acres. How can we…?

L: You just cut the...cutting system, or something…?

M: Yeah, blooming. You got the vanda orchids. You took a picture?

L: Yeah, I’m just kind of curious, what were you able to...how do you salvage it before the volcano wiped out everything?

M: No, you gotta take the whole damn tree fern and the plants on the…

S: Didn’t they grow on a hāpu‘u?

M: Yeah, hāpu‘u.

L: What is that, for recording purposes? Like pots, or…

S: It’s a forest kind of…What is that...

M: Tree fern.

L: Tree fern...Planters?

M: You plant around the tree fern and the orchid.

L: Oh. It’s kind of like a wood orchid, where it’s growing on something else? You keep that together. Is that how you pick it up, sort of, and truck it over to some other location? Interesting.

 S: So, did your new acreage adjoin the old acreage? The 10...original 10 acres?

M: No, you see, when the volcano came, Lyman who owned all that land, gave us another land. They were spewed over by the volcano. And so it was cinder, there was green area. So we planted all our plants right on top of the...

L: (I’m showing Mas the picture from this book here) You once told me that your place was off to one side of the picture? That’s the farm area? You were even closer to the volcano than this picture?

M: It came right over the property! That’s why we had to move!

L: Were you able to replace all the stuff that you lost?

M: Not replace. We have to have so much production to enter into the market. As time went on, the market changed. The time I was there for about 15 years, there was a peak where people used to buy leis, and therefore our products were in much demand. But after a while, they changed the whole airport. And build a whole airport on the other side, and they even had the lei sellers in the inside, where they naturally...in the old one, they used to pass the lei sellers but now they were inside, so you have to go in another road to go to lei sellers. So it wasn’t as good as it was before. So all these things happened.

Q: So that’s kind of what prompted you to sell more directly to the mainland?

M: No. On the mainland, we sold some amount of orchids, but not that much. Because people didn’t have leis, you know. So we used to sell wood roses, fire grass, ti leaves… so it was our job to go out all over the United States, all the way to New York, to try to sell!

Q: I was just thinking that maybe that’s kind of what made you move out of just selling it to lei makers. The lei makers became less profitable for you…

M: You can’t sell the vandas to the mainland. Because people don’t use leis.

Q: I’m just wondering if that’s kind of how you progressed from just selling to lei makers, that maybe, you were saying that the lei makers became less profitable as time went on, and so maybe that’s what kind of got you into doing other things?

M: No, the lei makers were there all the time! But... that’s expanse of twenty years or so! Then it changed... By the time I left, things started to change... I already kinda left the lei market by that time... Nothing stays forever, you know.

We ran out of time at this point and stopped the recording.