Happy 100th Birthday

Group picture

Barbara Kawakami is sitting on the first row second from right to left.

This month we honor historian Barbara Kawakami on the occasion of her 100th Birthday on August 24.

Barbara was born in Japan on August 24, 1921. Her parents moved to Hawaiʻi when she was 3 months old. She first learned sewing at the village school and Keister's Tailoring College, which led to a successful career as a seamstress and dressmaker for 35 years. At age 53, she entered college, earning a degree in BS in fashion design and marketing. Later she earned an MA in Asian Studies. As a writer, researcher and consultant she worked on projects too numerous to mention!

Barbara has spent a good part of her life making Hawaiʻi plantation and immigrant history accessible to the community. Her two books: Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawaiʻi, 1885-1941 (1993) and Picture Bride Stories (2016) have been invaluable resources for students, educators, and the general public about Japanese immigrant life and culture.

Producer Chris Conybeare and Director Joy Chong-Stannard  met Barbara when they were then making a weekly TV Program for CLEAR called, Rice & Roses, airing on Hawaiʻi Public Television (now PBS Hawaiʻi). The plantation era was ending and they were charged with documenting plantation and labor history, and telling stories about the people and cultures of the era.

Barbara was one of the significant people who helped Conybeare and Chong-Stannard gain access to that history and to those stories.  Barbara was included as part of their production team for a number of episodes, including: Picture Brides (1986), Wedding Days, The Plantation Way (1987), Memory Lane (1987), Hole Hole Bushi: Songs of the Cane Field (1984), and Getting Somewheres (1998).  She was in charge of wardrobe for the TV drama, Brothers Under the Skin (1989) and recounted her family’s life on the plantation in Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi (2014).

Barbara introduced us to her world and the men and women she knew from her plantation days, often providing translation for those speaking old prefecture, dialects, mixed with pidgin. Her series of language interviews not only captured historic remembrances, but the language itself which is almost extinct. These interviews are under intense study by Japan’s National Institute for Language and Linguistics.


To honor Barbara, we are creating a special section to our Labor History website, dedicated to the interviews and stories she has helped produce over the years.

Barbara, the world has been a better place because you have devoted your life to helping all of us know and better understand our history.



Ah Quon “AQ” McElrath (1915-2008), was an intellectual force who gave voice to Hawaiʻi’s working class, and helped power a labor movement based on racial equality that transformed Hawaiʻi from a semi-feudal oligarchy to a modern labor democracy. 


Born to immigrant Chinese parents and raised in extreme poverty, she became one of Hawaiʻi’s most influential leaders, helping shape the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) into a powerful force for social change. After retirement from the union, she continued to work tirelessly for social and economic justice. She championed universal health care, education, press freedom, civil and human rights. 


Her lifelong leadership in education resulted in an appointment to the University of Hawaiʻi’s Board of Regents.


AQ the Film

By exploring her life, the Ah Quon McElrath Project documents some of Hawaiʻi’s most important history and demonstrates how one woman’s compassionate determination helped to lift thousands of families out of poverty. 


Her remarkable story is inextricably tied to critical historical events. Her life journey encompasses not only the rise of labor unions in Hawaiʻi, but reveals the selfless and heroic sacrifices of a generation of working people. 


Her story chronicles the labor movement’s achievement of decent hours, decent pay, safe working conditions, and a voice in the direction of Hawaiʻi's future for working class people.


Why should I support the AQ Project? 

With your support, we will create a documentary that preserves forever the life story of this extraordinary woman! Through rare and fascinating footage, we will illustrate the struggle of those who labored on plantations, on docks, and in hotels and factories.


​ The Project will maintain a robust website that allows free access to the documentary, to our complete interviews for the documentary and other projects, and to our educational materials about Hawaiʻi history and culture. In addition, we will create curriculum materials for classroom use to insure that this important history is not lost in the chasm of time. These components build on three decades of video documentation of Hawaiʻi’s plantation culture and labor history captured by the Center for Labor Education & Research (CLEAR) at the University of Hawaiʻi - West Oʻahu. 


The Crew

Civil Rights Demo ILWU 1965

Chris Conybeare


Chris Conybeare has won numerous awards, including an Emmy, for his documentary productions about Hawaiʻi. Through his work, he has helped create a digital moving image archive that documents Hawaii’s plantation and working class history. He helmed the international news program, Asia Now, with partners, Japan’s NHK, and PBS stations KCTS Seattle, and PBS Hawaiʻi. As an attorney, he has been at the forefront of struggles for human rights, both at home and abroad. AQ McElrath is one of his personal heroes and he sees the current documentary project as both a tribute to her and a message about compassion and courage for future generations!

Joy Chong-Stannard


Joy Chong-Stannard is a Hawaiʻi based independent filmmaker with extensive experience in archival research of historic photographs, moving images and historic documents that lend a visual dynamic to her portrayal of island history. Chong-Stannard’s fascination with Hawaiʻi past led to directing and editing productions that explore the dynamic social and economic upheavals of Hawaiʻi’s history that include Betrayal, the award-winning nationally broadcast docudrama of the overthrow of Hawaiʻi’s last reigning monarch and the ongoing Biography Hawai‘i series. Her production of Ka Hana Kapa tells the inspiring story about a small group of women who sought to revive the ancient art of making kapa or Hawaiian bark cloth. She is also the Producer/Director of the live weekly public affairs program, Insights on PBS Hawaiʻi.

Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl


Screenwriter Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl is a writer and educator. She has been the researcher, writer, and co-Producer for the popular series Biography 

Hawaiʻi on PBS. She has also written numerous other Hawai‘i history documentaries, including Jack Hall: His Life and Times. Her volume of plays and three mystery novels have been published by UH Press. Ms. Kneubuhl is the recipient of the Hawaiʻi Award for Literature, our state’s highest literary honor.

The project is a collaboration between the Hawai‘i Labor Heritage Council (HLHC),

the Center for Labor Education and Research (CLEAR), University of Hawai‘i-West Oahu, and Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking. Made possible thanks to the generous support of Frank Moy and Marcia Mau

and the Hawai'i Council for the Humanities. 


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