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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.

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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.

AQ the film

AQ the film

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Support

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. 

Union actions benefit community-Unlawful Assembly Act, Grand Jury composition
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Union actions benefit community-Unlawful Assembly Act, Grand Jury composition

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, Hawai`i like many jurisdictions enacted specific laws aimed at crushing the rising labor movement. These laws restricted rights of assembly and rigged the Grand Jury system to exclude the working class, by creating “Blue Ribbon” jury panels. In advance of the 1909 sugar strike, the Japanese Higher Wage Association was formed by four journalists, Nippu Jiji editor, Yasutaro Soga, reporter Yokichi Tasaka, and Frederick Makino (future Hawaii Hochi publisher) and writer, researcher Motoyuki Negoro. They sought to promote better wages and working conditions for ethnic Japanese plantation workers. As leaders of the movement, these journalists documented oppressive conditions and editorialized for change. As a result, their newspaper offices were raided by law enforcement, they were arrested and charged among other things with “impeding sugar plantation operations”! The four were sentenced to 10 months in prison and fined $300 each. So much for First Amendment rights to freedom of the press! The 1946 sugar strike likewise saw application of these oppressive laws, when picketing workers were charged with crimes under the Unlawful Assembly and Criminal Syndicalism Acts. Jail sentences included felony charges that could result in 10 year sentences! ILWU attorney, Harriet Bouslog, successfully appealed these convictions. In a discussion on a Rice & Roses program (circa 1978), AQ reminds us that this action by the union benefitted both striking workers and the entire community.
AQ on English Standard Schools
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AQ on English Standard Schools

You may be familiar with the history of racial segregation of schools that was practiced on the Continent and the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, that found the practice unconstitutional. Hawai`i residents, unless of a certain age, are probably unaware that for years Hawai`i schools were segregated, not by race, but by language! In 1924, the Department of Public Instruction created a system of English standard schools in Hawai`i. This decision was the result of pressure by the Haole elite, who felt that their children’s education would suffer if they were instructed in classrooms with local children for whom English was not their first language. This objective was coupled with the desire that their children would learn “American rather than Asian values”. From the very beginning there was opposition to this “undemocratic” system, opposition that would grow and that finally resulted in the end of English standard schools in in 1960. In an appearance on the Rice & Roses television show, hosted by Max Roffman (circa 1978), AQ observes that the labor movement helped mobilize support in opposition to the English standard school system. For an excellent overview of this history see the 1993 paper by Judith Hughes, The Demise of the English Standard School System in Hawai`i. AQ felt that a strong, united labor movement had the ability to address issues benefitting the entire community, not just narrow issues of wages and working conditions. Our documentary about AQ, The Struggle Never Ends, will utilize our substantial film and video archive and feature: AQ, her rank and file brothers and sisters, academics, and political figures.
The Crew

The Crew

Civil Rights Demo ILWU 1965

Chris Conybeare

Producer

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

Producer/Director

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

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 Hawaiʻi Labor Heritage Council (HLHC),

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