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Ah Quon McElrath: An Iwilei Childhood

Ah Quon McElrath was born in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. Her father was a carpenter and a jack of all trades. Her mother had bound feet and barely spoke English. Besides raising children, her mother cooked, washed their clothes and tended chickens. There were seven children in the family. Ah Quon was the sixth child and her younger brother the seventh. The family lived in Iwilei, the notorious red-light district of Honolulu. Ah Quon’s father died when she was five years old, and the family was left to shift for itself. The children rallied together to find ways to support each other. Their house was near the shoreline where groves of kiawe trees grew.

Their house was near the shoreline where groves of kiawe trees grew. Ah Quon recalled picking bags of kiawe beans to sell as livestock feed. The children also scavenged for dried bones to sell to a nearby fertilizer company. Because there were no child labor laws, Ah Quon was able to work in the pineapple cannery when she was thirteen. Ah Quon also remembered that she and her brothers and sisters would divide themselves into teams to clean the house and do the dishes. Ah Quon’s family survived through ingenuity, initiative and enterprise. (On the right: Wong Shee Leong - AQ's Mother) With their collective strength, they slowly improved their circumstances, and Ah Quon and her younger brother were able to obtain college degrees. Ah Quon’s childhood experiences must have influenced her conviction that group unity and effort can bring about significant change. (Below on the left: Women Trim Pineapples courtesy of ILWU Local 142 Archives; on the right: Honolulu and Harbor from Punchbowl c1923 courtesy of Hawaii State Archives)

Mahalo, Chris Conybeare Executive Producer

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