Hiram Leong Fong

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Hiram Leong Fong

The son of immigrant plantation laborers, Hiram L. Fong (born 1907) became a self-made millionaire and the first person of Chinese descent to serve in the United States Congress.

Hiram L. Fong capped a life spent blazing trails when he was sworn in as Hawaii's first United States Senator on August 24, 1959. Fong earned the designation "senior Senator" through sheer luck-he won a coin flip with Senator Oren Long-but the moderate Republican achieved almost everything else in life through hard work and political tenacity. The son of plantation workers worked his way through Harvard Law School and founded Honolulu's first multiracial law firm before embarking on a successful career in politics. He served with distinction in the U.S. Senate until his retirement in 1977.

Worked His Way Up

Hiram Leong Fong was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on October 1, 1907. He was originally given the name Yau, but as a young man he changed his name to Hiram out of regard for the Hawaiian missionary Hiram Bingham. Fong was the seventh of 11 children born to Lum Fong and Lum Fong Shee, both immigrants from China's Kwantung Province. Both of Fong's parents worked as indentured laborers on a sugar plantation, earning $12 a month between them. To help support his large family, Hiram worked as a shoe shine boy, newspaper seller, and golf caddy. He attended Kalihi Waena Grammar School and, later, McKinley High School, a large public school in Honolulu.

As a young adult, Fong lacked the money to attend college. He worked for three years as a clerk in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard to save enough money for tuition. He entered the University of Hawaii and graduated with honors in just three years, working all the while at various odd jobs to keep up with expenses. While at the university he also edited the school newspaper, played volleyball, and joined the debating team. After graduation, Fong wished to attend law school, but again found his dreams deferred because of lack of funds. He worked full-time for another two years-this time with the Suburban Water System-and saved up enough to enter Harvard Law School in 1932. He graduated, in 1935, broke but thoroughly educated. He returned to Honolulu and found work as a city clerk and then as deputy city attorney.

Early Career

In 1935, Fong founded Fong, Miho, Choy, and Robinson, a law firm consisting of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Caucasian partners. The multiracial venture was the first of its kind in Honolulu and proved wildly successful. Fong used his portion of the profits to invest in a variety of business interests that eventually made him a millionaire. In 1938, the progressive Republican was elected to Hawaii's territorial House of Representatives, where he would serve for 14 of the next 16 years. On June 25, 1938, he married Ellyn Lo, a fellow Chinese-American, in Honolulu.

Fong's victory was a major step for Chinese-Americans, helping to break the stranglehold on Hawaiian politics held by the so-called "plantation elites." But Fong's own political ascent was briefly interrupted by World War II. He served in the Army Air Corps as a judge advocate-known in military parlance as a "JAG"-for the 7th Fighter Command, earning the rank of major. Returning to Honolulu after the war, he resumed his position in the territorial legislature. In an unusual move for a Republican at that time, Fong forged an alliance with a major labor union, the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union (ILWU). The group's clout helped Fong win election as Speaker of the Hawaiian territorial legislature, in 1948. He served three terms in that position before being ousted, in a close election, in 1954. Fong fell only 31 votes shy of reelection in that contest.

The Senate and Statehood

Though out of office, Fong remained involved in politics. He served as a delegated to the Republican National Conventions in 1952 and 1956. He also continued to diversify his business interests, founding Finance Factors Limited in 1952. He managed his personal assets until they totaled several million dollars by 1960. But his principal cause during these years was statehood for Hawaii, which was finally achieved, in 1959. That June, Fong was selected by Republican voters as their candidate for one of Hawaii's two United States Senate seats. He ran against Democrat Frank F. Fasi and relied on his labor connections and personal success story for support. On July 28, 1959, Hawaii's voters elected Fong by just over 9000 votes.

When Hawaii was formally admitted as America's 50th state on August 21, Fong and his Democratic colleagues, Oren E. Long and Daniel K. Inouye, stood in line to be sworn in as the island's first congressional delegation. Fong won a coin flip with Long to be granted the designation "senior senator," thereby achieving a lifelong dream for himself and his state.

Moderate Voice in Senate

During his first term in the Senate, Fong served on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and the Public Works Committee. In October of 1959, to improve relations with Asia, he embarked on a 45-day tour of that continent. He received a warm welcome from the Chinese communities in the various countries he visited.

Fong soon began became a leading voice in the moderate faction of the Republican Party. During the administration of John F. Kennedy, he often sided with the Democratic president on issues of civil rights, aide to education, and civil service reform. In March of 1963 Fong was one of seven Republicans to introduce a package of civil rights legislation in the Senate. On foreign policy issues, however, Fong sided more consistently with the conservative majority in his party,

After winning reelection in 1964, Fong continued on the same track in his second term-moderate on domestic issues, "hawkish" on foreign affairs. He supported President Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act, in 1965, and worked to eliminate immigration restrictions against Asians. He spoke out in favor of control and applauded Johnson's proposal to set up a special Administration on Aging. But Fong defied the president, in opposing his nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas, in 1968. On the war in Vietnam, Fong was an early and enthusiastic supporter-a position which often put him in hot water with his Asian-American constituents.

Rightward Turn

In 1968, Fong endorsed former Vice President Richard M. Nixon in his race for president. His support signaled a pronounced conservative tilt and more partisan stance from Hawaii Republican. Following Nixon's election, Fong became one of his most ardent backers, in the Senate. He consistently voted the for president's large defense budgets and spoke out loudly in defense of Nixon's Vietnam policy. Other programs Fong supported during this period included the Anti-Ballistic Missile System (ABM) and supersonic transport (SST).

Fong's rightward turn may have strengthened his position within the Republican Party, but it cost him support from the voters of Hawaii. In 1970, he won election to a third term by a narrow margin. When he returned to the Senate for the 92nd Congress, in January 1971, he moderated his positions somewhat. Key positions of Fong's third term were his support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and his opposition to forced busing to achieve school integration. Most damaging to Fong was a bribery scandal involving one of his long-time aides. While no blame was ever assigned to Fong, he nevertheless declined to seek a fourth term, in 1976. Spark M. Matsunaga, a former Democratic representative, succeeded Fong in the U.S. Senate.

Retirement and Riches

In 1977, Fong retired to a 725-acre botanical garden on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Here he farmed his land and oversaw his various business interests. By 1993, Finance Factors Ltd. which he had founded in 1952, saw its sales grow to $44.5 million. Fong used part of his fortune to found three charitable organizations. He donated $100,000 annually to mostly local causes. In 1995, Fong was inducted into the Hawaii Business Hall of Fame. Speaking to the magazine Hawaii Business soon after his induction, he gave the following advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, "No. 1, get as much education as you can. No. 2, find someone established that you can apprentice yourself to."

Further Reading

Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 CQ Staff Directories, Inc., 1996.

Political Profiles: The Johnson Years edited by Nelson Lichtenstein, Facts on File, 1976.

Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years edited by Nelson Lichtenstein, Facts on File, 1976.

Political Profiles: The Nixon/Ford Years edited by Eleanora W. Schoenebaum, Facts on File, 1979.

Hawaii Business, January 1995.

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Fong, Hiram Leong

(b. 15 October 1906 [some sources give 1 October 1907] in Honolulu, Hawaii, d. 18 August 2004 in Honolulu, Hawaii), senator from Hawaii when statehood was achieved in 1959 and the first congressman of Chinese ancestry.

Fong, born Yau Leong Fong, was the seventh of eleven children. Because immigrant children were born at home and births irregularly reported, some sources list his birth date as 1 October 1907, and Fong himself used that date. Fong’s father, Fong Sau Howe, came from China’s Guangdong province in 1872 as an indentured servant and was a laborer on sugar plantations for $12 a month. Fong’s mother, Lum Fong Shee, also an indentured servant, arrived in Hawaii at the age of ten and worked as a maid. Hiram attended Kalihi-Waena Grammar School and supplemented the family income by selling fish and crabs that he caught.

As a youth Fong worked as a golf caddy, shined shoes, delivered poi, and guided tourists to local shrines. While attending President William McKinley High School, Fong sold bags of beans on the streets. He was a mediocre student in the class of 1924, but many of his classmates—children of immigrants—became businessmen, physicians, and educators. At least one became a state supreme court justice. After graduation from high school Fong worked for three years as a supply clerk at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.

Although he worked his way through the University of Hawaii, Fong was active in extracurricular activities. He played volleyball, was a member of the rifle team, was a debater, edited the campus newspaper, was associate editor of the yearbook, and was president of the student Young Men’s Christian Association, the Chinese Student Alliance, and other student organizations. Although not enamored of the military, Fong joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps because the thirty cents per day he received as a senior cadet provided his lunches. Fong’s first visit to the mainland United States was to participate in a rifle competition in 1929. Despite this heavy schedule in college, Fong was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, graduating in three years and receiving a BA as a member of the class of 1930. Sources do not specify when Fong changed his name to Hiram. Newspapers used that name when he was in college.

Bitten by the political bug while still a student, Fong made speeches for a candidate for sheriff and for Fred Wright’s successful campaign for mayor of Honolulu. After graduation Fong was employed in the suburban water system. In 1932 he began law studies at Harvard University as a probationary student. Successfully completing his studies and receiving a JD in 1935, Fong returned to Honolulu as a deputy city attorney.

On 25 June 1938 Fong married Ellyn Sai Ngun Lo. The couple had four children. Between 1938 and 1942 Fong began private legal practice and was one of the founders of the law firm Fong, Miho, Choy, and Robinson. Fong won political office for the first time as a member of the territorial House of Representatives. He was an independent Republican, and his legislative seat was challenged by members of his own party. A reserve officer, Fong entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and served as judge advocate of the Seventh Fighter Command of the Seventh Air Force. By the end of World War II, he had attained the rank of major.

After the war Fong resumed his political career. His most notable achievement was legislation permitting agricultural workers to form unions. In 1950 Fong served as vice president of the territorial constitutional convention. Losing a bid for reelection in 1954, Fong turned to business and started a number of successful companies. In 1959 Hawaii was admitted to statehood, and although a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, Fong was elected one of the state’s first two U.S. senators. He became the first Asian to serve in the Senate, an accomplishment of which he was quite conscious.

A stalwart Republican, Fong was noted for his work on immigration and naturalization reform as well as for encouraging relations with the People’s Republic of China and other nations in Asia. He also had the reputation of quickly responding to the concerns of his constituents. After three full terms Fong retired on 2 January 1977, citing the exhausting travel between Hawaii and Washington, D.C., as a major reason. He was 71 years old. Fong had been the ranking Republican on six Senate committees. Senator Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat, said, “One can only speak of Hawaii in superlatives. Hawaii can, therefore, be proud that it has been represented by a man of superlatives, Senator Hiram L. Fong.”

During his long years in Washington, Fong seemed to have lost his keen edge for business. In the several years after his retirement from the Senate, Fong suffered a number of financial setbacks. In 1978 the family real estate investment group was shattered by the disclosure of financial irregularities. In 1981 Fong purchased a barge from Hong Kong to use as a Chinese-style showboat and restaurant, but the enterprise quickly went bankrupt. Fong’s attempt to create a shopping complex and housing project was rejected by the Honolulu city council a year later.

In 1988 Fong created a 725-acre botanical garden in Kahalu’u called Senator Fong’s Plantation and Gardens, which included a library for his papers. That project was foreclosed in 2003 with debts of more than $700,000. Three of Fong’s children and several of his grandchildren saved the gardens with the high bid at the foreclosure auction.

Fong’s financial difficulties reached a climax in 2003 because of a series of well-publicized lawsuits over control of a number of family-owned businesses. In one case his youngest son and daughter-in-law sued for control of Ocean View Cemetery, charging that Fong had been bilked in a gold mine scam. At the same time, Finance Factors, Ltd., which Fong had founded more than forty years earlier, announced that for personal reasons he was resigning as chief executive officer. In March 2003 Fong and his wife filed for bankruptcy protection, citing debts of almost $1 million.

By 2003 Fong’s health had seriously deteriorated. Since 2002 kidney failure had necessitated thrice-weekly dialysis treatments. Fong’s hearing was failing, and he used a walker because of injuries sustained in a fall. He died of kidney failure on 18 August 2004 at Saint Francis Medical Center, Honolulu. His remains are interred in Nuuanu Memorial Park, Honolulu.

During his long career Fong received many honorary degrees and other honors and awards. A loyal alumnus of the University of Hawaii, he received its Founders’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, and an exhibit of his career was presented in the new addition to the university library. Fong will be remembered as one of those who brought statehood to Hawaii and served as its first senator. He is also recognized for his accomplishments as a leader among Asian Americans, as a statesman, and as a successful businessman. His later financial setbacks should not detract from his well-earned reputation.

The Fong books and congressional papers are in the library of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. His early career is traced in the University of Hawaii PhD dissertation by Michaelyn P. Chou, “The Education of a Senator: Hiram L. Fong 1906–1954” (1980). For information on the latter part of Fong’s career, see U.S. Congress, Senate, Tributes to the Honorable Hiram L. Fong (1977). An obituary is in the Honolulu Advertiser (18 Aug. 2004).

Art Barbeau