Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project
Darrell H. Y. Lum
Interview of Darrell H. Y. Lum (DL), conducted by Misty-Lynn Sanico (MS) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project via Zoom, on April 1, 2022. Darrell speaks of his childhood, the time leading up to the press’ founding, and the successes and challenges of running Bamboo Ridge. Darrell also recalls Eric Chock and others.
The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Darrell H. Y. Lum (DL) on April 1, 2022. The interview took place via Zoom, and was conducted by Misty-Lynn Sanico (MS) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. This interview is part one of three sessions.
Darrell H. Y. Lum and Misty-Lynn Sanico have reviewed the transcript. Their corrections and emendations appear below in brackets with initials. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
MS: Hello. It’s April 1, 2022. Happy April Fool’s Day. I’m here with Darrell H. Y. Lum, and we’re going to start the first session of his oral history interview. Hi, Darrell! Okay, so, let’s start. What is your full name?
DL: Darrell Hong Yip Lum.
MS: This is just me asking, I’m curious, but were you named after anybody? Or is there a reason they chose your names, your parents?
DL: I don’t know for sure. It might have been chosen by my grandfather. It means something to the effect of “successful endeavor” or something like that. You know the Pa-kes, when they name their children or their grandchildren, they have grand visions of hoping that their children will live up to their name.
MS: When were you born?
DL: April 2, 1950.
MS: Oh, tomorrow’s your birthday!
MS: I didn’t know, we could have done this after your birthday. Happy birthday!
DL: Thank you! Thank God it wasn’t April Fool. Thank God I wasn’t the April Fool.
MS: Okay, talk a little bit about growing up—what life was like for you when you were young. Small kine Darrell Lum.
DL: Small kine Darrell Lum grew up in the Liliha area, ‘Ālewa Heights, sort of the lower part of ‘Ālewa. Went to Ma‘ema‘e school and Kawānanakoa and McKinley High School. I have an older brother who’s six years older than me, so I was the brat kid brother who followed him around and our extent of our conversation was he would say, “Go home. No, go home!” [laughs]
He didn’t want me hanging out with him and his friends but there weren’t many other kids around in our neighborhood. One of my closest friends was almost a mile away, so you know, it was a chore to either go to his house or he come to my house. So, a lot of time just hanging out with my brother and being a pest.
MS: Little brothers are good at that. Okay so tell me a little bit about the neighborhood. What was it like? You know what were your impressions of really growing up in Liliha? ‘Ālewa Heights? I mean what was the neighborhood like? Was there a lot of diversity?
DL: Not really.
MS: Obviously, you said no more not that many kids, but—
DL: Yeah, you know it was a kind of a middle-class neighborhood. Mostly, I’m not sure how exactly we ended up there because it was in an older neighborhood, a lot of the people were, when I was growing up, were already senior citizens or retired. My mother was a housewife, so she was always home. And like I said, there weren’t many other kids around.
Next door was a kind of fairly large estate. It had maybe half a dozen rental homes on it and because it was a rental, you know, people came and went and we didn’t really get to know that side of the neighbors.
DL: So pretty much I had to fend for myself. And be the brat.
MS: Yeah, tell me a little bit about your house and your room, what were some of your favorite things from small kid time. Marbles?
DL: Marbles [laughs] yeah! Well it was a single wall, tongue and groove, Douglas Fir, two-story house. When I was growing up, the bottom floor wasn’t really a floor, was that under the house area that was, you know, the posts and gravel. So, I would have to fend for myself and play under the house when my brother didn’t want me around, and like I said, there weren’t a lot of other kids. The ones that were in my class at school, it took a twenty-minute walk to get to there. And you know, not like nowadays where your parents drive you to a playdate, right? No such thing, you know. I mean, my mother wouldn’t mind if I wanted to walk to my friend’s house, but you know, I mean she didn’t drive anyway. But I mean she wasn’t gonna take me, right?
MS: Yeah, and that seems pretty far for little Darrell to walk. So Ma‘ema‘e Elementary is where you had most of your friends. You want to talk a little bit about that? About your experience at elementary school, and I understand you met Eric at Ma‘ema‘e?
DL: Yeah, yeah. He wasn’t in my kindergarten class, but he was in, I think from first grade on.
I think one of my stories makes reference to having to recite the Gettysburg Address in either the fifth or sixth grade. And be in the Presidents’ Day assembly in the cafeteria, right? The whole class had to memorize the Gettysburg Address and then the best sort of orator had to go and recite, and I wasn’t smart enough to figure out that I should screw up, right? You know, because then you gotta go in front of the assembly and you have the construction paper stovepipe hat and whatever, a crepe paper bow tie. [laughs]
MS: So, were you the one that had to get up in front of everybody at the assembly?
MS: Wow! Did your parents get to come and see your oratory brilliance?
DL: No, and well actually, it wasn’t the whole school assembly. It must have been fifth grade. It was like a fifth grade gathering. Basically, everybody in the fifth or sixth grade, you know the curriculum was the same, so everybody had to learn the Gettysburg Address. So it was, yeah.
MS: Okay. So that’s something that actually happened that sort of ended up in one of your stories.
DL: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.
MS: I was about to say, “No Pass Back” and then “What School You Went,” that paper you wrote where you included a little bit about elementary school I was wondering, it’s so vividly written, is it inspired by your time at Ma‘ema‘e?
DL: Yeah, of course. I mean the, you know, “Pass On, No Pass Back” didn’t really happen. But there was a kid in class that was like Alfred who, you know, didn’t fit in and was the butt of everybody’s jokes and teasing. I was as guilty as everybody else so I suppose that story was kind of a guilt payment. Acknowledging that I was complicit. You know, but a lot of material comes from remembering those times.
MS: Okay, so Eric was just someone you knew or was he a good friend? Like aside from being in the same classes, how did you guys meet? Any specific memories stick out?
DL: Eric was one of the cool kids because he was a pretty good athlete, you know, could play basketball. I couldn’t. I was chosen last, always, and had to be the basketball substitute, which meant you basically never played.
DL: Such the loser, man. [laughs]
DL: Wow, boy, that was.. just traumatized.
MS: So, you were very good at fifth grade speeches but what about what about art? ‘Cause later on, art is a big part of your life. Did you start drawing early? Tell me about little Darrell and art.
DL: Little Darrell and art. I forget what grade it was. Must have been the lower elementary. I don’t know, second or third grade. The schools had this kind of, like the artist in the schools program. And so artists would come and give you a lesson about whatever, the color wheel or—and well, I don’t know if it was a culmination or one of the activities—she taught like three classes and so the culmination of her visit to Ma‘ema‘e school to teach art was you bring all, you remember those wooden easels with the clips at the top and the big paper? So, the culmination was, I think, three classes. We all went out in the yard with the easel and put up a new sheet of paper and we had to paint something, right? And so you know, everybody was painting these whatever, the traditional tree with the puffy green cloud and stuff. And for some reason I, and I don’t know what the prompt was, that I painted a sheep. And the teacher really liked it [laughs] and it didn’t look anything like a sheep, but because you know you think, okay sheep have wool and the wool is sort of squiggly. And so I made the sheep squiggly and then the sky had squiggly clouds and whatnot, and the vegetation was squiggly, and so she liked that.
MS: Okay, what about intermediate time? What was life like then? What kind of books did you like to read when you were younger? What kind of stories, you know, was it, were you like a Kikaida kid? What kind of stories did you like to hear?
DL: Misty, never have Kikaida!
MS: Oh, sorry.
DL: [laughs] Had Ramona and Beezus. Had Homer Price and the Donut Factory. [pause] My parents would drop me off at the state, well it wasn’t state then, at the main library and leave me there while they went grocery shopping. So, I got to wander through the Edna Allyn Room, the children’s room. Then if that got too boring, I got to wander around the rest of [the] library, yeah? But anyways, I forget your question now.
MS: What was intermediate like in terms of art or stories or your experiences? ‘Cause you write, or a lot of your stories are from a younger time, not so much intermediate or high school.
DL: Hmm, I wasn’t a band guy. So, the choices were you were either in band or chorus so I had to be in chorus and then the other semester it was art or shop.
MS: Which one did you take?
DL: I got put in chorus. I took, uh, I took art, but I really love shop. I really like woodshop. You know, it was like, “Wow!” You know, it’s like, possible danger. Possible to lose a finger or do some real damage. [laughs] And I remember metal shop. Oh, we must have just drove the teacher crazy because you know, seventh, eighth grade, you’re just a bunch of punks. And so I think to tether our youthful enthusiasm, the project was to make a candy dish out of sheet aluminum. So, you cut out the aluminum in a shape, either oval or round, and then it meant you spent the next two weeks with a ball peen hammer whacking the heck out of this aluminum so that it’d get that texture. You know, it would be textured and then just by the nature of it, the aluminum would curve into a bowl, right?
DL: And then you took that home to your mother and she would—thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I mean, you can imagine that the whole class, we all had to do the same thing and we all had a hammer. [laughs] And we were whacking it, through the whole forty-five minutes, you know.
MS: We can go to McKinley now, you want to talk about that? What was high school like for an artsy Darrell who liked to read?
DL: That’s when I got pegged to do all the AP classes. And so, I was in whatever, AP Math and then we started a Math Club. And again, since I wasn’t an athlete, um, there was Math Club and then we played chess. What a nerd, right? [laughs] We played chess—you know, lunchtime, after lunch or after school.
MS: I think we would have been friends if we went to high school at the same time. What was McKinley like in that time, right? Sort of late ’60s? Tell me.
DL: Here’s my legacy to McKinley High School ROTC program. We were required to take two years of ROTC. I’m not sure if I told you this story? Once a week—
MS: Hmm, no.
DL: Yeah, and it was required. You know your mother had to starch and iron the uniform and once a week you had to go to school early and line up and there’d be this big parade. And then for the rest of the day you had to salute the officers. No matter you know, because I just, I didn’t have any stripes at all, right? And they had officers and sponsors. So, those were the girls who were attached to the officers. And of course, the rules were all the cadets had to salute whenever you came across an officer, or the sponsor—you had to salute them. And if you did it sloppily, they would stop and correct you and you could get demerits and all this stuff. It was just, just awful. Especially if ROTC was in the first or second period, which meant all the rest of the day you had to salute. So I figured out after ROTC class I had my Pan Am bag, I changed clothes. So, like I said, my legacy to McKinley High School ROTC was that soon many others followed my lead, that as soon as ROTC was over you would change out of the uniform, therefore you wouldn’t have to salute anybody.
DL: Yeah, that was probably the earliest inklings that I would become a member of The Young Locals for Peace when I was in college.
DL: It was [an] anti-war group of students at UH.
MS: Okay, I’m gonna make note of that for when we get to talking about what UH was like at this time. What was that organization called?
DL: Young Locals for Peace.
MS: Okay, I will remember to ask you about that again.
DL: [laughs] Which sounds like a bunch of thugs, right?
MS: No, no, that’s so interesting! You mentioned AP classes, AP Math. What about AP Language Arts, AP English, anything like that? Were you in those classes as well?
DL: AP English and AP Chemistry. But my English teacher—and again, this was sort of a result of my growing pacifism. [laughs] Actually, it was mostly not wanting to wear the uniform. It was the time, you know, the late ’60s and my English teacher thought I displayed some pacifist tendencies, and so for my book report she has assigned me—what’s his name? The autobiography of the famous pacifist? I’ll remember it at some point, but—
MS: So, you had to do a book report.
DL: Yeah, except the autobiography was 600 pages long.
MS: Wow. That’s a long book report.
DL: [laughs] You know it’s, I said, “Oh man!” Bertram Russell was his name.
MS: Bertram Russell.
DL: Yeah was, I believe, an English pacifist.
MS: Did you get a good grade on the book report? Do you remember?
DL: I don’t think I read the whole thing. I just read enough to do a half-decent job of writing a book report.
MS: Sorry, just to go back, why ROTC, was it not an elective or—
DL: It was required. Believe it or not, two years was required. And it was taught by real, like not retired-type, sergeants, right? These were active duty. This was their real job, right? Sort of an aside, a very sad thing was that our sergeant, Sergeant Lima, after he left McKinley, went to Vietnam and he was one of the earliest casualties in the Vietnam War. So, it was very sad to learn that.
MS: Yeah. What was your favorite subject in high school? Which class did you like the best?
DL: My favorite class. I like math.
MS: Well, you were eventually going to university as an engineering student. I’m curious how that happened.
DL: I like math, and English less so, even though it was also an AP class. I did okay in it. It was interesting because in math, it was not so much the subject, but sort of the camaraderie, because of the math teacher that was teaching AP Calculus who was the advisor for the Math Club. Pretty much everybody that was in AP Calculus, you know, was in the Math Club and you know it was just, you just hung out.
AP English there was this haole guy from the mainland, I forget his name, and I think he was trying to get his teaching credentials—really smart guy, I think he already had finished college or with his Master’s degree—so he had to practice teaching with us and he started kind of like a study group with our AP English class. We were all sort of geared up for that because we thought this is big time, right? This is like what you do when you’re in college. You know so, so that was kind of fun. We actually went to his house, and we had these readings and small group discussions. Maybe eight, ten of us. You know, but it was an introduction to that sort of style of learning and discussion about literature and taking it apart and figuring out what it meant. So, that was kind of cool.
MS: So, what kind of literature were you drawn to at that time, like high school time? Do you remember what you were exposed to, or what you connected with?
DL: I don’t really remember. I think it was required reading for the AP English test. You know whatever people thought, you should have read. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was.
MS: I’m curious about early influences for you, but in one of your biographies, it says that your grandfather was a poet.
DL: That was all sort of second hand. It only came up because my father pointed it out. In their house there were these big scrolls of all Chinese writing, and my father would point out that, “Oh, your grandfather was a poet.” And on that family property, it was hilly, so the backyard you had to go up really steep stairs, and I never saw it, but he said there was kind of like a gazebo at the top of the hill, and my grandfather would go there and write.
The only things I could find that he wrote—that Wing Tek’s wife translated for me—was not really poetry. Was these congratulatory messages, to other writers in this writing group, for writing a wonderful piece. So, it was about other writers and their writing. And it was sort of this flowery accolade. But I never saw anything that was his own sort of creative work. Although, I don’t know enough about it but I suspect much of it was a form that was sort of dictated that you had to follow.
MS: When was the first time you felt like you connected to something that you read, or what kind of literature did you first feel connected to? I don’t know if that’s in high school or maybe college time for you.
DL: Ramona and Beezus, you know that was real to me. I mean, if you’re asking about local literature or that kind of stuff, it wasn’t until college. Milton Murayama.
MS: Okay, when did you first start writing your own stories and poems?
DL: Probably about the third or fourth grade. [laughs]
MS: Tell me about it.
DL: My mother—well you know mothers, of course, who keep everything that you ever come home with—she had kept this fantasy story that was two pages long and was of course illustrated with crayon, some kind of purple monster. I have no recollection except that she had kept it. This was long before the—who’s that purple dinosaur?
DL: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] And then nothing until college.
MS: Interesting, okay.
DL: But well, because I was a math geek. I went to engineering school.
MS: What made you choose The Case Institute of Technology, what drew you there?
DL: Stupidity. [laughs] No, the truth is, Case Institute was at the time the third ranked engineering school in the country. And I didn’t get into MIT or CalTech. [laughs] so it was Case Institute. And as a matter of fact, from that McKinley High School Math Club, a kid one or two years older than me was going to Case. So that was kind of the connection, you know. Where he could at least tell me about it—see whether I wanted to go there.
MS: Tell me about leaving Hawai‘i, leaving home. Try to think back and remember how you felt, what you thought, and then when you got there, what was that experience like living there? Was there culture shock?
DL: I’d never been to the mainland. Nowadays when you send your kids off to college, the parents go with them and settle them in the dorm, buy them food and stuff. It wasn’t like that. They sent you off in a borrowed winter coat and said, “See ya!” at the airport. [laughs]
It must have been scary, but I don’t remember it being real scary. I don’t know why. I think I was well-prepped from that other kid who was already going to Case. So, I knew exactly what to do. How to get from the airport to the campus on the metro, all of that kind of stuff. I felt pretty confident about it, and for the first time, I was independent. I was on my own, and I could make my own decisions, yeah. So that part was good.
The culture shock was of course going to school with 500 other freshman engineers and you didn’t really have to register because everybody was taking the same classes, it was just at different times. [laughs]
Out of 500, there were 14 women. And it was kind of a Greek school, you know the frats and sororities were all things in terms of your life outside of class. And there was a small group of us who were the “GDI’s,” the God Damn Independents. You know when I say it was a Greek school it’s like everything outside of class was about the Greeks, so the newspaper, all they wrote about was what was going on at the frats and whose party house was the best and it was stupid, so all the GDI’s published their own paper.
MS: Wow, tell me more about that. What role did you have in that?
DL: I didn’t really have a role other than being a cheerleader for it. But that experience was interesting because—no fast internet, no cheap telephone calls, so you had to write letters. And I was homesick enough where I had to, you know—you have to write letters to get letters back. Basically, that’s sort of the game and not so much to my family but to other kids that were either in school on the mainland, or in school in Hawai‘i. So that was the communication. And maybe the start of writing, really.
MS: That’s a good segue. Eric was going to college near you. Is that how you guys kept? In touch.
DL: Yeah, he went UPenn. Some of the others in the math class went to—oh, what’s the women’s university attached to Harvard? One went to Antioch in Ohio—Massachusetts. And just so happened that my freshman year at Case Institute, our mentor math teacher, the one that roped us all into the Math Club, had a sabbatical at Boston University. So, she was sort of the core of getting her students to come and get together at Christmas break. Because again, in those days you didn’t go home for Christmas break. You had to fend for yourself. Same with Thanksgiving.
MS: I was gonna ask if you had gotten a chance to go home while you were there, did you?
DL: [laughs] It’s go and then end of school year, you come back.
MS: Are there any interesting stories from that time on the mainland?
DL: I think I made mention or wrote about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. There was so much pollution floating on the surface that the river caught on fire. And that just goes like, how can that be? First time I saw snow, it was dirty. During the breaks when I couldn’t go home, I bought things like SPAM and Vienna sausage from the Italian grocer, and you know, sliced salami and stuff like that. And cooked it in a popcorn popper. You know you can do quite well with the popcorn popper. It was just a heating element. You could open a can of Campbell soup—make soup and sandwiches.
MS: Your engineering background coming through, huh? So, break time you would buy what you could get of local kine foods. You wrote letters to home. How else did you try to stay connected to Hawai‘i while you were away?
DL: It’s just that during Christmas break and spring break all the McKinley kids, Math Club kids got together. You know that was the connection. Oh, by the way, did I mention that when I returned to UH, I was a transfer student and got put on academic probation?
MS: [laughs] No. I do believe that about transferring credits to UH, though. Notorious for that, UH.
DL: All the engineering students from your freshman year—I’m not sure how long, how many years, but it was pass-fail. So, you didn’t get a grade. You just pass or fail. You could pass with honors—so that was a little bit of evaluation, I guess.
Remember the show Dobie Gillis and the statue of The Thinker in the front? It’s in the front of the Cleveland Museum of Art. And I used to love going there, you know it was like, “Wow, this is—” It’s just we only had the Honolulu Academy right? It’s not this giant four- or five-story museum. Well, Case Institute could take courses from Western Reserve and this was before they merged and became Case Western Reserve. So, I decided to take an Asian history course from a man named Sherman Lee, he wasn’t Chinese, but he wrote the book on Asian art. So, I said, “Hey. The man who wrote the book on Asian art is teaching a course, I’m gonna take that course,” right?
Nobody else in Case Institute was stupid enough to take an extra course on top of all the other courses they had. But I stubborn. So, I take the course and I got a D. It was a great course. You know, but when you take art history courses you go to class and pretty much you look at slides and the guy tells you about the slide and the history of it. And you know, this and that. And of course, when you get the tests, you just get the slide and then you have to write about it.
MS: Very different from math, right?
DL: Right. Well, I got a D. And since all my other courses was pass-fail, it didn’t matter that it was passed with honors. I had a 1.0 grade point average. [laughs]
MS: Going into UH? Poor thing.
DL: So, after one semester I got off of probation but to get off probation you had to go and.talk to the counselor, and she says, “Oh, you did very well to improve your grade.” [laughs]
MS: During your freshman year, did you have any idea of a specialty for engineering?
DL: Not really. I was interested in architecture, and I was interested in design—construction that kind of stuff—so it probably would have been civil engineering. But you know at that point everybody was taking the same stuff anyway, you didn’t specialize. It was interesting, there was a lot of folks in school who were into chemical engineering. And apparently, that was where the jobs were. But I didn’t like chemistry. [laughs]
When you go to an engineering school, everybody is really smart and really brilliant I mean. There were freshmen who were already working as interns, that kind of stuff, or for firms. So, their paths were well laid out.
We lived in a nine-story dormitory. I lived on the fourth floor, but the guys on eight and nine would always get upset that it would take so long, because all the lower floors were using the elevator. So, one night they rewired the elevator so that no matter what you pushed, it went to eight or nine. That’s what you’re up against, you know? [laughs]
MS: Engineering school pranks, yeah?
DL: Oh my God.
MS: What made you decide to come back to Hawai‘i?
DL: In part, living and eating and sleeping with those 500 other engineers with the same homework, with exactly the same courses, that made you question whether or not this is what you really want. And I think I was fortunate in that way, ‘cause I think if I stayed at UH and still had my high school friends to hang out with—after you go to classes at UH, you go home where you have a life with your friends. And so, your whole life isn’t engineering school.
It’s good, in a way, that I got to experience that and then have to make a decision. Is this what I want? ‘Cause you know these are the kind of folks I’m gonna be working with the rest of my career if I become an engineer.
MS: And what did your friends and family think about your coming back to Hawai‘i?
DL: Probably they weren’t very happy about it because it’s sort of a sign of failure, yeah? Then to come back and tell my father that I decided I’m going to be a non-major major [laughs] and study creative writing and art. This was before it was renamed Liberal Studies. But at the time it was literally called the “Non-major Major” and you could make up your own major equivalent. You know you still take all the core courses, but then the courses that made-up your major, you could invent. [laughs] So, I was a non-major major. In art and English, well more specifically in studio art, because I didn’t want to take art history. And then in English, creative writing, because I didn’t wanna take Old English and the periods of literature. It was just all avoidance.
MS: [laughs] Well, we can stop now if you want. It’s a good a pausing point. So, next session we can just start on your experience at UH and we can talk about the Young Locals for Peace.
MS: This is so much fun. I’m learning so much about you. It’s interesting to hear you tell these stories, Darrell, because I’m noticing a pattern of resistance. Like a pattern of rebellion and not wanting to go with the grain and I love that, I absolutely love that about you.
DL: [laughs] Oh boy.
Darrell H. Y. Lum is a fiction writer and playwright. He, along with Eric Chock, founded Bamboo Ridge Press in 1978 and both served as editors for 37 years. He is a retired academic advisor from UH-Mānoa. He has published several works for children and two short story collections, Sun: Short Stories (1980) and Pass On, No Pass Back (which received the 1992 Association for Asian American Studies National Book Award and the 1991 Elliot Cades Award for Literature).
Misty-Lynn Sanico writes any ‘kine in Honolulu. She was a regular book reviewer for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaiʻi Reads. Her work has been published in Bamboo Ridge, Nonwhite and Woman, Abstract Magazine, and more.