Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project
Interview of Eric Chock (EC), conducted by Donald Carreira Ching (DCC) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project via Zoom, in the summer of 2022. Eric Chock speaks of his childhood, the time leading up to the press’ founding, and the successes and challenges of running Bamboo Ridge. Eric Chock also recalls Darrell H. Y. Lum and others.
The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Eric Chock (EC) on [Date Y]. The interview took place via Zoom, and was conducted by Donald Carreira Ching (DCC) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. This interview is the first of five sessions.
Eric Chock and Donald Carreira Ching 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.
DCC: When were you born, and where are you from?
EC: I was born on August 8, 1950, in Kapiʻolani Hospital in Honolulu. I lived at our family home on Apio Lane, which is outside downtown Honolulu. I lived there until I left for college.
DCC: From reading your writing, there’s a longer history for you and your family with that area, is that correct?
EC: Well, my father’s family grew up on a small lane near School Street, just a few blocks from where I grew up. My grandparents were close by, and we’d go to church a block away from them, then walk over after Sunday School to my Chinese grandparents for a snack or Sunday lunch sometimes. My father grew up in that area near Chun Hoon with lots of cousins around.
For me there was the juxtaposition of the different neighbors around Apio Lane. On one hand, there was this dirt lane that went up to our house, which was surrounded by cemetery and our house was next to the crematory. There were watercress and vegetable farms above us, some taro here and there, and then the large Robinson estate off to the side on Robinson Lane with its big colonial mansion with the columns in the front, and their big white houses and that big yard, that heritage property. Then there was Apio Lane, with some Apios still living there in the old wooden houses, and just back of them was Kekau Place, where Kekaulike, aka Princess Abigail Kawānanakoa had a nice house with a pool and a huge, tall fence around her property. My parents actually bought our property from the princess; I still have the deed of sale with her signature. So, there was a lot of history there. It was interesting to me that all the streets were named after people or families actually living there. Not to mention, in the cemetery, when I walked around, all the famous local names are there in Oʻahu Cemetery. Different members of our family are buried just across the street in the next cemetery.
Talking about my neighborhood, the area was surrounded by Waiolani Stream on one side and Nuʻuanu Stream on the other side, with an ‘auwai from Waiolani Stream running from the watercress farm to just a few feet away from my bedroom. I used to go across Nu‘uanu Avenue and go fishing all the time. People went swimming there in ‘Alekoki Pond and Kapena Falls. And, it was a time when we just walked a couple blocks to school, and we just walked through people’s yards, and the neighborhood was ours. And it was those days when for snacks, we just climbed the mango or Java plum trees along the stream. So, in that sense it was kind of idyllic. It was a good life.
Also, in our yard, what’s historically interesting is from the time when I was little, cleaning the yard, I found broken pieces of blue and white china in the dirt or pieces of old bottles. We even had a couple of stone poi pounders and horseshoes [we know that the princess loved horses -EC], so that was interesting, too. And at the same time, while I say we grew up on a dirt lane, there were newer houses just down the street, not far away around from Liliha Bakery and Kawānanakoa Intermediate school, and they were starting to have those concrete block buildings. So there was a sort of mix of the old wooden plantation style houses and then these newer buildings and things that were coming up at the same time.
DCC: So quite literally, the history was in the soil, and then you’re at that precipice of change because you had kind of that history that was from the past, and you also had that kind of future that was being built up around it?
EC: Yeah, that’s the way I see it, I mean we could see the graves of Dillingham and people like that, and then across the street was the Royal Mausoleum. And the old plantation style houses were still around, plus the cemetery workers’ housing next door. And sections of the cemeteries were descendants of plantation workers. And you also had missionary families, or Alexander Cartwright of baseball fame, or old sailors’ graves, or sections for the Knights of Columbus or whatever. John Dominis Holt was there. And then there were the Apios and the Hawaiian families living across the street, not to mention the family whose name was given to our intermediate school. The historical past was there.
DCC: How do you think growing up there impacted you and your writing?
EC: Oh, of course, as you say, from reading some of my writing, it was important enough to need or want to write about a lot of those things. I grew up in a time when I, when people still felt very tied to place, and it was more a mainland thing for people to travel a lot, and for families to move across the country, and not to have relatives around. Whereas to us, my father grew up just a few blocks away, and so we went to see grandparents a lot, and church was down the block from their house, and so we always saw them. And some days after church, we’d drive to Kalihi and spend time with my mother’s side of the family, so, you know, the neighborhood was part of our family traditions.
My father grew up next to the Nuʻuanu Y. Chinatown was not that far away. My grandfather on that side, he used to walk down to Chinatown. My grandfather on my mother’s side, when he lived with us for a little while, he used to walk down to ʻAʻala Park when it was a lot of old Japanese plantation workers and people like that. They used to hang out down there with the men. There was the Toyo Theater and lots of Japanese stores down there. He’d go down there and drink beer with the guys at night. So yeah, the neighborhood was, our whole life was all there. The setting for everything for at least three, four generations. So whenever I write about family or childhood, I draw on that background.
My father grew up next to the Nuʻuanu Y. Chinatown was not that far away. My grandfather on that side, he used to walk down to Chinatown. My grandfather on my mother’s side, when he lived with us for a little while, he used to walk down to ʻAʻala Park when it was a lot of old Japanese plantation workers and people like that. They used to hang out down there with the men. There was the Toyo Theater and lots of Japanese stores down there. He’d go down there and drink beer with the guys at night. So yeah, the neighborhood was, our whole life was all there. The setting for everything for at least three, four generations.
DCC: So, your family had been in that area for quite a while then, it sounds like?
EC: Well, my father grew up in that area between School Street and Vineyard, Fort Street, that area. My mother is from Kaua‘i. She had come over after high school.
DCC: What schools did you go to? What were your experiences like in those schools?
EC: I went to Maʻemaʻe Elementary, Kawānanakoa Intermediate, and McKinley High School. I usually had a positive experience in school because I usually did well in school. I liked reading. My older sister was a good student, always did well in school, so every time I got to a new grade, teachers all knew who I was and treated me well. Maybe in part because my mother had been a teacher for a little while, and to get us to read, she took us to the library, the Edna Allyn Reading Room at the main library. We’d go there regularly. That was something that I did enjoy. There were a lot of good books.
DCC: What kind of books did you enjoy reading growing up?
EC: I do remember there were these Freddy the Pig books. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them, but this was like for little kids, I mean, animals that talk like humans. Charlotte’s Web, Little House on the Prairie, that kind of thing, and as I got older, there was a biography section of American heroes and things like that. I was into Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett. People I never heard of like Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys and Booker T. Washington. You know, Davy Crockett, at the time, or Daniel Boone, or both of them, I guess, they were famous on TV.
Once I hit eleven or twelve, I started fishing more, and began to read Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, Salt Water Sportsman. After I got a paper route, I spent some money subscribing to some of those. I even read The Shooter’s Bible after my Uncle Wongie gave me a .22 pellet rifle and that book. I became fascinated by the hundreds of kinds of guns, but after I shot a dove through both eyes, I gave up on that. I did shoot the mongooses that came to eat my pigeons. Also during that period, the neighborhood boys used to be into aquarium fish and pigeons, which I eventually got, too. So we’d read about the new fantail or veiltail guppies, Siamese fighting fish, all different kinds of tropical fish. My Uncle Eugene and Uncle Fusa helped me with some equipment, books, plants, and even tubifex worms. I remember thinking these hobbies were somehow going to lead to my adult occupation: fishing, fish, and birds. Maybe Darrell might remember our sixth grade essays on what we were going to be when we grew up. Mine was all outdoor related.
DCC: Did you connect to what you read?
EC: I guess I did. I connected to a variety of things that I read. It was more entertainment, I would say. Especially since we didn’t get a television till the mid-1950s and were not allowed to watch it very much. My parents were strict about that. It was interesting to me to read about all these other things. Like pioneer stories in my younger years. I know those pioneer stories, they portray them like these great American adventures, right? And I’d go out and try to make a bow and arrow out of panax or bamboo or whatever. My Aunty Kazue worked at Boy Scout headquarters and she’d give me Boys’ Life and stuff about swimming, fishing Indian-style with your bare hands, surviving outdoors. And in those days, there was nothing about what bad things happened to the Indians, or you know, colonizing the country, or anything like that. Although Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, I can’t remember which now. Davy Crockett, yeah, he’s the one that, in his story, he was famous for getting the Indian tribes to get along with the pioneers, so they wouldn’t murder everybody. Remember that part? And that famous line that people always quoted was, they thought they had a treaty with them, and then in Washington, you know they didn’t really observe the treaty. So, the Indians thought they were betrayed by Davy Crockett, and the line where he said something about the people in Washington, they lie, and he said, well, Davy Crockett don’t lie. It’s the theme song, “He give his word and he give his hand, that his Injun friends could keep their land.” I think that was maybe the Disney version. But at least he went to Washington and tried to make it right. That was probably the first, you know, anti-colonial, pro-Indian kind of story that I heard. And of course the pioneer was the hero in this.
There were also a lot of stories, just like now but maybe not as much, that were not in books. They were on television, and there was that thing around the ’50s and around these postwar movies. All these heroes and people wanted to be these white American male heroes in these war stories. When you know, kids play war, and when we played war, no one really wanted to be the Japanese, even if we were Japanese. That’s complicated, of course, because local Japanese fought the Japan Japanese. I don’t know that we ever thought about it as kids. You know, your question about what it meant or what you asked about whether I connected to stories. That’s the kind of thing that was going on whether we thought about it or not. I guess I was naïve. I thought I could be an Indian and make arrows with lava rock arrowheads. Plus, we all were barefoot most of the time until intermediate or high school.
DCC: Yeah, affecting you on that unconscious level. Do you think that’s something that you always felt?
EC: Well, regarding ethnicity, I guess that goes back to my name, with my middle name being an English name, my dad’s first name. Most of my friends were Japanese or Chinese, and had Japanese or Chinese middle names as my parents did, so I didn’t feel that connected to either culture. You know, in those days especially, there was a big difference between the two. I know I thought about it because I have this story that sticks in my mind about when I was in fourth grade in the YMCA, and I had this one counselor, who, when he found out that I was half half, he took me around to all his counselor friends, and he just put his arm around me and stood me there, and he said to his friends, “Guess what he is. You’ll never guess what he is.” And they couldn’t figure out what I was. They might guess Hawaiian or Filipino. They just never thought that I was half Japanese, half Chinese, that kind of thing, and it’s not that he was being mean or anything, it’s just like to him, he just was so surprised. It was just kind of a shock to him. Maybe the way he grew up there weren’t any people that married that way. That story’s from when I was like nine years old, and I remember that story to this day so it must have meant something.
DCC: Can you recall how you kind of felt at that time?
EC: I was just going along with the game. It was like a game, and it was fun. That was part of the game. It was kind of neat that people couldn’t figure it out. I felt kind of unique, although I know I did think about what that meant. And I liked this counselor. He became a minister. But you know how people talk about being racially pure. I think of intermarriage and especially there were a lot of Japanese, a majority or a large minority, that culture being so predominant in the Honolulu area, or certain areas anyway. I remember that old saying that you’re not pure, that means something, right? Actually, I had a teacher in a Poets in the Schools class write about that for her puppy love poem exercise, that she could not accept a Valentine’s gift from someone when she was a young teen, because although the bracelet said it was 100% silver, she was not 100% Japanese. So it means something to people to be pure or not.
I know there were times when ethnicity could be kind of a good thing. I remember walking to school, we used to try to walk through that old Chinese Buddhist temple as a shortcut, so we didn’t have to go all the way around the block, and one time, the monk caught us trying to go through their property and through their back gate to the school. And what he did was, there were maybe three or four of us, and he stopped us, and he asked us all what our last names were, and because my last name was Chinese, he let me go through and he didn’t let anybody else go through. They had to walk around. So that was one time when it was good for me. But I know on the flipside of that, there’s also the story of me not being allowed, I guess, to be a member of a kung fu club because I was not pure Chinese. So, there were both sides of that. But it was something that I was aware of as a child. It was not really a big thing to me then, but it was something.
It makes me think about what my parents were thinking and why they didn’t give us a Chinese and a Japanese name like some of my nieces and nephews. Or other people, they’ll have more than one, like a Hawaiian name and an Asian name, you know that kind of thing. But if you think, in the 1950s, that was not long after the war and there was all that Be American and all that kind of thing, to be patriotic and not to identify too much as being Japanese. And there was all that trouble with Japanese businesses being closed, and people being interned, and it was a big, big deal. So to me, it’s not surprising, and even Chinese and Koreans sometimes would be targeted too, right, just because they looked Asian, so like that Chinese woman just the other day in New York who was assaulted in her apartment and the anti-Asian thing is all related somehow. I can understand why, after the Speak American campaign or the “don’t talk pidgin” thing in the schools, and all that, it’s all connected, right?
DCC: Did you ever talk to your parents or your sister about that?
EC: I have three sisters and a brother. I don’t remember ever talking to them about names that way, about that issue. Yeah, I can’t remember. I know we talked about our names in the sense of, where did they come from? Maybe it was related to ethnicity, but I don’t remember. I just remember, “Where did our names come from?” And oh, you know, Aunty so-and-so suggested this name.
DCC: Who was your best friend, was it Darrell or was it someone else?
EC: I wouldn’t say I had one best friend in school. As a kid, I would say that had to do with the fact that my parents were kind of protective, and so we had to come home from school right after school every day. Back in those days, most of us walked home. So, aside from just in class, my friends were neighborhood boys. My sisters and I would usually come straight home from school. I would try to do my homework because I wouldn’t be able to go out until I did my homework, then go out and play with the neighborhood kids: climbing trees for mangoes or plums, fishing for crayfish or guppies or red moons or swordtails, maybe tilapia, playing baseball, stuff like that. As a kid, I got to know them much better than anyone in school.
One neighborhood kid I want to mention is James Benton. Jimmy lived down Judd Street from us, and there was a time we’d walk home together, go to his house, play cards or board games maybe, or he’d have to water the plants in the nursery his parents owned, where he lived. He used to call me Shorty, and kind of innocently marvel at how short I was. He was kind of big, really heavy set back then. Then he would go nah nah nah and it didn’t bother me. He was a year older than me and I looked up to him.
Sometimes he’d stop at our house so my mother got to know who he was. When he became famous, she’d tell me, “Jimmy was in the paper again.” Also, later, his younger brother became friends with my younger brother. They’d play basketball at the church down the block and I’d join them. Funny when I think about it how it was like our neighborhood basketball court even though none of us went to it for church. After sixth grade, I didn’t see James as much, though we were in band class the same year once or twice. His older brother used to surf Kewalos sometimes, where I used to surf in high school. It was kind of a coincidence that we both got into local literary arts, him first as a local comedian with Booga Booga; once he invited me backstage at the Territorial Tavern. I remember they did some political satire of local politicians, and of course used pidgin. Later he wrote Twelf Nite or Wateva and later performed some of Darrell’s pidgin stories. He definitely had impressive verbal skills. We talked a few times as adults, but we didn’t see each other much; he was in his own world.
But, yes, I did meet Darrell in first grade, and we were in classes together for twelve years. So we got to know each other real well, and I remember when we were in elementary school, from Maʻemaʻe School. I do remember, one time, walking up to his house, from the school you just walk straight up from Ma‘ema‘e to ‘Ālewa Drive, then just up ‘Ālewa Drive a bit. I remember knowing where he lived, but it’s not like I hung around with people after school or anything like that much, unless they were neighbors. In elementary school, I do remember doing a couple of things with Darrell. One of the things I remember most is, they had those picnic days or field trips or whatever where you had games in the field and stuff. Darrell and I were like a winning three-legged race team, which I think maybe it’s because he’s left-handed, I’m right-handed, and so we kind of balanced together. I remember that clearly. We were well coordinated.
DCC: A sign of things to come. What was he like, growing up or in school?
EC: Well, Darrell was always one of the smart kids, and I remember that he was class president first grade, second grade, third grade. He was smart, and he was funny, and he was respected by people, and you can see that in his stories, of course. All those stories about growing up, and school and stuff, they sound very real to me. I say that, and I can’t tell if they’re truth or fiction because they all sound real to me.
DCC: I think what’s interesting about it is, I don’t think I ever knew that you folks were friends in school. I think that’s not something that I had realized until I started to work on this project.
EC: Yeah, we were, I don’t think we were together in kindergarten, which used to be assigned by birth month. He was born in April, I was born in August, and so we were in different kindergarten classes. But from first grade on, same classes, at least for English, Social Studies, Math, Science. Yeah, all the way through high school.
DCC: Did you ever think that you would still be friends?
EC: If I was going to condense it, I would say that we were in a lot of classes together, although from intermediate school on I was in band, and Darrell wasn’t, and I spent more and more time with those people. That band geek kind of thing. I mean we didn’t use that term, but band kids always hung out together, and we practiced together, and were in rehearsals all the time. So, we did a lot of things together after class, and even after school. But I know that was a big influence on me from seventh grade on. Oh, and also, from seventh grade I was in a YMCA social club and Darrell was in a different one. As kids, first, I went to Palama Settlement for swimming and summer fun, and I think Darrell went to Nu‘uanu Y with his Dad. So, no, I didn’t see Darrell at the Y or summer fun or church or after school as a kid. I delivered paper so was always busy after school from seventh to ninth grade.
But at the same time, since we were in the same core classes from first through twelfth grade, we talked about our homework or projects together. We hung out before school and maybe lunch time. I was one of many people wanted to see how Darrell solved his math problems. I know in high school we were in Chess Club for a while. And there was a study hall period or something where Darrell and I were assigned to our math teacher. It was just the two of us and her, and we spent that time together, and I remember it also because he made me my first ever cup of coffee there. Which, in those days, it was like you don’t drink coffee until you’re an adult because it’ll stunt your growth. It was almost like alcohol in my family. You don’t drink that as a kid, so it’s like this big taboo thing that he gave me a cup of coffee. Instant coffee. It was so good with sugar.
But that teacher, Miss Shiraishi, and our English teacher, Miss Yamada, were our favorite teachers. We got closer because we enjoyed those classes, and we talked about them and our homework. There was an AP English class, and so it was different from other classes. There was much less focus on grammar and mechanics and things like that. We would read something and then talk about it, and then write a paper. I thought that was great. They were things I could all do, and I didn’t mind talking about things in class and the teacher made class interesting, and somehow more personal. We might be reading a story, and then she’d ask, “Oh, do you guys think animals have feelings, emotions?” And I remember that because nobody else thought they did except me, like different from human emotions. She asked once, “How many of you eat to live or live to eat?” I remember that because I never liked eating that much and everybody else did apparently. There were questions about God, and I was really into God from around fourth grade in church, and what is this thing, you know, and what is the meaning of life? Never really figured that out, and I’d talk about that with people.
There’s a couple of other stories related to the English class that I want to tell. I don’t know if Darrell will like this because there was this one time when she asked Darrell to read a passage from Hemingway out loud. And it was one of these passages where he got to a certain sentence and he stopped, and he couldn’t read it, and she just got kind of irritated and asked him to read it again. He read up to it and then he stopped. He got to a certain word and he couldn’t finish it. She finally figured out that there’s this word that he couldn’t say out loud in class, it was a swear word. I thought it was just hilarious, especially since I reminded him about it later on, when he put some swear words in his stories, which I guess at that time, I thought was kind of unusual, not a lot of people did that before the ’60s, right? People were always censoring things. There’s a lot of difference between before the ’60s and after the ’60s. But that was one story with Darrell.
The other is, in our senior year, at our school, we used to have this free period, and people would do things like go to rehearsals or practices or maybe student council meetings, or whatever, or they could just goof off, and we had this one thing where the teacher arranged for a poet guy, Pat Mulligan to come and do poetry writing workshops. Darrell and I were both in that group. We even met at his apartment once on Kalākaua Avenue. And that was the time of the movement into the ’60s. That was maybe ’67, and I think we were too shy most of us, all of us, to express our true feelings and write or talk about them, and share them, so that really didn’t go very far. I can only remember maybe three times, but the thing is that was the beginning of Poets in the Schools because Patrick was part of this group with Phyllis Thompson, the UH professor, who organized it. And at first it was just a freelance thing, which was kind of going on around the country, and people were being sent into schools, lots of ghetto schools, or they started those poets in the prison kinds of things. Just going into different social settings, making poetry more relevant, which was a big word in the ’60s. Pat started Hale Kipa for runaways, and he just went in that direction. So, my first experience with Poets in the Schools was as a student in the class. I don’t know how that impacted me, but I realize that it’s just like, wow, what is that, just a coincidence or what?
DCC: Is that when you started writing or were you always writing up to that point, but then something changed for you?
EC: Yes, I was just starting to write, a little. In that period, and that influence of Poets in the Schools, it was really important to me, but on the other hand, I wasn’t really into formal poetry at all. I was more into the music side of it, with people in band and people from McKinley. We would go to Ala Moana at night and sit on the beach and somebody would play guitar and we’d sing, and at one point I started trying to write lyrics. That was what I was writing at first. So that was toward the end of high school, for me, but it wasn’t part of English class. It was part of band, music. I think my literary path is actually not the traditional definition of written literature and formal literature and canonical literature. Really, I mean as a writer. I do think of it as music first because I related to band friends and the songwriting thing. I didn’t have any favorite poets back then, though I did enjoy reading Ferlinghetti after Mulligan introduced him to us. I mostly liked stories, Hemingway, Steinbeck, that kind of thing. And philosophical stuff, like Shaw’s Man and Superman.
Also, at that time, we had JROTC [Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps]. It was a requirement. Everybody [all the guys -EC] had to do it, and for us in band, we [girls and boys -EC] also had to march in military parades and perform. And actually, our band uniform had gold braids. I know that after the antiwar movement started, and plus because I just didn’t like marching and playing, I protested to my band teacher, Mr. Miyamura, whom I loved. I said I didn’t want to do that. I had done the sophomore year required course already, but band students were required to keep marching in the ROTC parades every year. I didn’t like it and I didn’t see why I had to do it. I didn’t believe in it. We had long talks in his office about it, [about education, philosophy -EC] and eventually he let me out of some of the performances.
I much preferred the symphonic concert side. We had different levels of band classes, but it was the symphonic band that I liked. It was more like orchestra, except nobody had violins at our school. But we did classical music. We did like Tchaikovsky and Bach, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, composers like that. And that was really challenging and fun, and all your little section rehearsals and practices and getting it right, and then the sections get together, and then the whole band gets together, and it’s just this whole thing of working together, and producing this harmonic thing. It was just great. I loved that. That was my favorite class. Mr. Miyamura would have us tune up at the beginning every class, and he said that if we were all perfectly in tune we’d hear a harmonic tone, floating above us that no one was playing, but it was from all of us playing in tune together. I probably have that theory wrong, but it’s my take on what he taught us, and I used to use it in my poetry classes sometimes to talk about how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts in a poem or story, kind of how people say you can’t sum up what a poem means, it’s more than the literal meaning of the words together.
I guess I’m just rambling now, but music was a big influence on my sense of lyrics, and also was related to my first resistance to something war-related. There’s a kind of artistic sensibility that was developing even if it wasn’t about literature or my writing per se. In this oral history talk story style you’re asking me to follow, I’m finding that tangents sometimes actually seem like threads that are relevant, but I have to ramble a while to find the connections. All this high school stuff about developing artistic sensibility or recalling a PITS connection or singing folk songs on the beach—I wonder if that was why I could tell my teacher I didn’t believe in being forced to march in the ROTC parade? Am I reaching too far?
Another related band activity I liked a lot was dance band, the Starlighters. I think I got accepted when I was a junior, and we played old-style dance band music mostly for military officers’ clubs: “Red Sails in the Sunset,” “Autumn Leaves.” We wore white tuxedos with red bow ties, and got paid just enough to go afterward to a late night dinner somewhere like Flamingo’s or other places I’d never been to. I wasn’t that good so I felt lucky just to be able to tag along. Or can you imagine me dressed up and singing “You’re just too good to be true” with a piano accompaniment? Ah, those were the days. To have the words come out of you and reach an audience.
And then also within that there’s the pop music side because some people were doing that and playing the guitar. And I used to collect song lyrics when I was in intermediate school on from my sister, who was two years older. She had a guitar and used to sing folk songs, teach some to me. Also, I used to write down all the words to Johnny Mathis and that kind of thing, make a song book, maybe with chords. People would collect them and maybe trade songs. And because we were listening to those little transistor radios, we struggled to hear the words and get them all right. And so that was usually a joint project. We would share lyrics and try to make little booklets. It was mostly girls, but I used to do that. I relate a lot of my attitude about poetry to lyrics. Years of writing them all out by hand. That’s one way to learn meter and sound patterns so it’s almost innate. I think this made it easier for me to understand some of those old metered poetry forms when I went to grad school. Lots of quatrains.
The other thing, it’s a group experience, from when I was young, my mother and father would both sing to us [separately, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Danny Boy” -EC] to put us to bed or just hanging up the laundry or watering the yard. I remember my mother singing, and I’ve written about that. Then sometimes we would go to my bachan’s house after church and my aunty would play the piano and we would all get around and sing. Americana and Stephen Foster songs. [Plantation songs like “Old Black Joe,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which my Aunty later renounced as politically incorrect -EC]. At school, we had periods where we would just sing: “My name is Solomon Levi.” Religious songs, “Dona Nobis Pacem” [Grant Us Peace] or even “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Every morning, we’d do the Pledge of Allegiance then we’d sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” or “America the Beautiful,” or “Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī.” That was how we started the day. I now think of that as lyrics, a kind of poetry. I remember back in the ’60s there was the whole movement to make lyrics more respectable, like poetry, with universities trying to teach Paul Simon lyrics and analyzing the “Sound of Silence.” So that was more of my roots. Then, later it changed.
DCC: Favorite artists, or who you were drawn to the most?
EC: At first, I don’t think of it as a particular artist. Folk music was really popular, and people would get together and sing. We might have been singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs, or other groups. “If I Had a Hammer” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” [later I realized were protest songs -EC] or “Lemon Tree.” Or who did the one about rowing the boat ashore, or “Abraham, Martin, and John.” I don’t remember exactly who the writers were. But after The Graduate, that made Simon and Garfunkel popular and the “Sound of Silence,” that style of writing lyrics, poetic. Then there was Bob Dylan, and then the Beatles, getting surreal. Lennon and McCartney. Then it would be Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King. Those would be some of my favorite singer-songwriters right there, from the late ’60s.
DCC: What changed to shift you to poetry or writing?
EC: I don’t exactly remember. The gist of it is this. I did try to write songs. I played mostly three chords on the guitar in high school. I wasn’t very good. When I went away to college, I was at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, homesick, far away from home. I had never lived away from home except for a weekend for a student council convention on Maui, and maybe a week, Vegas and LA with the symphonic band when Mr. Miyamura took us to play at the Western Music Educators Convention. But then, I moved away to college and was homesick all the time, and I wrote home every night as kind of my solace, and I wrote a lot of letters to my girlfriend. My friend Keith wanted me to write lyrics for his music, so did that too. Soon I started writing for myself like it was a journal. I had read some poets, like Ferlinghetti. Then at some point in there, I became really hooked on T.S. Eliot. Maybe it came from my roommates who were taking English. They were very well read, or maybe it came from the folk music because you know there are songs where there, well there’s Dylan first of all. His name is from a poet, Dylan Thomas, and he would reference people like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. He was kind of trying to educate himself I think, so he would reference them. Maybe the Eliot thing came from Paul Simon’s line “Time time time, see what’s become of me. While I looked around for my possibilities.” I listened to that Bookends album really a lot back then, memorized all the words.
I thought Paul Simon was great. He had that song about the dangling conversation. It kind of reminds me of Eliot’s line about measuring your life out in coffee spoons. I thought about what “sounds of silence” meant, and Dylan’s lyrics, and all of that connection. Lyrics and poetry. I do know that at one point I was writing in my journal all the time, and I wrote what I thought was going to be a song, and it just happened to be unrhymed free verse. Maybe I got tired of all the same rhymes. So that was a big distinction for me, it wasn’t like quatrains that rhymed. And I remember thinking, oh, this is getting to poetry, less focus on the rhyming and more of a focus on the meaning, and I started doing that. Also, people like Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison of The Doors, and others were publishing poetry books as well as music albums. Maybe that had some impact too.
I also look at that whole ’60s period [the counterculture], as the biggest influence. The whole civil rights, free speech, and anti-war movement. Black is beautiful. All the ethnic studies movements. And all of that supported writing. But it was like a whole lifestyle. You listen to the music. You went to the marches. You wore the clothing. You wore words that said what you wanted to say. You changed your curriculum to match your philosophy. You might change your religion. Stop going to church. Look at some other kind of Eastern religion, or whatever, and you did your whole life around counterculture.
I also look at that whole ’60s period [the counterculture], as the biggest influence. The whole civil rights, free speech, anti-war movement. Black is beautiful. All the ethnic studies movements. And all of that supported writing. But it was like a whole lifestyle. You listen to the music. You went to the marches. You wore the clothing. You wore words that said what you wanted to say. You changed your curriculum to match your philosophy. You might change your religion. Stop going to church. Look at some other kind of Eastern religion, or whatever, and you did your whole life around counterculture.
EC: And so, for me, that was part of it. And within the whole general thing of a rich counterculture, not just druggies and sex, and that kind of thing, but reading whatever Eastern or existentialist philosophy or the writings of Timothy Leary when he was at Harvard, political theory when you marched, and part of that would be poetry. Or you read the Tao Te Ching and it’s a lot of poetry and go with the flow. For me, the thing about Eliot was the quartets. Four Quartets, that’s what I read mostly for a while. That, The Waste Land and Prufrock. I was hooked on the thing with time. Past time and present time and future time were all related, and I know that at some point that became important to tradition, literary tradition. And having to go back, knowing what traditions existed, what canonical and non-canonical literature was like, from that a whole new thing which was what counterculture did. It was like jazz music. It was best if you learned the scales and knew the music. It was kind of the model. You did the tradition. You did your homework. Then you did something else. But to me it’s a whole cultural thing, and to isolate these different things I think is important, but at the same time, I think I generally look at them as part of this big matrix, this collage, or this tapestry, or all these other metaphors.
It was like jazz music. It was best if you learned the scales and knew the music. It was kind of the model. You did the tradition. You did your homework. Then you did something else. But to me it’s a whole cultural thing, and to isolate these different things I think is important, but at the same time, I think I generally look at them as part of this big matrix, this collage, or this tapestry, or all these other metaphors.
DCC: Like we talked about, where you were growing up, too, was past, present, and future also.
EC: Yeah, the different times were present in my neighborhood growing up. My father grew up not far away. We went to a church near my grandparents’ house, and that was my father’s church when he was a child. He went to that church with some of his relatives, and we went to that same church, or then I delivered paper in nearby neighborhoods from around eleven to fifteen. Well, first I started with the Star-Bulletin, but that was a weird experience, because I was working for this guy who drove us around in a jeep and then dropped us off and had us walk carrying the canvas newspaper bags full of Sunday Star-Bulletins on our backs. Then he would drive to another neighborhood, and then after he finished there, he’d come back and refill our bags and I didn’t last long.
Then my neighbor delivered Hawaii Hochi, and so he got me into that. If you think about that paper, it was a Japanese paper, but then it had a page of English on the back, so I would always sit and read the back page before I folded it. So that was a transition between the old and the new, the Japanese and then non-Japanese-speaking local Japanese. A lot of the newer generation couldn’t read the Japanese, but I was delivering to those people who could. Some were gray-haired and everything, but some were younger, it varied.
DCC: Did you talk story with them when you delivered?
EC: Yeah, a little bit. Again, that newspaper thing that was a big social thing for me too. The Star-Bulletin days and even the Hochi. There was a place on Kuakini Street, REHAB Center of the Pacific, and in the front there, where there was just a grassy lawn next to Waiolani Stream. Next to that bridge across from the hospital. We would all meet there because that’s where the newspaper manager would drop off the papers. Just bundles of paper, that’s how it would work, and you’d sit there with your bundle which was pre-counted, and you fold your papers, put them in your bag, and go deliver. That was a big social time as we folded, and that’s where I met the guys, Russell and Michael, who introduced me to fishing for bass. Where I said, I used to go across the street Nuʻuanu Stream and Kapena Falls, and I went fishing there like every Saturday, all through intermediate school, every week. Sometimes twice a week I would go. And then I got connected with the Hochi guys. On Saturdays, we’d ride our bikes down to the press by Kapalama Canal and watch the paper come out of the printing press. All that ink everywhere and everything, and then let it dry, and we folded our papers right there. We would talk story with the different guys, and once in a while, we would talk story with people in the office. They were nice to us boys. It’s also that feeling like they were not just our employer, but like for me, there was so much freedom from having to come home from school every day and doing homework, to having a paper route where you came home, and then you rode all around the neighborhoods, blocks and blocks away. That was freedom, and now I had money to go to the store and buy snacks, which I never did before that. But these people at the paper, they were the ones who made that possible because they kind of leased us the bicycle if you didn’t have your own bike, which I didn’t. And I paid them back a little bit each month out of my salary until it was paid off. No interest. They were nice to me. It felt good to be able to do that.
As for talking story with customers, I remember one customer who was said to be Jimmy Shigeta’s father, Flower Drum Song and all that. He lived in a small plantation-style house cluster near Foodland, and was always nice to me. He’d often be sitting on the steps when I came around, and say hi. Soon, instead of folding the newspapers, we had started to use green rubber bands to keep them rolled up, and he used to save them all for me and after a few months give me a whole pack of them, which I would reuse, save me from having to buy a new bag. It was hard to believe a movie star was from this very modest neighborhood.
DCC: Were things much different, or you just kind of saw, maybe more of that interconnectedness, what was that like?
EC: There are some things that I remember that stood out. It’s just the experience of being your own little small businessman, and being proud, and all that personal level of small business stuff. But I remember riding down to some neighborhoods where they still had the old plantation style cluster of wooden houses. They were just really small. They were old wood with the paint all gone, they usually had the white trim, and they usually had corrugated roofs. Maybe they might have a small porch, but a lot of times no porch, and I remember this one place where there was no pavement. You drive up this really bumpy rocky lane, I mean big rocks, to about eight houses. And some houses had no glass in their windows. There were old guys or former plantation workers maybe. They didn’t have much money, or maybe they just didn’t take care of their homes. But I was impressed. A house with no window glass or screen and a raggedy curtain hanging in the window? In contrast, most people had nicer wood houses like ours; I remember seeing concrete tile block apartments coming up not far away, like across from Kuakini Hospital. That was impressive to me. Like wow, someday I’m going to have an apartment like that. Not a wood house, and two stories. There were other big two-story houses around, some with nice yards. So yeah, I could see the old and the new not far apart, maybe lower Liliha versus upper Liliha. Also, I delivered to the hospital and behind the hospital was the Kuakini old man’s home, and I used to walk through all those buildings 6 days a week and delivered paper to all those guys. Rows and rows. Sad. They were on their way out. Sometimes they’d wander out. Once I saw a man I knew up the hill around four blocks away, just standing there. It was a little strange to me at first, because all the senior citizens I knew lived with relatives.
DCC: So, I got to ask Eric, why did you leave? Why did you decide to go to school somewhere else?
EC: Don’t most local families focus on education to get ahead and have their kids go away to college? Maybe it’s related to that whole thing from back in our day, which is, an expert is always someone from out of town. That Governor Burns thing, with the local inferiority complex, and if it’s local, it must not be as good, and all that stuff. But I think it’s just that’s where the big schools were. Can you make it on the big stage? People were ambitious, like the 442nd/100th veterans. I mean, they had seen the world. And they wanted to not just get ahead, but they wanted to change things. We talk about the ’60s and people wanted to change the world, but they really wanted to change things before, you know, like for Dan Inouye to be a senator. They’d accomplished a lot, those Democratic Revolution guys, and I guess lots of them went away to college on the G.I. Bill.
DCC: Did you want to change things, Eric?
EC: There’s a line from the Beatles’ song “Revolution,” “you know we all want to change the world, so you want a revolution.” “Counterculture,” like I said above. That’s another story. That math teacher that Darrell and I did study hall with. She was one of a handful of teachers that just took a special interest in all her students, and she took it upon herself to counsel us to go away to good schools, especially where there were few Hawaiʻi people and no Hawaiʻi Club, so we could learn to be ourselves and spread our wings and that kind of thing. That’s change. Expand our horizons. [Actually, McKinley had a travel program called Horizons Unlimited. -EC] So that teacher was a big reason why I went to the East Coast, taking her advice, applying to schools far away, and Penn was the best school I got into and there were a good enough scholarships so I could afford to go. Like the Horizons Unlimited program [thanks Mr. Hirata -EC], the idea was to go away and learn about the world and come back home and do something with your life for the good of the community.
Freshman year, the first Christmas we were there, that teacher, Barbara Shiraishi, she invited us all to stay at her apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston; I think she was taking a semester off to get another degree in Boston. She was getting a second masters in Math, she was a math teacher, and so we all stayed there. There were maybe nine of us that she had advised about where to go to college, and we just slept on the floor and stayed up all night talking, playing trumps and drinking beer. I never drank before college. I started that first semester.
One of the nights I remember, we stayed up, Darrell and I, and we listened to Judy Collins singing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and again, doing that thing where we just listened to the song over and over and tried to get each word correct. Did she say “She sank beneath your wisdom like a stone,” or was it “like a star?” And I had just bought that and The Beatles’ White Album, used from someone’s friend we’d met. I think that was the first album I bought ever. We didn’t play records in my house at home. Still, I bought the White Album almost brand new, and “Revolution” came from it. I listened to that song hundreds of times. Do “we all want to change the world?” My uncle in Philadelphia took me to a small family electronics store, and after being shown various new record players, asked if there was anything in the back that was damaged. We were shown one of those small portable record players with the cover that latches like a small suitcase. It did not work, but my uncle figured that he could just reconnect some wiring and it’d work, so we got it really cheap. He took it home, and in a few minutes he’d re-soldered some wires and it played fine. I used that for several years. I bought a bunch of records by those singer-songwriters I mentioned earlier. Another tangent, but it takes me back to when I started buying records that I felt were important and that I would keep, like a good book that you’re going to keep on your shelf, and I actually have all those records from the ’60s–’70s still. I played them over and over, and sometimes wrote down the lyrics. I have nearly 300 records still, though most of them are from used record stores.
To circle back to your question about changing the world, I didn’t really know what I would do for a career. I was already into writing, but I didn’t know how that would become a job. But I dabbled in short stories and did think about being a writer. By that time it was pretty clear that writers did have in impact in the world. As the counterculture movement grew, it was clear that writers’ ideas were talked about, whether they were singer-songwriters or novelists or non-fiction writers exploring politics, religion, or culture. Of course there were people like Timothy Leary writing about changing your mind through drugs, or Doors of Perception by Huxley, or Don Juan by Castaneda. I think Ram Dass came out with Be Here Now around then too. Those were generally about changing your Self first, and then being an agent of change in the world. I guess I’m saying that there was no clear path for how I would change the world, but there were lots of options. When I got out of college things became very concrete once I started resisting the war and doing VISTA work. But while I was in college, even though I participated in some sit-ins and marches, it wasn’t that clear yet what I would do afterward.
DCC: So, Darrell was with you in Pennsylvania?
EC: No. He went to school in Ohio. We were all together that time in Boston just for the holidays. Classmates came to Boston from Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Philadelphia. Of course, we kept in touch when we went home, and one of the things that I did was to hang out with that friend Keith who wanted to be a rock and roll star and write songs, and I helped him to write lyrics. He had his own house right out of high school, and lots of friends would drop in, and sometimes Darrell would come over. I remember we tried singing three-part harmony. Sometimes we’d go out to a club, but I kind of also had a different group of college friends from the music friends. The people in the Pacific Pinochle Players became my primary group that I’d hang out with after a while.
In my first year my roommates and I were part of a College Hall sit-in and marches, protests, and we got radicalized and things changed. And one of the things that happened when I stayed overnights in College Hall was, when you’re staying up all day and all night you get bored, so one of the things we did was we played cards, and I learned how to play pinochle, and after that time, my two roommates and the guy down the hall and I, the four of us, we played pinochle just about every night for the rest of college. And so, when I came home, I was so hooked on pinochle I started a pinochle club with my girlfriend, and Darrell and some other friends. Darrell even made a t-shirt, which I still have, the PPP, the Pacific Pinochle Players. I’m not sure when that was, maybe after I started grad school here.
And so, Darrell and I and others started hanging out a lot more after high school. Of course we went to different colleges, but there were always summers. So yeah, we got to know each other much more after that. We played poker up at Darrell’s house on ‘Ālewa. Talked about music, Hawaiian Renaissance music. While we were playing cards, we’d play Gabby Pahinui, James Taylor, or Bob Dylan. Olomana records. Keola and Kapono, whoever had a new record, and then sometimes we would go to Waikīkī. I didn’t go to the Cazimeros and the Beamers too much. They usually played in the bigger, more expensive places, but Olomana, they played at Chuck’s, smaller and cheaper. I got to know them pretty well. They would come talk story at your table during breaks. I think I’m mixing up the late ’60s and early ’70s, after I graduated from Penn.
DCC: And you were listening to that music when you were away?
EC: I didn’t really listen to the Hawaiian music a lot up there, first because I didn’t have a record till a bit later, and also this was before digital music, and I didn’t have cassettes even. Was heavy to carry records back and forth. Hardly anyone in my dorm played records that much for the first year. We didn’t have things like TVs or small refrigerators like kids nowadays. That’s how it was. I hardly had any records till I came back home to live, and that was early ’70s. In the late ’60s, Olomana and Sunday Manoa didn’t have records yet, right?
DCC: Up there you got involved in organizing, or when you came back?
EC: Up there, I got involved in protesting, marching, just participating in meetings. But I didn’t organize anything. One year, back home, Darrell and I went to a meeting of Concerned Locals for Peace. There were some groups like that. For us, in our generation, most of us who were in college had exemptions from the draft, college exemptions. My other non-student friends didn’t, so some went to war. And after we graduated, we had to do something about not having an exemption. And then they had that number system. You know, the lottery system. Some people got high numbers, I think Darrell got a high number, and I got a low number, so I was drafted, but since I had already participated in anti-war movements, I decided to file for conscientious objector status. I went to the American Friends Service Committee [the Quakers, which coincidentally was the name of the Penn mascot, our sports teams were called the Quakers -EC] and got some counseling on how to do that. When I was granted that status, I became a VISTA worker. Volunteers In Service To America, what they called the domestic Peace Corps. A lot of people were doing either Peace Corps or VISTA as their alternate national service. I did training in San Francisco, and I got assigned back home at Wai‘anae Group Homes, and then to the Legal Aid Society downtown. And those were both really important. First, the Waiʻanae Group Homes was a place for runaway teens. One of the main counselors there, this guy named Mel Takahara, he was a poet, he was in the Poets in the Schools. I showed him some of my poems, and he suggested that I go and contact Phyllis Thompson at UH. So before my VISTA year was up, I went to her, showed her my poems, and she suggested that I apply for grad school, for poetry, so I did. So that was important in that way. Just by chance, my political resistance led to my literary path.
With the Legal Aid Society, instead of just helping people that couldn’t afford a lawyer, I got involved with the Ethnic Studies guys who were doing community organizing. A group of residents from Old Vineyard Street came to Legal Aid requesting help with their eviction. Just for more context, the lawyer had a huge poster of Mao on his door. Or maybe it was Che. Can’t remember. Around that time there was the protest in Kalama Valley, then there were the protests in Chinatown, Ota Camp Plantation housing, and Waiāhole-Waikāne. Even Niumalu in Līhu‘e. Ethnic Studies people were helping with all those. I visited most of those places and met the people. Anyway, I was part of one little group that organized downtown. That Old Vineyard Street parking garage next to Lili‘uokalani Building. That state-owned housing building by the Liliʻuokalani Building that used to be those old wooden plantation-style clusters of houses. A few had already left, but the rest didn’t want to get evicted. I canvassed the entire community, house to house. They ended up organizing and forming a housing association, first to completely stop their evictions, then to get priority to live in the new apartments that were eventually built there at affordable rates, so they could be there for a long time. That eviction struggle was when I got more politically involved and going to meetings at the capitol and marching on the street. Then–Lieutenant Governor Jean King came to talk to our community. Some organizers later became politicians or government people, like Senator Brian Taniguchi who was a staunch arts supporter in the state legislature.
Also, I remember at one after-meeting session at the bar in Kalihi Bowl, someone told me what the lyrics to “Kaulana Nā Pua” meant as it was playing on the jukebox: ‘ai pōhaku. The symbolic meaning of the stones or flowers, that kind of thing. Words in songs were always important to me, and later meant more as I learned more about them, like when standing in a circle holding hands at the palace singing “Hawai‘i Aloha,” or at a Bishop Museum rally hearing “O Malia” or “Mele o Kaho‘olawe” or “Waimanalo Blues.” It wasn’t just musical entertainment. I was always taken by the lyrics of songs I liked, and this was yet another, more political, level. So the political organizing part of my life was also related to the literary development that came next. I had a sense that the poetic use of words was important in political movements, in motivating people, and I wanted to study that more. I never really got good at it with my musician friend, but when I went to grad school I was soon focused more on just poetry, Poets in the Schools, and literary activism. That’s when it felt like everything was changing for me.
One thing about alI my tangents about where I grew up and how my relatives weren’t that far away and we visited them weekly—I just want to say something about how I didn’t live in a small village, yet I had the feeling that I was surrounded by lots of people that I knew or was related to—that old time local/locale feeling. I went to the church my father went to as a child, and graduated from the same high school he went to. The Kaulilis who taught music there also taught my mother back on Kaua‘i. My mother could send me down to Chun Hoon Supermarket to buy groceries for our dinner and put it on our tab. The streets around me were named for people with family still living there. Our intermediate school was named for the princess who had a house two or three houses away from us, where she lived for most of her last years before she died recently. Even the cemetery with its various histories helped with my sense of place, and the Royal Mausoleum a block away. My grandparents’ graves nearby. All this gave me a sense of community in a place—which includes the people—–and that sense of being part of a community, of a locale, is something that I have always carried in me. Maybe some of this stuff is too personal and rambling, but it helps ground my feelings about the mission statement of Bamboo Ridge.
Eric Chock: Poet, writer, editor, teacher, and co-founder of Bamboo Ridge Press (1978) along with Darrell Lum. He spent twenty years as a Poet in the Schools, visiting most of the public schools in the state. He taught in the University of Hawaiʻi system for sixteen years, retiring as an Associate Professor in Humanities at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu campus. He has received individual awards from the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council, the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, the Hawaiʻi Alliance for Arts Education, the Hawaiʻi Institute for Public Affairs, and the Association for Asian American Studies, as well as awards for Bamboo Ridge Press and Poets in the Schools from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Donald Carreira Ching was born and raised in Kahaluʻu, on the island of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi. His poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as StoryQuarterly, Every Day Fiction, and RHINO. In 2015, his debut novel, Between Sky and Sea: A Family’s Struggle, was published by Bamboo Ridge Press. In 2018, he received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Emerging Writer, and in 2021 and 2022, he was a finalist in the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Contest. He is currently working on a short story collection, Blood Work and Other Stories.