Some suggest Captain James Cook’s crew gave information about the “Sandwich Islands” when they stopped in Macao in December 1779, near the end of the third voyage.
In 1788, British Captain John Meares commanded two vessels, the Iphigenia and the Felice, with crews of Europeans and 50-Chinese. Shortly thereafter, in 1790, the American schooner Eleanora, with Simon Metcalf as master, reached Maui from Macao using a crew of 10-Americans and 45-Chinese. (Nordyke & Lee)
Crewmen from China were employed as cooks, carpenters and artisans, and Chinese businessmen sailed as passengers to America. Some of these men disembarked in Hawai’i and remained as new settlers.
The growth of the Sandalwood trade with the Chinese market (where mainland merchants brought cotton, cloth and other goods for trade with the Hawaiians for their sandalwood – who would then trade the sandalwood in China) opened the eyes and doors to Hawaiʻi.
The Chinese referred to Hawaiʻi as “Tan Heung Shan” – “The Sandalwood Mountains.” The sandalwood trade lasted for nearly half a century – 1792 to 1843. (Nordyke & Lee)
Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America. The first to arrive were the Chinese (1852.)
“These Chinese were taken to the plantations. There they lived in grass houses or unpainted wooden buildings with dirt floors. Sometimes as many as forty men were put into one room.”
“They slept on wooden boards about two feet wide and about three feet from the floor. … (T)hey cut the sugarcane and hauled it on their backs to ox drawn carts which took the cane to the mill to be made into sugar” (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
The sugar industry grew, so did the Chinese population in Hawaiʻi. Between 1852 and 1884, the population of Chinese in Hawai’i increased from 364 to 18,254, to become almost a quarter of the population of the Kingdom (almost 30% of them were living in Honolulu.) (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
During the years 1852-1898, many thousands of Chinese came to Maui to work on sugar plantations and in sugar mills. Chinatown in Lahaina began as one-story shops and housing on Front Street, and as more Chinese were attracted to the area, two-story wooden buildings were built to accommodate them.
Between 1869 and 1910 over thirty secret societies that have their roots in seventeenth century China were established in the Islands, six on Maui. These secret societies were formed to politically re-establish the deposed Ming dynasty.
The societies in Hawai‘i were not significantly interested in the political aspects of the parent societies. However, these societies made financial contributions to the 1911 Chinese revolution conducted by Sun Yat-Sen.
These local clubs were mutual aid societies which met social and recreational needs of its members providing funeral services and burial, protective services and made contributions to their members.
The Wo Hing Society – Wo, meaning “peace and harmony” and Hing, meaning “prosperity” – a branch of the Chee Kung Tong in Lahaina was incorporated in 1905 and the original structure repaired in 1906. “The extensive improvements at the Wo Hing Society House will be completed in season for the Chinese New Year’s festivities.” (Maui News, December 23, 1905)
The Society was an important aspect of cultural and social life for its immigrant Chinese members. Since many of the early Chinese immigrants were single men the society provided a fraternal structure which was a substitute for the absent family.
The Chinese Tong Society was a club opened to men sixteen to sixty. An initiation fee was paid and members participated in rigorous initiation rites and took an oath based on thirty-six codes of morality, brotherhood, patriotism and chivalry. Members could be identified by special gestures, secret chopstick maneuvers and passwords.
The members would meet to exchange news of China with people from other island , and read, or have read to them Chinese newspapers. The festivals and celebrations have included the Kuan Ti festival , to celebrate the god, the New Year festival to celebrate the Chinese New Year, the Ching Ming in April , when offerings were made to ancestral graves.
In 1912, using private donations, the society built a two-story temple on Front Street; the society provided social contacts, support in times of crisis, and housing for retired workers. It is believed that the present building replaced the older structure.
Upstairs is a temple with an altar for religious ceremonies, downstairs was the social hall and adjacent was the cookhouse. It served the growing Chinese population centered in Lahaina.
By the 1940s the declining Chinese population in Lahaina slowly made the building redundant and the property was neglected. In 1983, Lahaina Restoration Foundation took steps to restore this valuable site for Lahaina.
Under a long-term agreement with the Wo Hing Society, the foundation provided funds to bring the buildings back to life and maintain them as a museum. (Lots of information here is from Lahaina Restoration Foundation and National Park.)