Shortly after the arrival of Captain James Cook and his crews in 1778, the Chinese found their way to Hawaiʻi. Some suggest 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.
Although ancient Hawaiians brought sugar with them to the Islands centuries before (it was a canoe crop,) in 1802, Wong Tze-Chun brought a sugar mill and boilers to Hawaiʻi and is credited with the first production of sugar. Later, Ahung and Atai built a sugar mill on Maui.
Sugar gradually replaced sandalwood and whaling in the mid-19th century and became the principal industry in the islands.
However, a shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
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.)
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)
Most Chinese plantation workers did not renew their five-year contracts, opting instead to return home or to work on smaller private farms or for other Chinese as clerks, as domestics in haole households, or they started their own businesses.
Chinatown reached its peak in the 1930s. In the days before air travel, visitors arrived here by cruise ship. Just a block up the street was the pier where they disembarked — and they often headed straight for the shops and restaurants of Chinatown, which mainlanders considered an exotic treat.
Because of excellent employment opportunities in Hawai‘i, as well as the high value placed by Chinese on education (even though most immigrants had little formal schooling), Chinese parents encouraged their sons to get as much education as possible. (Glick)
When Chinese immigrants established communities and began raising families in America, many still maintained ties, personal and otherwise, with individuals and groups in their former homeland.
They also tended to continue to speak the language and to practice Chinese traditions and customs.
As they raised families, they were concerned that their progeny retain this heritage. Chinese schools came into being to fulfill at least part of this need, especially with respect to the language. (Lai)
In 1904 a group of activists concerned with China’s weakness in the international community and sympathetic to the political ideals of the Chinese Empire Reform Association formed the Qingnian Quluobu (Ching Nin Ke Lok Bo, or Youth Club).
Convinced that an educated citizenry was a prerequisite to a strong China, the club started classes in the Chinese language and military drills.
The same year it merged with the Qingnian Wuxuehui (Ching Nin Mo Hock Wui, or Youth Engaged in Study Association), a group with similar objectives-and some members who also belonged to the Youth Club-that had formed in 1901 to study Chinese and Confucianism.
The reorganized Ching Nin Mo Hock Ke Lok Bo (Youth Engaged in Study Club) began thrice-weekly Chinese classes. In 1907, club members combined their resources to purchase the site for a school, and by 1908 the group had received a permit from the territorial government to operate such an institution.
In 1909 Chen Yi’an (Yee Um Chun), chief editor of the Reform Association organ Sun Chung Kwack (New China), persuaded the group to open a school for children from the Chinese community. The club voted to tum over all its funds to the project.
The Chinese consul general also signified his intention to appropriate part of a proposed registration fee from each Chinese to support the school. Mun Lun School officially opened on February 4, 1911 with two teachers and 104 students, using the Ching Nin Mo Hock Ke Lok Bo clubhouse. (Lai)
Mun Lun is composed of two words, meaning “illuminating and enlightening” and “human relationships.”
It was the first school in Honolulu supported by Chinese; the building being finished in 1908, but the school has waited funds for maintenance. (Thrum 1911)
Mun Lun School had begun with four teachers and an enrollment of 147. It became an outstanding school with high standards.
The school began by offering only the elementary grades, but by 1931 it had added junior-middle-school-level classes, and by 1936 offered first-year senior-middle-school-level classes. (Lai)
By 1936 the school had expanded greatly, with 28 teachers and 1,348 students, the largest enrollment of any Chinese school in North America up to that time.
Then came WWII, and the school was closed. Re-opening ceremonies didn’t occur until March 1, 1948, when 289 students answered roll call.
Mun Lun School continues in Chinatown in Honolulu as an after-school school. It holds weekday classes Monday through Friday from 3 to 5 pm. There are Saturday classes as well.
Today (in year 2020), student enrollment stands at 267 (weekday and weekend classes combined), with twelve teachers, plus the principal who also teaches. Mun Lun is the oldest Chinese language school in Hawaii, offering a Mandarin language national standards-based curriculum & a variety of cultural classes.