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Storyteller discusses Hawaiian history, Korean experience in Hawaii

By Staff | Mar 22, 2019

Alton Takiyama-Chung speaks about his family's history in Hawaii, during the Speak Story Series at Reynolds Hall on Tuesday night. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Beginning its seventh season, the Speak Story Series featured Hawaii native Alton Takiyama-Chung as its first storyteller at Reynolds Hall Tuesday evening.

Since Takiyama-Chung is of Japanese and Korean descent, he was chosen to speak, in conjunction with the 2018-2019 Shepherd University Common Reading program’s book, “The Girl With Seven Names,” written by North Korean Defector Hyeonseo Lee.

“Some of you might be familiar with Shepherd’s Common Reading program,” said Shepherd University Coordinator for Students in Transition and FYEX Director Shannon Holiday. “I’m honored this is the first time we’ve been able to collaborate with the Speak Story Series, and hope we will be able to do more in the future. Thank you for allowing us to be part of this.

“Now is the time to vote for next year’s book — anyone can vote. We’re considering five finalist books, and on April 1 will announce our chosen book,” Holiday said, mentioning the voting can be done online through the end of the month, at www.shepherd.edu/commonreading.

Taking the stage in a Hawaiian shirt, Takiyama-Chung started the evening with a humorous folk tale about a tiger and a baby rabbit.

“Tiger and baby rabbit were a recurring theme. In Korean folk tales, there were always weak animals that beat Tiger,” Takiyama-Chung said, mentioning the folk tales were used to spread stories and hope in Korea, as they referenced the downfall of Tiger, who represented the government.

Unlike Lee, Takiyama-Chung has never set foot in North Korea. While he embraces his Japanese and Korean heritage by retelling stories from his ancestors’ countries, Takiyama-Chung tells his personal stories from his and his family’s experience — his grandparents immigrated to Hawaii to work on pineapple and sugar cane plantations.

“It’s important for you guys to understand why Hawaii is, and how it got here,” Takiyama-Chung said. “Before they were discovered, about half-a-million Hawaiians lived in the major structure. The Hawaiians, they lived in close harmony with the land — they took care of it, real tree-hugger stuff. There wasn’t anything beside the islands, so they had to take care of them, because it was all they had.”

According to Takiyama-Chung, after Hawaii was discovered by Captain Cook in the 1800s, the native population exponentially decreased.

“About the time of the overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy in 1893, the Hawaiian population had dropped to 14,000,” Takiyama-Chung said. “That’s 10 percent of what it was when Captain Cook arrived.”

As Takiyama-Chung continued to recount the story of Hawaii’s history, he described how his Korean grandfathers came to Hawaii to work on the plantations, his grandmothers were Japanese mail order brides and his family found a place for themselves within Hawaiian culture. However, there were some parts of Hawaiian culture he has never embraced, including the hula dance.

“I grew up in a time when Hawaiians were religiously repressed, until the ’70s,” Takiyama-Chung said. “I was aware of the hula, but since I’m not Hawaiian, I never did it.

“I didn’t get interested in Hawaiian culture until I became a storyteller. That’s why I do what I do — to tell the stories that would not be told by anyone else,” Takiyama-Chung said.