By Nina Wu - May 3, 2015:
Standing by the Sun Yat-sen statue at the Chinatown Cultural Plaza, kumu Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu reflected on a recent journey to southern China to explore her family roots.
There, in a small village more than 5,500 miles from home, she found acceptance from long-lost relatives, a powerful testament to the role of family in self-identity.
Being a mahu, or transgender person, as well as both Hawaiian and Chinese, defines her identity "in the middle" and is the subject of a documentary film, "Kumu Hina," which premieres nationally on PBS' "Independent Lens" on Monday in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
The film, by Haleiwa filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, tells of Wong-Kalu's evolution from a timid high school boy to a confident mahu and respected kumu and community leader in modern-day Honolulu.
All through her struggles, family is what gave her strength.
"My purpose in this life is to pass on the true meaning of aloha — love, honor and respect," says Wong-Kalu in the film. "It's a responsibility that I take very seriously."
Born a boy named Collin, Wong-Kalu was raised by both a Hawaiian tutu on her mother's side, Mona Kealoha, and a Chinese popo on her father's side, Edith Kamque Luke.
"My Hawaiian tutu and popo were the most influential in my life," Wong-Kalu said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "Both of them raised me to be very cognizant and respectful, and to be very mindful of Hawaiian culture and Chinese culture."
With both parents working full time, Wong-Kalu spent much of her childhood with extended family — the Hawaiian side in Mililani and the Chinese side in Liliha.
With the Hawaiian side, she was called the "pake child" because of her more Asian looks. The Chinese side referred to her as the "Hawaiian one" because of her darker skin and larger size.
"I grew up in the middle," said Wong-Kalu, whose parents separated when she was in the second grade. "I grew up not belonging completely to one or the other. Being both, and going to one side, they always consider you ‘the other.'"
So it was, as well, with gender.
Wong-Kalu, 42, remembers from a very young age feeling that she was more female than male. She would sneak into her mother's closet while she was away at work.
"I'd put on her clothes and high heels and prance around the house for hours on end," she said. "I wanted to be as beautiful as my mother."
It was after graduating from Kamehameha Schools in 1990 and attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa that Wong-Kalu fully emerged as a transgender, taking the name Hina.
Besides being teased in elementary and middle schools for being too girlish, she was also taunted for her Chinese name, Kwai Kong, with kids calling her "King Kong" or "Ding Dong."
"It was very hurtful," said Wong-Kalu.
She said she found refuge in Hawaiian culture, where mahu — those who embody both the male and female spirit — are respected as a source of ancient knowledge.
Her father's Chinese side of the family also accepted her transition. During high school Wong-Kalu had stayed mostly in Liliha, becoming the primary caregiver for Luke up to her death in 1997.
"Because I was the caregiver for the matriarch and everybody loved her, they all loved and accepted me," she said. "She was the kindest one."
Wong-Kalu has three older siblings — two sisters and a brother, famed Honolulu chef Alan Wong. She said her father, Henry Dai Yau Wong, a former U.S. Army sergeant and man of few words, accepted her as well.
"No matter my father's internal struggles — and he did struggle — with the changes in my life, he never, ever made me feel less than — ever."
An invitation to join Hamer and Wilson at the Beijing Queer Film Festival in September turned out to be the perfect opportunity for Wong-Kalu to search for her father's relatives, with whom the family had lost touch. Through research, Wong-Kalu was able to find the name of her grandmother's village, Gam Sek, in southern China.
Her popo, Luke, had always kept a framed family portrait in a side cabinet and Wong-Kalu brought a copy of it with her when she and the filmmakers took a two-hour taxi drive past numerous factories to the stone gate at the entrance to the small village.
Upon entering, Wong-Kalu met Luc Lu Moy, wife of a distant cousin. At an ancestral shrine there, she found a matching copy of the family portrait. It turns out a great uncle from Honolulu had brought it with him in the 1970s.
"I burst into tears," said Wong-Kalu. She placed her lei over the photo.
To introduce herself, Wong-Kalu showed the film to her relatives in China and found they embraced her despite her transgender identity.
"KUMU HINA" follows Wong-Kalu in her former role as cultural director of Halau Lokahi, a Hawaiian public charter school, as she prepares students for an end-of-the-year performance. According to the filmmakers, the documentary is as much about the importance of understanding one's culture as it is about family and societal acceptance of those who are different.
"This is really a reflection, through Hina's life, of what family values can mean in the most positive and comprehensive sense," Wilson said. "With her (students), she often talks about no matter who you are, where you come from, you should know there's a place in the middle for you."
A 25-minute version of the film, titled "A Place in the Middle," is available for free through PBS Learning Media along with a classroom discussion guide for educators.
For Wong-Kalu, finding acceptance from relatives in China, a country where most transgenders largely remain invisible, was affirming. It was in the same spirit of aloha that she lives by.
Standing in Honolulu's Chinatown, Wong-Kalu cited an inscription below the Sun Yat-sen statue that reads, "All under heaven are equal."
Besides Beijing, "Kumu Hina" screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival in April 2014 and has been shown on the U.S. mainland and in Tahiti.
"The film emphasizes my life as a Hawaiian, but I am also very influenced by my life as a descendant of some of the very first Chinese that came to Hawaii," Wong-Kalu said. "The influence on me makes me very devoted to the name of the family and to honor my parents and grandparents."
On the Net:
» Learn more about "Kumu Hina" at kumuhina.com.
» Learn more about PBS/Independent Lens at pbs.org/independentlens/kumu-hina/.
» Watch the trailer at youtube.com/user/Kumu Hina.
» Order "A Place in the Middle" with free classroom discussion guide at aplaceinthemiddle.org.