“Music is the universal language and it will open doors for you,” said my Dad when I was growing up. I still remember the moment we were driving on H-1 freeway in Honolulu when he made that comment. My Dad passed away on August 14, 2012 at the age of 91 years-old. As Father’s Day is approaching this coming Sunday, I reflect back on what my Dad taught me.
My Dad instilled the love of making music and making people happy. All our family parties were filled with music, my aunt on piano, my dad on ukulele, and my mom and cousins singing and having a good time. As I grew up, I evolved from being the entertainer to being entertained by the next generation of cousins. I believe it was these experiences of performing in front of family from a young age that gave me the confidence to speak in front of large groups as an adult and be comfortable engaging the audience as an entertainer.
When I was 12-years-old, my Dad managed my cousins and I as a performing group of 5 girls ages 5-12 known as “Charlie’s Dollies” (my Dad’s name was Charles). We could all sing, dance and play instruments, and we used to perform at our church and around town. One show stands out in my memory when we performed at the orthopedic ward of the Armed Forces hospital in Honolulu. When we entered the ward, many men had their legs and arms bandaged and hoisted in slings. As we sang and danced for them, I noticed the faraway look in their eyes perhaps from thinking about their little sisters back home. The sense of connecting to people through our music touched me, to a point that when I headed to college I wanted to be a music therapist to help people.
In high school, my friends and I used to choreograph song and dance routines to songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B” sung by the Andrews Sisters. We wore our Dad’s shirts and ties, and called our families to watch us from the lanai (porch) as we performed down below on our backyard stage. Years later in college, I realized that the 3 of us were all different ethnic backgrounds – Japanese, Hawaiian, and Caucasian – and how lucky I was to grow up in Hawaii where we were friends first who just happened to be different cultures. Together we were representative of the mult-cultural fabric of Hawaii.
My Dad was Chinese, the son of the one of the first jewelers who emigrated from China to Hawaii. His mother was also from China, and died when he was just 7-years-old. My Dad was born in Honolulu’s Chinatown on January 20, 1921 and grew up with 3 brothers and 2 sisters. He married my mom on February 26, 1944 in the middle of World War II. They were married for 68 years.
When I was 12 years-old, I got accepted into Kamehameha Schools and Punahou School, and my parents let me choose which school to enter for the 7th grade. My Dad who is Chinese, said “Go to Kamehameha because that is your roots (Kamehameha is for Native Hawaiian children).” My mom who is Hawaiian said “Go to Punahou so you can meet kids from different backgrounds (Punahou began as a school for missionary kids)”. I chose Kamehameha, and am glad of my decision. My Dad instilled the love of Hawaiian culture and music that I continue to share today.
Aloha, Mele Fong aka Ukulele Mele