aq cover

Voice for the People

Published: December 10, 2008

go to original


Ah Quon McElrath describes herself as a "little Pake wahine." But nobody who has ever heard her speak would use the diminutive. Her message has always been large - and eloquent.

Last month, speaking to the annual dinner of the Hawaii People's Fund, she told the throng who had come to honor her: "We have allowed the rampagings of a political economic system that does not care for people who sit in this room. More and more the idea of globalization ... has grown to the point where very little can be done by the individual worker, the individual family.

"And we have also seen lands that are taken away from peasants. Can you imagine, a place like Mexico, where the land has been taken away from the peasants who can no longer grow corn, who can no longer have their tortilla because we feel that automobiles must run on ethanol? Just think of that. We have not thought even of other means of transportation which would take us from point A to point B."

The 92-year-old social worker, union organizer and activist implored her audience to pressure the new administration and Congress, and tell them that "we will not take this." She warned "that those of us in the labor movement who face the problem of decreased pensions, who face the problem of no - absolutely no healthcare - who have always faced the problems of discrimination, need to say that this is a problem that we must all take care of."

McElrath finished with the message her life in unionism had taught her: "(We) must work together. Divided, we will fall; united, we can move ahead."

As I write, Ah Quon McElrath - the "little Pake wahine" - lies in a hospital bed at Kaiser Permanente's Moanalua Medical Center. She's ill with cancer, kidney failure and a variety of other ailments. To a recent query about what ailed her, she shrugged and replied, "What doesn't?"

During the past three decades, I've probably interviewed Ah Quon McElrath a dozen times: for columns in Honolulu magazine and MidWeek, for two documentary films - one completed, one still in progress, and, most frequently, on a variety of topics on PBS-Hawaii's Dialog and Island Insights.

On the latter two shows, AQ was usually one of four guests. I always felt sorry for the other three. They would, no matter how well-educated or well-spoken, always play a supporting role to AQ. No one I've ever interviewed possessed Ah Quon McElrath's combination of eloquence, commitment, idealism and pure presence.

"She never quit," says Joanne Kealoha, a social worker who holds the same position McElrath long held with the ILWU Local 142. "She's always been a fighter. She's always trying to educate."

McElrath retired from the union in 1981, but according to Kealoha, she's remained "the conscience of the union. AQ's always trying to keep the union on the right course: to maintain its militancy, to preserve its progressive nature. She wants to make sure that people don't stray from the union's core mission: the quality of life of working people.

"She's always seen the individual problems of working people in a larger perspective and tried to affect state and nation policies. AQ helped bring Kaiser Permanente to Hawaii. She lobbied for prepaid healthcare for working people, for prepaid dental care. She's also been an eloquent spokesperson for welfare rights.

"AQ has advocated for those who had no one to advocate for them."

Ah Quon Leong was born in 1915 near the beach in the Iwilei district of Honolulu. The neighborhood was hardly exclusive. It included a fertilizer company, a tannery, the Honolulu Gas Company, the world's largest pineapple cannery, a red light district and a portion of Hawaii's poorest residents. AQ's family was included among them.

Her parents "came from China," AQ told ILWU oral historians in 2004. "Dad came as a contract laborer, but didn't stay on the plantations long. He did anything and everything: drove a hack, was a carpenter, ran a store and even made okolehao, the Hawaiian version of moonshine." Along the way, he also spent time in prison - apparently for smoking opium.

With her father's death in 1920, the family lost its principal breadwinner. Everyone, whatever their age, did their part. "We lived near the beach where we picked kiawe beans and dried bones to sell to the fertilizer company," she told the oral historians. "My brothers shined shoes and sold newspapers."

The family knew no luxuries. AQ's mother cooked over a wood stove located outside the family's residence - for which the children gathered firewood wherever they could. The house had no electricity; it was lit by kerosene lamps.

Like other members of her family, AQ worked in Iwilei's pineapple canneries at the age of "12 or 13 years old. There were no child labor laws then," she remembered.

"I packed and trimmed pineapple and picked eyes out of the so-called 'jam.'I worked in the cafeteria, which was supposedly the gem of jobs, because you made 27 cents an hour as against 18 cents an hour packing pineapple. In season, we worked 12 hours a day. That was how we supported the family and got back to school during the fall."

School for AQ meant those run by the Territory of Hawaii - public elementary and high schools and the University of Hawaii-Manoa. "Education was extremely important to me," she told the ILWU interviewers. "I felt it was a window to the world, and that being able to read, write and speak English - my first language was Chinese - offered special opportunities. I became the editor of the school paper in intermediate school and decided to concentrate my efforts on learning the English language well."

The Leong daughter attended Kaiulani Elementary School where the teachers "were completely concerned with how we learned the English language ... All of the blackboards were filled with letters of the alphabet, and we were taught how they could be pronounced in different ways: the long A, the short A, the funny A...A in combination with another vowel. And I remember all of us generally went to the encyclopedias, went to the dictionaries."

She learned the English language well - well enough to become a member of the three-person McKinley High School debate team in the early 1930s. All three were Chinese-Americans. In a series of territory-wide debates on the issue of statehood for Hawaii, AQ and her two school-mates dispatched debate teams from both Maui and Roosevelt high schools, the latter an English standard school where, as AQ told documentary filmmakers in 2005, "All kids were supposed to speak the King's English."

Miles Carey served as the McKinley High School principal in the late 1930s, and the transformed the school. "He believed in social studies as a way by which we could learn about the world," she remembered. AQ also found herself reading about the Soviet Union and its experiment with communism. She was intrigued.

Carey believed that McKinley's teachers should prepare its Asian American students for full citizenship, not for life on the lower rungs of a hierarchical plantation society. He pushed learning by doing: student government, student newspapers and a variety of other extracurricular activities, including AQ's debate team.

Ah Quon Leong took her curiosity about the world to the University of Hawaii. Across two oceans and a continent, Fascist Germany and Communist Russia met in a bloodbath called the Spanish Civil War.

"The cause of the anti-fascist side affected many of us," she told the ILWU historians. "We felt we had a part because we boycotted Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. I also joined an activist group called the Inter-professional Association in those pre-World War II days before the ILWU came to Hawaii in strength."

The Interprofessional Association - by AQ's own admission - was "made up of a lot of left-wingers on campus and off campus." Among their other activities, the members attempted to bring a West Coast union organizer to speak at Manoa. University President David Crawford rescinded their invitation.

AQ's involvement with West Coast union organizers began with ILWU's legendary Jack Hall. She volunteered to help with the union's newspaper, The Voice of Labor.

It was through Hall that AQ Leong met Bob McElrath; they were married in 1941, three years after AQ's graduation from the University. In 1943, a daughter, Gail, was born; in 1945, son Robert.

Ah Quon spoke up in 1999 to save the Star-Bulletin and prevent a newspaper monopoly in Honolulu

Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor and the imposition of martial law froze union organizing in the Territory of Hawaii. But martial law was lifted in 1944, and ILWU organizers immediately began to sign up sugar workers.

The big sugar strike came in 1946. It lasted 79 days and resulted in victory for the union. Ah Quon McElrath volunteered her services during the strike. She gathered recipes from the "Department of Health for the soup kitchens, visited the kitchens, and talk(ed) to the families about how important it was for kids to continue school, and about what arrangements we could make with creditors and the parochial schools."

With her husband - now the information director for the union - Hall and everyone else associated with the ILWU, AQ suffered through the traumatic 1949 dock strike.

"As a child, I remember going to my grandmother's house after school, and later to day care," says daughter Gail. "And I remember going down to the union hall. During strikes, my brother and I stood on picket lines. We went to concerts where Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson performed - and to soup kitchens."

Her parents, she says, "were very committed to the union, and they worked well together as organizers."

AQ became her daughter's role model: "She stressed the importance of getting an education, and she exposed my brother and me to a broad range of experiences - from art to politics.

"And she emphasized doing the right thing because it was the right thing - and, of course, progressive politics."

The lessons stuck. Daughter Gail would follow her mother into social work, spending her career in Cleveland.

After years of doing volunteer work for the union, in 1954 AQ accepted a position as the ILWU's social worker.

"When AQ came to work for the union in the 1950s, Hawaii didn't have many social agencies to help families," says Kealoha. "They needed help managing money, with raising children. She was essentially a teacher."

But she would become a skilled legislative lobbyist, particularly after Hawaii achieved statehood. She lent her voice to pleas for increased public assistance, affordable housing and improvements in workers' compensation and temporary disability insurance.

Ah Quon retired from the union in 1981, but she never stopped lobbying: for welfare rights, for a single-payer national healthcare system, for support for the symphony, and - as a member of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents - for increased funding for higher education.

But retirement wasn't all business. There was a monthly potluck and poker game with a group of women that included the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink and former Lt. Gov. Jean King. "I can't imagine that it was real big stakes," says her daughter.

And there was family; until a year ago she took care of her sister Mabel - three years AQ's senior.

And she was formidable. "It amazes me at her capacity at her age to continue to advocate for the things she believes in," says Debbie Shimizu, the executive director of the Hawaii Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. "AQ is a role model for all of us who do advocacy work.

"Her presence is a big part of it. She's so knowledgeable about whatever she's advocating for - so passionate, so articulate - and she brings so much history with her. Whenever she speaks or comes into a room, people pay attention."

And if you don't, AQ will let you know about it. This past summer on Island Insights we did a show on healthcare. A hospital administrator, a surgeon, a public health doctor and a health insurance provider made up the panel. I thought the discussion went well.

AQ didn't. Early the next morning she called me, and she was in a scolding mood.

"Boylan, what's wrong with you?" she asked - rhetorically. "You didn't have a single person on that show arguing for a single-payer, universal healthcare system. That's the only kind that will work."

She said more, and within six weeks we had another program with AQ as one of the four guests. At 92, she looked frailer than I'd last seen her. But her voice was strong, her mind lucid as ever, her passion and conviction as red-hot and steadfast.

AQ, of course, owned the table.

As she always has.


  aq3AQ greets presidential candidate Sen. Dennis Kucinich in 2003


Ah Quon spoke up in 1999 to save the Star-Bulletin and prevent a newspaper monopoly in Honolulu

back to documents    
©2008 Statehood Hawaii