The son of immigrant plantation laborers, Hiram L. Fong (born 1907) became a self-made millionaire and the first person of Chinese descent to serve in the United States Congress.
Hiram L. Fong capped a life spent blazing trails when he was sworn in as Hawaii's first United States Senator on August 24, 1959. Fong earned the designation "senior Senator" through sheer luck-he won a coin flip with Senator Oren Long-but the moderate Republican achieved almost everything else in life through hard work and political tenacity. The son of plantation workers worked his way through Harvard Law School and founded Honolulu's first multiracial law firm before embarking on a successful career in politics. He served with distinction in the U.S. Senate until his retirement in 1977.
Worked His Way Up
Hiram Leong Fong was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on October 1, 1907. He was originally given the name Yau, but as a young man he changed his name to Hiram out of regard for the Hawaiian missionary Hiram Bingham. Fong was the seventh of 11 children born to Lum Fong and Lum Fong Shee, both immigrants from China's Kwantung Province. Both of Fong's parents worked as indentured laborers on a sugar plantation, earning $12 a month between them. To help support his large family, Hiram worked as a shoe shine boy, newspaper seller, and golf caddy. He attended Kalihi Waena Grammar School and, later, McKinley High School, a large public school in Honolulu.
As a young adult, Fong lacked the money to attend college. He worked for three years as a clerk in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard to save enough money for tuition. He entered the University of Hawaii and graduated with honors in just three years, working all the while at various odd jobs to keep up with expenses. While at the university he also edited the school newspaper, played volleyball, and joined the debating team. After graduation, Fong wished to attend law school, but again found his dreams deferred because of lack of funds. He worked full-time for another two years-this time with the Suburban Water System-and saved up enough to enter Harvard Law School in 1932. He graduated, in 1935, broke but thoroughly educated. He returned to Honolulu and found work as a city clerk and then as deputy city attorney.
In 1935, Fong founded Fong, Miho, Choy, and Robinson, a law firm consisting of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Caucasian partners. The multiracial venture was the first of its kind in Honolulu and proved wildly successful. Fong used his portion of the profits to invest in a variety of business interests that eventually made him a millionaire. In 1938, the progressive Republican was elected to Hawaii's territorial House of Representatives, where he would serve for 14 of the next 16 years. On June 25, 1938, he married Ellyn Lo, a fellow Chinese-American, in Honolulu.
Fong's victory was a major step for Chinese-Americans, helping to break the stranglehold on Hawaiian politics held by the so-called "plantation elites." But Fong's own political ascent was briefly interrupted by World War II. He served in the Army Air Corps as a judge advocate-known in military parlance as a "JAG"-for the 7th Fighter Command, earning the rank of major. Returning to Honolulu after the war, he resumed his position in the territorial legislature. In an unusual move for a Republican at that time, Fong forged an alliance with a major labor union, the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union (ILWU). The group's clout helped Fong win election as Speaker of the Hawaiian territorial legislature, in 1948. He served three terms in that position before being ousted, in a close election, in 1954. Fong fell only 31 votes shy of reelection in that contest.
The Senate and Statehood
Though out of office, Fong remained involved in politics. He served as a delegated to the Republican National Conventions in 1952 and 1956. He also continued to diversify his business interests, founding Finance Factors Limited in 1952. He managed his personal assets until they totaled several million dollars by 1960. But his principal cause during these years was statehood for Hawaii, which was finally achieved, in 1959. That June, Fong was selected by Republican voters as their candidate for one of Hawaii's two United States Senate seats. He ran against Democrat Frank F. Fasi and relied on his labor connections and personal success story for support. On July 28, 1959, Hawaii's voters elected Fong by just over 9000 votes.
When Hawaii was formally admitted as America's 50th state on August 21, Fong and his Democratic colleagues, Oren E. Long and Daniel K. Inouye, stood in line to be sworn in as the island's first congressional delegation. Fong won a coin flip with Long to be granted the designation "senior senator," thereby achieving a lifelong dream for himself and his state.
Moderate Voice in Senate
During his first term in the Senate, Fong served on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and the Public Works Committee. In October of 1959, to improve relations with Asia, he embarked on a 45-day tour of that continent. He received a warm welcome from the Chinese communities in the various countries he visited.
Fong soon began became a leading voice in the moderate faction of the Republican Party. During the administration of John F. Kennedy, he often sided with the Democratic president on issues of civil rights, aide to education, and civil service reform. In March of 1963 Fong was one of seven Republicans to introduce a package of civil rights legislation in the Senate. On foreign policy issues, however, Fong sided more consistently with the conservative majority in his party,
After winning reelection in 1964, Fong continued on the same track in his second term-moderate on domestic issues, "hawkish" on foreign affairs. He supported President Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act, in 1965, and worked to eliminate immigration restrictions against Asians. He spoke out in favor of control and applauded Johnson's proposal to set up a special Administration on Aging. But Fong defied the president, in opposing his nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas, in 1968. On the war in Vietnam, Fong was an early and enthusiastic supporter-a position which often put him in hot water with his Asian-American constituents.
In 1968, Fong endorsed former Vice President Richard M. Nixon in his race for president. His support signaled a pronounced conservative tilt and more partisan stance from Hawaii Republican. Following Nixon's election, Fong became one of his most ardent backers, in the Senate. He consistently voted the for president's large defense budgets and spoke out loudly in defense of Nixon's Vietnam policy. Other programs Fong supported during this period included the Anti-Ballistic Missile System (ABM) and supersonic transport (SST).
Fong's rightward turn may have strengthened his position within the Republican Party, but it cost him support from the voters of Hawaii. In 1970, he won election to a third term by a narrow margin. When he returned to the Senate for the 92nd Congress, in January 1971, he moderated his positions somewhat. Key positions of Fong's third term were his support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and his opposition to forced busing to achieve school integration. Most damaging to Fong was a bribery scandal involving one of his long-time aides. While no blame was ever assigned to Fong, he nevertheless declined to seek a fourth term, in 1976. Spark M. Matsunaga, a former Democratic representative, succeeded Fong in the U.S. Senate.
Retirement and Riches
In 1977, Fong retired to a 725-acre botanical garden on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Here he farmed his land and oversaw his various business interests. By 1993, Finance Factors Ltd. which he had founded in 1952, saw its sales grow to $44.5 million. Fong used part of his fortune to found three charitable organizations. He donated $100,000 annually to mostly local causes. In 1995, Fong was inducted into the Hawaii Business Hall of Fame. Speaking to the magazine Hawaii Business soon after his induction, he gave the following advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, "No. 1, get as much education as you can. No. 2, find someone established that you can apprentice yourself to."
Further Reading on Hiram Leong Fong
Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 CQ Staff Directories, Inc., 1996.
Political Profiles: The Johnson Years edited by Nelson Lichtenstein, Facts on File, 1976.
Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years edited by Nelson Lichtenstein, Facts on File, 1976.
Political Profiles: The Nixon/Ford Years edited by Eleanora W. Schoenebaum, Facts on File, 1979.
Hawaii Business, January 1995.