At Home in Palolo

For more than a century, the Palolo Chinese Home has cared for the elderly of all nationalities.
Leigh-Wai Doo elicits friendly greetings as he moves through the hallways of Pälolo Chinese Home, addressing each person by name, thanking staff for their efforts. Male and female residents stop their wheelchairs or lean on their walkers to chat about a book he should read. Others-constructing puzzles, coloring with crayons or listening to a volunteer fingering upbeat tunes on the piano-wave and smile to the home’s chief executive officer and tireless cheerleader.


It feels like one great, extended family. For Doo, that’s exactly what it is. His grandfather’s name is displayed over the door of one of the dormitory-style rooms, commemorating a donation that helped start the home and launch a legacy of public service.

Doo isn’t about to let that heritage slip away. The attorney and former city councilman has taken time out of his career to lead a reconstruction, following in the tradition of his father and grandfather’s assistance to the Home. Having raised $10 million toward their goal of $13,888,888.88 (for good luck), Doo and his team recently renovated the Lani Ward Booth Hall, an 11,000-square-foot headquarters where the community can arrange for meals to go, day care for the elderly, so family members don’t have to give up their careers to care for them, and overnight care when those families need to travel.

Full-time, skilled nursing is also offered here for the first time since 1910, when the facility was a hospital. Future plans include new assisted living studios and one-bedroom apartments, more skilled nursing beds, a wellness center for exercise, therapy and checkups and a hospice. Walking trails, a garden and a great lawn tucked amid a vast collection of ti plants will invite multigenerational gatherings.

(left) The Palolo Chinese home and its residents nearly a century ago. (below) The late Hiram Fong and Henry Clark have done much to support the Palolo Chinese Home, and to foster racial harmony in the Islands.. Photos: Courtesy Palolo Chinese Home

No matter how many times Doo is asked about his role at the home, he discounts his contributions and turns the conversation to Henry Clark and the late Hiram Fong, whose 100 years of combined service on behalf of the Palolo Chinese Home will be honored in a fund-raising event at the end of this month. Doo believes their labor of love in Pälolo Valley is a microcosm of the transformation they helped initiate throughout Hawai’i. This, most of all, is the legacy Doo wants to preserve. Preserving the rich history represented in the home’s residents is one tangible way to accomplish that.

“In this time of vast change in the Islands, we should never forget our roots,” says Doo. “Hawai’i is strong enough today to remember some of the painful things in our earlier years and grow from these remembrances.” He recalls when Asians had to ask permission to live in Kahala and when law firms included only white attorneys.

“Few people know that he’s been one of the greatest catalysts toward building harmony in Hawai’i,” Doo says of 86-year-old Clark, who helped integrate the once all-white Pacific Club, and, in 1949, the board of directors of the Honolulu Gas Co.

Other corporations quickly followed suit, recruiting non-Caucasians onto their boards. “Henry, in his quiet, gentlemanly way … has always strived to open the doors to people of all races, without rancor.”

Fong, who died recently at age 98, founded one of the early multiethnic law firms and built an influential niche on the U.S. Senate Committee on Immigration during the mid-1960s in Washington. He championed equal access to immigration regardless of race or country of origin. Subsequent legal changes helped end the longstanding bias in favor of northern Europeans, and diversified America.

Doo, 58, says his mother never talked to him about his own struggles, despite the fact that he needed leg braces and crutches to walk after suffering through polio at 9 months old. Nor did she indulge any of his tendencies toward self-pity. Instead, as he made his way through Punahou School, Columbia University and Harvard Law School, she taught him how to treat other people as individuals, how to focus on their gifts. “She told me, ‘Don’t look at them for what they don’t have,'” he recalls. “That’s a very old Hawaiian concept.”

Now, at the Palolo Home, instead of concentrating on the failing bodies of their aging residents, staff and volunteers teach them to navigate the Internet and type one-finger e-mails to their grandchildren, opening a “whole new world,” says Doo.

“What could be more virtuous than to help the aged?” Fong said before he died. “The legacy of our forbearers is one of respect and care for our elders, who helped build the Hawai’i we love. It is our duty to care for them when they are most vulnerable, when giving expects nothing in return.”

Leigh-Wai Doo’s family has supported the
Pa-lolo Home for three generations.
Photo: Katherine Nichols

This appreciation of elders, embraced by the home’s Chinese founders, is one reason its name has remained the same, though all races have always been welcome.

The Palolo Chinese Home traces its origins to 1896, when 326 Chinese immigrants combined their money to help care for those who had grown too old or sick to continue working on Hawai’i’s plantations and ranches. Assets from what was then called the Chinese Hospital in Kapälama were used to acquire 15 acres in rural Palolo Valley in 1917. A year later, a Portuguese cowboy fell from his horse and arrived at the Pälolo Chinese Old Men’s Home, initiating the Home’s multiracial tradition.

That’s a tradition both Fong and Clark consistently nurtured, expanding the home beyond its predominantly Chinese, male, population. Ellen Fong, the former senator’s wife, led the fund-raising drive to build the first structure for women in 1972.

Greater Palolo Valley, including Kaimukï and Kapahulu, has one of the largest concentrations of senior citizens in the state, notes Doo. Hawai’i also boasts the nation’s highest rate of longevity. However, per capita, it suffers from the country’s most profound shortage of nursing care beds.

He and many volunteers work to ensure that older family members can count on dignified support that will maximize their independence and make them feel part of a larger family-the community-during what should be the most celebrated stage of their lives.