Daily Archives: 5 July 2005

Senator Fong as King Lear

Today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin carries a long sad story by reporter Sally Apgar about the familial and financial legacy of Sen. Hiram Fong, the first Asian American U.S. senator.

In sorting through the personal papers of the late Sen. Hiram Fong Sr., daughter Merie-Ellen Fong Gushi found what she believes are clues to why her twin brother, Marvin, has spent the last eight years waging wars in boardrooms and courtrooms against his parents and three siblings.

A letter dated Dec. 6, 1985, written in Marvin’s spidery handwriting, was addressed to his father and began: “I have never in my life hated anyone, but I hate you.

“For 37 years you have degraded me, making me feel I was ‘good for nothing.'”

Marvin wrote: “I promise to hurt you as much as you have hurt me in 37 years…. I will publicly embarras (sic) you; I will destroy whatever is left of your precious name. It may be tomorrow, a year from now or in five years, just expect it in your lifetime. You only care about your name and money…. I will rejoice in your downfall.”

Marvin’s battles, played out publicly in at least three major lawsuits, ripped apart the family financial empire, drove his parents to declare bankruptcy as a strategy to protect their remaining wealth and resulted in Marvin and his wife, Sandra Au Fong, gaining ownership of Market City Shopping Center and control of the most valuable remaining family assets.

In a symbolic end to the Fong saga, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court trustee auctioned off the family estate on Alewa Drive for $1.68 million to a developer last week.

In 1950, Hiram Fong Sr., the ambitious son of poor Chinese immigrants who graduated from Harvard Law School and became the first Asian-American elected to the U.S. Senate, built that house high on a ridge overlooking the sea and downtown Honolulu. Fong, a Republican, served from 1959 to 1977.

As a businessman, Sen. Fong made and lost millions. He lived his last weeks on a bed in the living room of that once-elegant house, which, like his fortune, declined into ruin.

“This whole thing with Marvin is like ‘King Lear‘ or something out of the Bible,” said Hiram Jr., the oldest son, in a recent interview at the house, which is now crowded with moving boxes.

Referring to Marvin’s 1985 letter, Hiram Jr. shook his head sadly and said, “He accomplished what he set out to do in the letter.”

Junior, as he is nicknamed, is trained as a lawyer and served briefly in the state Legislature and on the City Council before trying his hand at various disastrous business ventures, including a failed floating restaurant and a Laotian gold mine.

As the firstborn in a Chinese family, Junior was the anointed son destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Today, Junior, 65, who has languished in involuntary bankruptcy since 2001, is living at the family home until the sale is complete. For several years, Junior, who chain-smokes and reads westerns by Louis L’Amour, chauffeured his father every morning to his office at Finance Factors, one of the companies he helped found.

Several afternoons a week, he drove his father to St. Francis Medical Center for dialysis treatments. Junior and his sister Merie-Ellen, known as Muffy, who lives on Maui and works in her husband’s landscape business, have been the chief caregivers for their parents. Before Sen. Fong died, he asked the two to take care of their mother, Ellen Lo, who now lives in a care home.

In February, Junior was evicted from the family’s dilapidated former Kahaluu vacation home by its new owners, Finance Factors. Junior unsuccessfully represented himself in the eviction proceeding held in Kaneohe District Court against a team of lawyers from Finance Factors.

Asked what he will do when the family home is sold, Junior joked, “I will buy a van to live in and park it in Finance Factors’ parking lot.”

In an interview, Marvin, 57, said sadly, “My father was never fair to us. He always took Junior’s side.”

In court documents, Marvin, who was the “baby” of the family, refers to Junior as “the preferred son” who his father bailed out of a series of failed investments, taking on loans until the banks turned him down for more and the foreclosures began.

In documents filed in his father’s bankruptcy case, Marvin wrote that his father and Junior began their downward slide in the 1970s when the two co-signed loans “on a disastrous investment in the Oceania floating restaurant” and lost about $1 million. In the same court documents, Marvin said, “Since then, and in part because of that catastrophe, Fong Sr. has willingly and actively participated in Fong Jr.’s downward spiraling mishaps and wrongdoing.”

There’s lots more to the story. The sage advice of Lear’s Fool comes too late.

Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest;
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shalt have more
Than two tens to a score.
(Act I, Scene IV, Lines 31-140)

The version of Lear that I grew up on was entitled “Like Meat Loves Salt” in the Grandfather Tales collection by by WPA-funded folklorist Richard Chase, whose Jack Tales are my favorite “reading aloud” stories. I remember trying to tell one, I think it was Jack and the Varmints in Tok Pisin during fieldwork in Papua New Guinea.

P.S. “Learn more than thou trowest” seems to mean “Take in more than you believe”–exceedingly sage advice for anyone in these days of information overload.

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