By Jonathan van Harmelen
The study of relations between Chinese and Japanese Americans during WWII is a small yet growing field. Although both immigrant communities shared experiences of racial discrimination, tensions between Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities increased drastically following the invasions of Manchuria and China. Following Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment forced Chinese Americans to distinguish themselves and take a position against their neighbors. Yet as historian Greg Robinson notes in his column for DiscoverNikkei, a number of Chinese Americans stood as advocates for the Japanese American community or, in cases of marriage, were separated from their spouses by mass removal.
One such individual was Hung Wai Ching, one of the founders of the Varsity Victory Volunteers and advocate for the creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Born in 1905 in Honolulu to Chinese immigrant parents, Ching’s early relations with Japanese Americans were far from amicable. In a series of interviews with Franklin Odo published in the book No Sword To Bury, Ching said he would “go look for Japanese kids to lick,” and was aware his father was a Chinese nationalist angered by Japan’s invasion of China. Yet after Ching became engaged in the racialized politics of Hawaii and became a leader of the local YMCA, Ching found himself an ally of Japanese Americans.
Ching attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 1928. Shortly thereafter, he switched his career as a theologian, and earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in Hawaii and Masters in Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 1932. His theological work inspired him to work as a community leader, serving as a secretary to the Nuuanu YMCA from 1928 to 1938. It was his work at the YMCA as one of the few leadership positions available to Asian Americans on the island, Odo argues, that strongly motivated Ching’s to help form the Varsity Victory Volunteers along with John Young.
Shortly before Pearl Harbor, Ching was invited to meet with the FBI, Army, and Navy Intelligence as part of forming the Council on Interracial Unity. Based on the anticipation the U.S. would go to war with Japan, the Council of Interracial Unity was formed to work with the Japanese immigrant community in Hawaii – a community which composed 40 percent of Hawaii’s population in 1940. Ching used these connections with the FBI to protect the community from mass roundups. Although some community leaders were arrested and interned, Ching played a pivotal role in convincing the government not to intern the larger Japanese American community.
Rather, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ching worked constantly to support the Japanese American community. When Nikkei soldiers in the Hawaiian Territorial Guard were stripped of their arms by the martial law government, Ching proposed the creation of an all-volunteer auxiliary labor battalion from these men. Naming them the Varsity Victory Volunteers, Ching made sure the Volunteers’ activities were displayed to visiting leaders such as Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy. According to former VVV member Ted Tsuchiyama, Ching’s advocacy and strategic placement of Japanese Americans in the spotlight as loyal Americans in support the war effort was crucial in the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Following the formation of the 442nd RCT/100th Battalion by the War Department, Ching made numerous visits to the mainland, stopping in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Camp Shelby to preach the loyalty of Japanese Americans—he even visited President Roosevelt at the White House to brief him. His visits to the mainland underlined the importance of Japanese Americans to the defense of Hawaii and the island’s stability to success in the Pacific. His visit to Camp Shelby boosted the morale of Japanese American recruits, many far from their home of Hawaii or knowing their families were incarcerated.
Upon his return from the mainland, Ching engaged in a barnstorming tour of Hawaii in support of the 442nd. Ching shared his experiences interviewing members of the 442nd at Camp Shelby, noting how important it was to talk with them “about what holds them together.” For most Japanese Americans, whether from Hawaii or the mainland, serving a country that demeaned them and stripped their rights without trial put them in a difficult position. For some, this led to draft resistance in the camps and resistance in the military. For Ching to visit and reassure them of their service gave them clarity of as to the greater cause and purpose for the future. As with the soldiers at Camps Shelby, Ching espoused to Japanese Americans in Hawaii the importance of communal friendship to help mend race relations at home, arguing “if you mean anything to your people and to the rest of us, it is most necessary that you point the way, that you direct and guide in the direction that will be of benefit to us all… it calls for a greater understanding of your relationship with other racial groups in this community.”
In addition to forming the Varsity Victory Volunteers, Ching served as associate editor of The Defender, the official newspaper of the Hawaii Defense Volunteers. While the Varsity Victory Volunteers was composed solely of Japanese Americans, the Hawaii Defense Volunteers were units of Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Puerto Ricans. Although his advocacy for Japanese Americans is more recognizable, his work with the Chinese community is equally important and cemented his position as a leader of Hawaii’s wartime Asian American community.
In the postwar years, Ching retired from civic duty to become one of the founders of Aloha Airlines and a member of University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents. His WWII story can be read in a number of ways. First, he was one of few Chinese Americans that preached solidarity with Japanese Americans, in the process anticipating the Asian American movement of the 1970s. Second, Ching’s story is one that is unique to Hawaii. Although Chinese American and Japanese American communities were in contact along the West Coast, the Hawaiian caste system, divided along race and class lines, encouraged such interracial relationships.
The crucial importance of Japanese American labor to the Hawaiian economy was a point Ching repeatedly made in defending the rights of Japanese Americans in the islands. While he could not prevent the initial expulsion of Japanese Americans from the army, he was able to press the military to recognize the importance of military service for the morale of the community.
Although Ching’s story is preserved thanks to the work of Franklin Odo and Ted Tsuchiyama, among others, it is an important chapter in the history of Hawaii and Asian America that is worth knowing better.
Jonathan van Harmelen is currently a PhD student in history at UC Santa Cruz specializing in the history of Japanese-American incarceration. He holds a BA in history and French from Pomona College, and has completed an MA from Georgetown University. From 2015 – 2018, he previously worked for the National Museum of American History as an intern and researcher.