Did you know that the First Chinese Church of Christ …
- in 1879, was granted its royal charter by King David Kalakaua
- in 1881, was the first church in Hawaii to celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees in their services.
- also in 1881, was where Sun Yet Sen a.k.a. Sūn Zhōngshān (孫中山) became a Christian and was a major financier in his 1911 Chinese Revolution which toppled the foreign Manchu Xing Dynasty and brought modernization and democracy to China.
- in 1892, founded Hawaii’s first kindergarten/preschool
- also in 1892, founded the Mills Institute which would later merge with the Kawaiahao Seminary to form the Mid Pacific Institute.
- in 1897, founded the Chinese Hospital to care for Chinese deprived of medical care in Hawaii because of their race and which later became the Palolo Chinese Home.
- starting in 1883, began founding Chinese mission stations throughout the islands and is the mother church to UCC Judd, the United Community Church in Hilo and grandmother church to the Community Church of Honolulu
- owes part of her success to Sanford Ballard Dole who would later go on to play a role in overthrowing Hawaii’s monarchy and become the president of the Republic of Hawaii. As a founding member of the YMCA in Hawaii in 1870, Dole proposed that a YMCA committee be appointed to investigate working with the Chinese Plantation workers which led to the their hiring of Sit Moon as an evangelist and eventually his leading the effort to form our church and serving as our first pastor.
A History of the First Chinese Church of Christ in Hawaii
Samuel Aheong, Sit Moon, Goo Kim Fui, Samuel Damon, Dwight Baldwin, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Frank Damon, John T. Waterhouse, Yee Huang, Sanford Ballard Dole and 28 Hakka Christians were just a few of the people who would figure prominently into the story of the First Chinese Church of Christ in Hawaii. Without any one of these, the story may have been much different.
We start our story in Guangdong also known as Kwangtung or Canton in Southern China with a teenager named Siu Pheong who would later become known in Hawaii as Samuel P. Aheong.
The Taiping Rebellion and the resulting Punti-Hakka Clan Wars were being fought at the time in Southern China in the 1850s and 60s leaving it in poverty and ruins. As a result, thousands were fleeing the devastation in China. Meanwhile, Hawaii’s sugar industry had commenced operations luring Chinese here beginning in 1852.
During the Taiping Rebellion, Siu Pheong, son of a school superintendent in Guangdong, was separated from his family. During this time, Pheong was recruited to join a work crew headed for the Hawaiian sugar plantations and because he was well-educated, promised by recruiters a position fitting his abilities, and so in desperation in 1854, he signed on, boarding a ship for Hawaii.
But once in Hawaii, he found that his recruiters had deceived him and he is put to work on the fields of the Torbert Plantation at Ulupalakua on Maui as a coolie.
One day, he met the plantation owner, L.L. Torbert, and somehow impressed him with his intelligence. Torbert took him off the fields to manage his plantation store. When Torbert moved to Makawao, he took Pheong, who had become known as Samuel Aheong, with him. While there, Aheong heard that missionary,
Jonathan Green, was giving English lessons at his home in Makawa’o. There Aheong learned to speak English. Already a master of a dozen Chinese dialects, he soon became conversant in English, Hawaiian, and Japanese. Through the class, Aheong also became a Christian. In 1859, Tolbert decided to release Aheong early from his five-year contract, after which Aheong went on to become a successful merchant in Lahaina and marry a Hawaiian woman, Naukana Hikiau.
He became an active member of the Waine’e Church (now the Wai’ola Church in Lahaina) pastored by the Reverend Dr. Dwight Baldwin. There, he developed a zeal to share the Gospel of Christ with his fellow countrymen.
In August 1868, Aheong was sent as a delegate of the Waine’e Church to Honolulu for the Aha Pae’aina, the annual conference of theHawaiian Evangelical Association (now the Hawaii Conference United Church of Christ).
The HEA had been searching for several years in both China and California for someone to launch work in the islands among the Chinese workers. At the Aha, Aheong’s zeal for sharing the Christian gospel with his fellow countrymen led the Reverend C.B. Andrews to recommend him to the Hawaiian Evangelical Association for that position. Samuel Aheong was offered the commission as a full-time evangelist and colportier which he promptly accepted.
He closed up shop in Lahaina and departed on an evangelical tour of Maui, Kauai, the Big Island and finally, Oahu. As a result of his preaching, Chinese throughout the islands began attending the local native churches and Sunday Schools and many were requesting Bibles in Chinese.
In 1869, With the support of the Reverend Dr. Samuel Damon of the Seamen’s Friend Bethel Chapel and Bethel Union Church, Aheong began to hold Sabbath Evening meetings for the Chinese. He started it as an English Language School which met three evenings a week at Bethel Union Church with twenty pupils. It soon averaged between 60-100 Chinese.
In 1870, after both the Taiping Rebellion and the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars had ended, he returned to China to share the gospel in his native land with plans to eventually return to his adopted home. Unfortunately, he died there the following year in China but his efforts here were not in vain. Instead, it spurred Christians in Hawaii to support a greater outreach to Chinese here.
Three men were inspired by Aheong to bring the Chinese immigrants to faith in Christ. A year earlier, Peter Cushman, Thomas Rain Walker and Sanford Ballard Dole (who would later become the president of the Republic of Hawaii) formed Hawai’i’s first YMCA.
In those days, the YMCA focused on evangelism and its activities included Bible classes, prayer meetings, street corner services, noon-day meetings at factories and revival meetings. By that time, their organization had already formed a Reading Room between the wharf and the saloons, so that the sailors coming into Honolulu would spend their time reading Christian literature instead of getting drunk and causing trouble. The reading room would later become our Hawaii State Public Library. After hearing of the death of Samuel Aheong and noticing the large numbers of Chinese entering the islands to work on the plantations, Sanford Dole proposed that a YMCA committee be appointed to investigate working with the Chinese Plantation workers.
In December 1871, they formed a Chinese Sunday School at the Fort Street Church (aka Second Foreign Church later united with the Bethel Union Church to form what is now the Central Union Church) to be held “at three and a half o’ clock” on Sundays. It started with 16-19 students and eventually rose to 50 or more. At the same meeting, they voted that a “Peter” be hired to preach to the Chinese. After more than two years searching for the right “Peter”, A.W. Loomis recommended Sit Moon, who had been working with the Presbyterian Mission field in San Francisco for 15 years and who he called, “the best Chinese Evangelist in California.”
In 1875, after two years of searching, the YMCA hired Sit Moon as a preacher and colporteur to travel among the Chinese and distribute religious tracts to them.
Under Sit Moon’s leadership and a corps of Y.M.C.A. workers inspired by Joseph Ballard Atherton, classes were organized to teach the Chinese the English language and basic Biblical truths.
Goo Kim Fui & the Basel Hakka Christians
At that time, A Hakka Christian,Goo Kim Fui, the Chinese Vice-Consul and successful Chinese businessman immigrated from China to expand his businesses in Hawaii. In 1876, 28 professing Hakka Christians, including five women, who had already been converted by the Basel missionaries in China arrive in Honolulu. These were the fruits of the Basel-Hakka, the Barmen groups and the Ba-lin, Berlin Missionary Society, in Southern China.
These protestant missionaries arrived in three groups later forming the Chinese Union which grew from 20 members in 1844 to 1,100 missionaries in 4 years, creating the 3-Ba’s legacy. Once in Hawai’i, they got into contact with Sit Moon, who was already working with the Chinese here.
Sit Moon led the group of about 19 of them to ask Pastor Samuel Damon to assist them in their Christian nurture. And as a result, Pastor Damon made available the facilities of the Bethel Seaman’s Chapel for Sunday afternoon services.
Many of these Chinese Christians attended Sunday School and worship services at the Seamen’s Bethel Chapel but although Pastor Damon cared deeply for the Chinese, he could neither understand nor speak in Chinese and so services were all held in English. As a result, many of the Chinese immigrants could not understand the messages preached.
In 1877, Sit Moon inspired a group of eight Chinese Christians including Goo Kim Fui to take on the mission of reaching out to other Chinese immigrants in their own language. In response, this group formed the You Hawk Jihu Taw Hui or the Chinese YMCA, now known as the Chinese Christian Association.
One day, Yee Huang from San Francisco asked Goo Kim Fui why he was not helping to start a Gospel church in Honolulu where the Chinese immigrants could worship and study the Bible in their own language. Goo replied that it would take a lot of preparation and money, which he didn’t have to complete the task.
Sometime later, John T. Waterhouse, a rich English businessman, went to visit Goo at his store. After greeting Mr. Waterhouse, Goo asked his advice about forming a Chinese Gospel church.
Waterhouse replied, “This is an important matter which should be discussed thoroughly, for if we do it in haste, it may result in failure,” but he continued to tell Goo Kim Fui that this was not his idea alone but the will of our Heavenly Father and promised that he would do his best to achieve God’s will. An hour later, Waterhouse returned to the store with a $500 donation to aid in organizing the church which would be over $8,000 in today’s mone
Fook Yim Tong – Chinese Christian Church of Honolulu
Our church, the Fook Yim Tong or Gospel Church, would begin meeting together at the Bethel Chapel, led by Sit Moon.
In May of 1879, Waterhouse made the facilities of the old Lyceum, a town hall located on Kukui and Nuuanu Streets, available for the Fook Yim Tong and on May 21, 1879, they began meeting there.
On June 8, 1979, 39 Chinese-Christians citing difficulties understanding the English language services, asked the Hawaiian Evangelical Association (HEA) to allow them to form a church where services could be in their own language.
The HEA’s Ecclesiastical Council meeting at the Lyceum granted a petition by those Chinese Christians to form their own church. Goo Kim Fui was elected its board chairman. Sit Moon was selected as pastor and Samuel Damon was selected as moderator.
On October 3, 1879, the congregation was granted a charter of incorporation as the Chinese Christian Church of Honolulu by His Majesty, King Kalakaua. Unfortunately, the charter signed by Kalakaua was destroyed fifty years later in a fire at the Chinese Christian Association where it was being stored. At least two copies still exist. One is in the first two pages of the book of minutes of the church’s first Board of Trustees and the second is held in the Hawai’i State Archives.
Sun Yat Sen
Sun Yat Sen 孫逸仙 (the name given to him at his baptism) also known as Sun Zhongshan 孫中山, attended the church here. It would be at the First Chinese Church meeting at the Lyceum, that Sun would become a Christian. After doing this, he approached his guardian in Hawai’i , his older brother who resided in Maui, to give his permission to be baptized as a Christian. His brother was appalled and instead, sent him back to China. But that would not stop this born again teenager. It wouldn’t be long before he would find a Christian church back in Xiangshan (香山) or Fragrant Mountain that Sun Yat Sen would be baptized as a Christian. Back in China, he would complete his medical degree. He would return to the islands on visits to meet with our church, where he would find the financial support he needed to lead a successful democratic revolution to topple the Xing Dynasty. History records that it was our congregation that financed the coming of democracy to China. He would later become the provisional president of the new Chinese Republic. Since 1925, in his honor, Xiangshan has been renamed Zhongshan (中山) after Sun.
FO GAI FOOK YIM TONG – the Fort Street Chinese Church
On August 7, 1879, at an auction, the congregation purchased a lot on Fort Street between Beretania and Kukui Streets for the sum of $4500 and on January 2, 1881, the church building, constructed at a cost of $6,500 with an additional $1,000 for furnishings, was formally dedicated as the Fort Street Chinese Church also known as the FO GAI FOOK YIM TONG and served as the focal point of all Chinese mission work in the islands.
The first story was a combination parish hall and Sunday School classrooms, while the second floor built as a sanctuary, was where regular worship services were held.
In December of that year, the congregation celebrated, in their new sanctuary, the birth of Christ Jesus with an historic first by putting up the first lighted Christmas tree in a church in Hawai’i. The lighting of the tree and the singing of Christmas carols and chorales were practices the Chinese Christians learned from the Wurttemberg missionaries in the homeland and the carols they sung in Cantonese had German and Swiss tunes.
Francis Williams Damon
In 1881, the son of Samuel Damon, Francis Williams Damon was appointed by the Hawaiian Board as the Superintendent of Chinese work. He would lead our church in its mission to the Chinese in Hawaii for the next 34 fruitful years.
In 1886 and 1898, during the two disastrous Chinatown fires, the church grounds became a virtual refugee camp to house those who were homeless and in dire need of help.
In 1892, under Frank Damon,the Mills Institute was founded at Damon’s home on Chaplain Lane with five Chinese students and one Japanese student. The school gradually outgrew its downtown quarters and was moved to Manoa. Later, it merged with the Kawaiahao Girls’ Seminary to form the Mid-Pacific Institute.
On June 10, 1892, the church organized Hawaii’s first kindergarten-preschool in a new cottage on the Fort Street Chinese Church grounds.
Mildred Kinney with the assistance of Hattie Chang, a church member, gathered together 11 tiny tots, children of members of the church and residents of Chaplain Lane. The only equipment they had at first consisted of a “handful of wiliwili seeds and some bits of chalk.” Miss Kinney recalls that her pupils included several “whose bound feet required their fathers to carry them to and from the school.”
Mission stations were established on the outer islands as well as in the different sections of the growing city of Honolulu.
On the island of Hawaii, these included the Kaiopihi Chinese Church in Kohala and what is now the United Community Church in Hilo. On Maui, there was one in Wailuku and another at Makawao. On Kauai, there were three centers in Waimea, Hanapepe and Hanalei where there were thriving rice plantations. In Honolulu, there was the Gospel Hall on Hotel Street and another near Aala Park, known as the Aala Branch Mission.
In March 1897, Goo Kim Fui, responding to the anti-Chinese activities resulting from the Tientsin Massacre led our church in organizing the Mutual Defense Association or Lein Wei Hui in order to help his countrymen when they were refused medical help here in Honolulu.
They constructed the Chinese Hospital on Robello Lane known as Wai Wah Yee Yin. In 1917, the Chinese Hospital later moved to Palolo and became what is now the Palolo Chinese Home.
In 1906, the Beretania Mission was established at 74 North Beretania Street on Beretania and Maunakea Streets. The mission attracted many Cantonese-speaking Punti Chinese. By 1915, the Beretania Mission had grown and permission was granted to form our first daughter church, the Second Chinese Congregational Church, also known as the Yee Jee Wui. The cornerstone for the new structure was laid in 1917 and the new church building was dedicated in June of 1918 with the Rev. Tse Kei Yuen as its first pastor. In 1948, it moved to Judd Street and renamed the United Church of Christ on Judd Street. In 1934, a group of younger members left the Second Chinese Congregational Church to form the Keeaumoku Church of Christ (now the Community Church of Honolulu), thus forming a granddaughter church.
In 1919, the Fort Street Chinese Church attained the status of self-support. From that time on, not only did it not receive financial help from the Mlssions Board, but contributed its share of support to assist the general work as well.
The Move to King Street
By 1926, the Fort Street facilities were deteriorating after 47 years of constant use, our congregation was becoming distracted by the new Princess Theatre across the street, and our people were moving away from Chinatown, and so a new site was being contemplated.
A new site was found at the old Grandville Hotel property on King Street in Makiki and the membership voted to sell the Fort Street property for $65,000 and buy the new site for exactly the same amount. During the interim period of a year and a half, we borrowed the use of the Chinese Y.M.C.A. meeting hall back of the Central Fire Station for worship. It was during this particular time that many of our Church records were destroyed due to a disastrous fire.
At the new site, there were some old wooden buildings, but no place for worship and so the membership pledged themselves to raise sufficient funds for a new sanctuary as well as a new Parish Hall. One two story wooden building could be converted to Sunday School classrooms.
An architectural drawing for the new sanctuary was held. The congregation wanted the sanctuary to be Christian but to also reflect their Chinese heritage. It would not just be a normal Christian church building, but one which would reflect the self-sufficiency that the Chinese Christians in Honolulu had achieved just seven years earlier. Finally, the sketch by Architect Hart Wood was selected as it combined the architectural arts of old China with that of the newer West. For an additional $5,000, the congregation decided to add the pagoda-like bell tower. With the new site, a new name was also chosen to reflect our unique heritage on the islands, the First Chinese Church of Christ in Hawaii.
About thirty years later during the Christmas season of 1957, while members were practicing a play in the sanctuary, a member, Robert Yee, casually shared with the pastor that he heard that the old gymnasium at Fort Kamehameha was out for sale to make room for the new enlarged airport. It was a steel structure which could be dismantled and reassembled on the Church grounds. After a committee was detailed out to give it a close look, the church decided to bid for it.
In 1958, towards the back part of the property, which was once a garage for the tenants in the front apartment building, the church constructed its new parish hall now known as the Master’s Hall. It is so called because it is dedicated for the glory of God and for the developing of well-rounded Christian personalities.
In 1964, ground was broken in order to make room for the new building. Four old wooden buildings were demolished. Of the four, only Damon Hall was built in 1928 as a new Parish Hall for the church, the other three were old Grandville Hotel buildings which were renovated for church use. In November 1965, the new structure, Founders’ Hall, was dedicated to perpetuating the memory of all of those who helped to build the church’s spiritual as well as physical foundations. Two of those founders were especially remembered because they dedicated so much of their lives to the work of the church and so two of the larger halls were named after them, one for Francis Damon and one for Goo Kim Fui.
Compiled by church historian/archivist, Norman Kwai Cheong ‘Kaleomokuokanalu’ Chock (revised June 21, 2020)