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Waialua and Hale‘iwa: The People Tell Their Story

Three men standing on front of locomotive
Waialua plantation locomotive crew, ca. 1930s. Sugar cane was loaded in railroad cars and hauled to the mill. (Photo courtesy of Adam Holmberg.)

Sugar, once Hawai‘i’s major industry, began on a large scale in the late nineteenth century, when much of Hawai‘i’s land was divided into sugar plantations. Native Hawaiians were the first workers in the cane fields. But as the sugar industry’s labor needs grew, plantation owners recruited immigrants from China, Portugal, Japan, Korea, Puerto Rico, Philippines and other areas to work in their fields and mills.

When the immigrants arrived in Hawai‘i, they were sent to different plantations. One of these was Waialua, on the North Shore of O‘ahu.

“My first job was loading cane, carrying cane, sugar cane on the back. We build up a bundle about fifty to seventy-five pounds weight and we carry that cane up the ladder into the cane cars.” —William Rego

Workers spent ten hours a day, six days a week in the fields under the watchful eyes of the luna, or foreman.

“They had lots of foremen. They were very mean. They wouldn’t let you talk, you see. Even with us, we couldn’t talk in the fields. We had to continue working. If you would stand up for one or two minutes, that foreman would jump on you.” —Trinidad Marcella

Despite difficult working conditions and low wages, sugar plantation workers made the best of what they had. The plantation provided free housing, water, fuel, medical services, and recreational activities. Workers lived in camps scattered throughout the plantation.

“When we have holiday, especially Rizal Day . . . we have bigger program, big occasion in the camp. . . . So Saturday night like that, they make a blow-out. We invited all the plantation bosses, all different race in the camp. . . . Because they like Filipino food, eh?” —Emigdio Cabico

Workers seeking greater independence moved to the neighboring town of Hale‘iwa, formerly a community of Hawaiian fishermen and taro farmers, and established small businessses and peddled fish, vegetables, and meat. Some found work at the Hale‘iwa Hotel, a fancy tourist destination.

Those who remained at Waialua Plantation voted, in 1945, to join the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU).

“Nobody can tell me that if it wasn’t for the union here in the sugar plantation, that we’d be making the same pay and the same working conditions, the fringe benefits as we are having now if it wasn’t for the union. . . . It would be miserable to be working on the sugar plantation.” —Slim Robello

At the time of the interviews in the late 1970s, Waialua Plantation was one of only two remaining sugar plantations on O‘ahu as sugar lands were taken out of production throughout the state. Waialua Plantation closed in 1996, and there are no sugar plantations remaining on O‘ahu.

audiotape iconHarold Shin recalls the basis for his mother’s work ethic (.au sound file, 182K).

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