Hiram L. Fong, a Hawaii Republican who served in the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1977 and rose from poverty to become a venerable figure in Pacific politics, has died. He was 97.
Fong died of kidney failure Wednesday at his home in Honolulu.
The son of illiterate Chinese immigrants, Fong became a lawyer and wealthy businessman before his rise in politics. He was elected to the Senate after the former U.S. territory achieved statehood. He was one of the first Asian Americans in the Senate, and served on the powerful Appropriations and Judiciary committees.
During his career, he was seen as an anomaly, both as a Republican and for his Chinese heritage. Other officeholders in his largely Democratic state were of Japanese heritage.
He walked an often-difficult moderate course between social liberalism and a hawkish approval of military spending and defense issues.
His support for civil rights legislation put him at odds with many in his party in the 1960s. He was adamant about repealing humiliating provisions in the internal security measure that had been responsible for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He also worked on bills that eliminated racial and ethnic quota systems in immigration.
On the Appropriations Committee, he had a major role in crafting the federal budget. His routine support for education bills and cultural and economic exchanges among the United States and Asian countries created an influence far beyond the size and population of his state.
In the early 1970s, his support for the conservative policies of President Nixon left him politically vulnerable.
He was an ardent believer in the Vietnam War, which left many of his Asian American constituents displeased. He had a son serving in the Army in Vietnam during the war, a major factor in his backing it.
Fong held on to power in great measure because of the unflagging political support of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehouseman’s Union, which controlled harbor operations in Hawaii. During a strike in the 1950s, the senator had assured unionized employees at his own business that he would pay for their rents and other necessary expenses.
Aging and tiring of commuting, Fong did not run for reelection in 1976. He returned to his family business -- a booming insurance, real estate and investment concern.
The senator was born Ah Leong Fong in Honolulu, the seventh of 11 children. As a young man, he changed his first name in honor of Hiram Bingham, a 19th century missionary in Hawaii and a fellow Congregationalist. His father had emigrated as an indentured servant on a Hawaiian sugar plantation, and his mother was a maid for a wealthy family.
For the first in a series of odd jobs, Fong began work at age 4, picking beans at a salary of 10 cents for every 100-pound sack. Despite frequent absences from school, he received good marks and saved enough money working as a shipyard clerk to pay for college tuition.
He was a 1930 graduate of the University of Hawaii, where the debate team was one of his extracurricular activities, and a 1935 graduate of Harvard University law school.
When he returned home to Honolulu, Fong was $3,000 in debt. He established one of the city’s first multiethnic law practices and also became the deputy attorney for the city and county of Honolulu.
His work brought enough income for Fong to begin making lucrative real estate and plantation investments.
Eventually, he founded Finance Factors, which still operates insurance, realty and investment companies. He also operated a banana farm and raised cattle, avocados and litchi nuts.
During World War II, he was an Army Air Forces judge advocate and later retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel.
He then won election to the Territorial House of Representatives, rose to speaker, and began lobbying for Hawaiian statehood.
In 1959, he and Democrat Oren E. Long were the new state’s first senators. A coin was tossed to see which would be the “senior” senator. Fong won.
After leaving the Senate, he began Senator Fong’s Plantation and Gardens, a 725-acre commercial botanical garden.
Survivors include his wife, Ellyn Lo Fong, whom he married in 1938; four children; 10 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.