Pam Chun, who grew up in Honolulu's lush Nuuanu Valley, slips into island-speak when rattling off directions to her house in Alameda: "So get off the freeway and head makai ..."
Makai, as anyone from Hawaii knows, means toward the sea or water, as opposed to mauka, which means toward the mountains.
"If I had to say east or west, I'd get lost," Chun confesses, chuckling.
The fourth-generation Chinese American writer, whose 2002 book, "The Money Dragon," was a best-seller, has come out with a new novel also set in Hawaii, "When Strange Gods Call,'' a Romeo and Juliet saga, island style, set in the 1970s.
The call of the islands
For more than three decades, Chun has lived in the Bay Area, where she raised her son, Ryan Leong, a 28-year-old U.S. diplomat based in Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, and made a home in small-town Alameda with her husband, Fred Joyce III, a retired computer engineer.
Yet, like thousands of others in the ever-growing Hawaiian diaspora, she still hears the call of the islands.
In the hallway of her dockside home, yellow ginger blossoms exude their alluring scent. Upstairs, densely green ti plants accent a den, as do shadow boxes of tiny shell necklaces and woven baskets on a wall. The soft sounds of an old island favorite, the band Olomana, drift through the house as Chun prepares a lunch of kalua pork and cabbage, which she brought back a few days ago from an island book tour.
"When you're from Hawaii, you take things with you," she says. "That's because once you go away, you begin to miss all these things. To tell you the truth, I am more Hawaiian here."
With wispy shoulder-length hair and a delicately featured face, the vivacious and well-connected Chun doesn't look 56. It's a testament to family genes: Her beloved popo, or grandmother, lived to be 102.
But it is Chun's great-grandfather, Lau Ah Leong, the notorious Merchant Prince of Hawaii, who left the most remarkable imprint on his sprawling family of five wives, 10 sons and 11 daughters and the island community they lived in.
Known as the Money Dragon, Leong was a penniless immigrant from Kew Boy village in China's Fukien province who, with his formidable first wife, Fung Dai-Kam, built a mercantile and real estate empire that in the early years of the 20th century owned half of Honolulu's Chinatown and boasted connections to Hawaii's influential white movers and shakers. When he died in 1934, crowds stood five deep to watch Leong's gold coffin go by.
Yet Chun, born in Honolulu in 1948, had never heard of her illustrious ancestor until Ellyn Fong, the wife of Hawaii's venerated late former U.S. Sen. Hiram L. Fong, mentioned him in passing. The senator, it seems, often accompanied his mother to Leong's bustling store, where Leong's first wife, who stood 6 feet tall, could be seen carrying 100-pound sacks of rice, even while pregnant.
Intrigued by Fong's remarks, Chun went to her popo, who, in the typical fashion of old folks who have seen and done just about everything, told her, "Oh, he's dead."
When Chun went to the Hawaii Chinese History Center in Honolulu's Chinatown to find out more, elderly historians there told her to go outside. She did, puzzled, then looked up and saw her great-grandfather's name on the building.
"His name was there on a building in Chinatown that I'd seen my entire life, but no one told me," she said.
One reason for the silence was a bitter family falling-out caused by the patriarch's scandalous ways and the endless jockeying for power it provoked among Leong's many wives. Chun's grandfather -- Lau Tat-Tung, Leong's eldest son -- who normally would have inherited it all -- and his descendents ended up on the shallow end of the inheritance.
"I was always told they were 'the other side' of the family," Chun says of the countless well-appointed aunts, uncles and cousins that converged at family functions.
But Chun never knew she was deprived. In a modest Nuuanu neighborhood, she and her three brothers went to school and spoke pidgin with native Hawaiian children from Papakolea, a Hawaiian Homelands area set aside for native Hawaiians.
Her mom cared for the kids. Her dad was a customer service rep at Hawaiian Electric Co. Back then, Chun says, only whites worked "upstairs" at these island institutions.
"I actually thought we were rich until I got to Punahou," Chun says.
Punahou Academy was and still is an elite private school in Honolulu. In its early years, it was exclusively white. By the time Chun was enrolled there on full scholarship in the late '50s and early '60s, nonwhites made up about 14 percent of students.
"Those Chinese kids wouldn't even talk to me because I was on scholarship, " she recalls, musing that some of them were relatives from more affluent branches of the Leong family.
Community mover, shaker
Chun went on to the University of Hawaii, graduated from UC Berkeley with an English degree and started a career in marketing and sales. But in the past decade, she began helping major entities like the Asian Art Museum and UC Berkeley build Asian American community support. A Cal Alumni Association board member, she once took the late former Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien to Hawaii to meet key philanthropists like multimillionaire Chinn Ho and Sen. Fong.
It was also 10 years ago that Chun began seriously researching the Leong family history, delving into immigration records and interviewing relatives. What she found explained much of the mystery about "the other side" of the family. The project began as an historical account that morphed into a novel.
"The Money Dragon," which hit the best-seller lists in the islands, was actually completed after Chun finished "When Strange Gods Call," which, as it happened, wasn't published until early November.
Like "The Money Dragon," "Gods" encompasses a good deal of the island's major historical and political events, including the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by American businessmen aided by the U.S. military.
Chun's books also capture the experience of growing up in Hawaii -- the post-statehood years, the island propensity for ghost stories, and the tastes and flavors of the local lifestyle, from the "clouds of ginger" blossoms on Roundtop Drive to the indescribable taste of a chocolate dobash cake from Liliha Bakery.
"Why do flowers smell better there than here, why do foods taste better there?" Chun asks. "Because the senses are so much more alive -- the smell, the taste of everything. We grew up in an incredibly rich culture."