Obituary: Remembering Mom
Octogenarian Vera Ako was born about half a century too early. The way she lived was far more in step with the social mores of today.
My mom was revolutionary in many ways. She earned not one but two college degrees- an undergraduate degree from Loyola Marymount University in California, and a master’s degree from the Ivy League Columbia University.
She returned to Hawaii for a bit to become a schoolteacher like her mother, but could not repress her lifelong love of dancing. When an opportunity arose for her to join a professional dance troupe in the 60s and travel the world, she took it.
Her career was groundbreaking in the sense that she was part of a pioneering movement of Asian-American stage performers finding the spotlight at a time when Western entertainment was dominated by Caucasians.
Mom - stage name: Vi Wong - and her avant-garde crew performed at a venue legendary for helping Asians shatter the racial barrier. Her boss was celebrity Dorothy Toy Fong, formerly of the Toy & Wing American tap dance duo.
Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing were billed as the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (though Auntie Dorothy was actually Japanese-American.) Toy & Wing was the premier Asian-American dance team of the 30s and 40s, and the first Asian-Americans to enter the white American tap dance scene.
The pair was one of the few Asian-American acts to headline in the United States and England at places like Broadway and the London Palladium, and in Hollywood films.
After Paul Wing stopped dancing, Auntie Dorothy managed and performed with a group she formed called the Oriental Playgirl Revue from the 1960’s to the mid 70’s, which traveled throughout the US, Canada, Europe, the Carribean, and Japan. This is who Mom danced with.
One of the Oriental Playgirl Revue's frequent gigs was at legendary San Francisco nightclub Forbidden City, where Mom worked with singer Jimmy Borges and dancer Mai Tai Sing, both Hawaii residents. Forbidden City was part of a vibrant Chinese-American nightclub scene that paved the way for future Asian-Americans to pursue showbiz dreams.
The club was heralded for its "exotic" acts that featured Chinese talent. For this, it was profiled in major media outlets, including Life magazine. Celebrities like Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Duke Ellington took a seat at Forbidden City.
The number of Asian-Americans in mainstream entertainment is small even today; back then, it seemed like just a handful, and they all knew each other. Other notables Mom worked or crossed paths with included Pat Morita (later, of Karate Kid fame), Sammee Tong (of Bachelor Father), Jack Soo (of Barney Miller), and Nancy Kwan (of Flower Drum Song).
This happened at a time when good Chinese girls didn’t wear sequined bikinis or fishnet stockings and twirl around on stage for a living. She chose this against the wishes of her parents, and I suspect probably always paid some kind of price for it.
Mom was a cougar. She married my dad, ten years her junior. When she gave birth to me, she was 42.
These are all accepted actions for my generation, but not for hers. She just wouldn’t conform. And I think I’m the better for it.
I admire what she did- living the life she wanted to lead, following her passion, pursuing higher education. I never questioned my path in life. I simply assumed I could do the same thing.
After retiring from the public eye, Mom met and married Dad and became a housewife. She spent a lot of time with me in my childhood, and we were always close.
I have a zillion memories of doing things with my mom at every stage of my life, and enjoying her company. We were compatible personalities and good friends.
My mom was generous, loving, loyal, funny, and social. She made friends easily and was well-liked. She liked to bake, craft, dance, play ukulele, and travel.
Her quirkier hobbies were hoarding, clipping coupons, and triple wrapping everything in plastic produce bags tied with twisters because she was a germophobe who would have lived in a sterile bubble if she could.
Bless her heart. Every time I hear a plastic bag crinkle, I think of Mom.
She was also not catty or manipulative. I literally learned on the job about those qualities, and it came as a surprise to me in my adulthood, because I was not raised by a woman who was like that. She was sweetly ditzy.
I was proud of her, what she did, and who she was. I know it was mutual.
I could say many things about my mom, but the most important is that she knew how to love. She loved her family.
I have always known, without question, that Mom was my biggest support. She loved me unconditionally.
Her love grounded and buoyed me. It’s amazing how you only need one person to love you and believe in you completely, to make it in this life.
I was Mom’s favorite until her grandchild came along. Olivia then became the light of my mom’s life. In her final days, my mother still remembered Olivia – an amazing feat, considering my mother only “knew” Olivia for about five or six years before Alzheimer’s wracked her brain.
It would have been lovely to see that relationship develop. I’m sorry it won’t.
What I can do, though, is to be the rock for Olivia that my mom was for me. I aspire to live up to her example.
We love you, Mom.
PS: Dear Mom, Foodland has 75 cents off liquid hand soap this week. It doesn't indicate a maximum limit on this discount. In your honor, I'll go buy ten and store it in Ziplock bags (must keep the dust and bugs off) under the sink for future use. Look at all the money I'm saving! Love you, lady! Ha!
Mom's obituary on Island News (KITV4) on 3/31/18 at 5 p.m. - http://www.kitv.com/story/37853916/pioneer-of-asian-american-entertainers-dies-in-kailua
In lieu of flowers, please consider a memorial contribution to the University of Hawai`i John A. Burns School of Medicine in memory of Vera Ako.
1) Indicate if it's for the Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Education Fund (#12722004), the Preclinical Research Fund for Alzheimer’s (#12583204), or both, at the University of Hawai‘i Foundation. Either fund is fine with us.
2) Please make checks payable to UH Foundation.
3) Note on the check that the gift is "In memory of Vera Ako".
4) Mail to University of Hawai‘i Foundation
P.O. Box 11270
Honolulu, HI 96828
or make your gift online at www.uhfoundation.org/give.