Grandma Ralston: Origins of The Happy Wanderer

Dorothy Ralston (oil painting, artist unknown) c. early 1980s
Dorothy Ralston (oil painting, artist unknown) c. early 1980s

February 14, 2016 – She has long since passed, but the air still resonates with her off-tune humming as she rakes her garden, washes the dishes late at night or slowly pushes the grocery cart at Tamura’s Supermarket in Maui.

This is a tribute, of sorts, to my paternal grandmother, Dorothy Lan-Moi Cup Choy Ralston (1907-1999) – and a study as to where I think I received the first seeds of my wanderlust.

Grandma Ralston, as her grandkids called her, was a stout, well-read and strong-willed woman firmly grounded in the past. She lived the bulk of her life in Wailuku, Maui, where she reared two children and had two husbands.

Grandma’s smooth tanned skin, her bespectacled cherubic face, and the way she tipped her Aussie-Slouch hat and offered a ready smile to both strangers and former students alike, belied her challenging childhood.

Dorothy, or “Dot” or “Dottie”, as her siblings and relatives called her, was the eighth of thirteen Cup Choy children. Her father, Chun Cup Choy (1864-1953), of whom she spoke fondly and with great reverence, had immigrated to the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1880 or 1881 from a small village called Sam Chow in Guangzhou (Canton), China.

KingDavidKalakauaKing David Kalākaua, the last reigning king of Hawai’i, ruled the islands (1874-1891) when Great-Grandfather Chun Cup Choy arrived. Beloved by his people, the king was nicknamed “The Merry Monarch.” King Kalākaua is credited with reviving the once-banned hula as well as surfing and the Hawaiian martial art, Kapu Kuialua. A fan of music, he promoted the newly introduced ukulele and wrote Hawaii’s anthem, “Hawai’i Pono’i”.

Great-Grandfather “Acoon”, as my grandmother called her father, began working at various sugar plantations in Maui at the age of 16 or 17. (Family history notes differ slightly.) The manual work was strenuous, tedious and unrelenting, and the work hours were terrible. Maui Agricultural Company paid Acoon 50 cents per ten-hour day, six days a week. Put another way, that’s $3.00 per week working at Waihee Sugar and Huelo Plantation and Hamakuapoko Plantation and Paia Plantation. He worked them all.

Thereafter, Acoon worked various jobs – as a clerk, as a coffee shop operator, and as a trusted “luna” or plantation foreman, where he was authorized to use a horse whip to discipline laborers under his charge, as needed. Discipline and camp rules were strict. All the men were required to be in camp by sundown.

The Chinese were among the first waves of immigrants to the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The Chinese socialized well with the Hawaiians, often inter-marrying with them. For sustenance, both the Chinese and the Hawaiians grew vegetables, harvested fish and limu (seaweed) from the abundant seas, and freely gathered mountain plants and fruits. For the plantation workers, the camp bosses often donated pork as well.

For the many unmarried men, Acoon ran a plantation restaurant, providing hot meals.

For his loyalty and intelligence, Acoon was one of three young men (out of 103) who were granted the privilege of attending night school to learn to read and write the English language. He soon become an English-Chinese interpreter as well.

My Great-Grandmother Amoi Ah Chong (1876-1938) and Great-Grandfather Chun Cup Choy (1864-1953). She was born in Laupahoehoe, Big Island of Hawai’i. He immigrated to Hawai’i around 1880 from Guangzhou, China. (Undated photo. Best guess: 1895, wedding year.)

At the age of 30, Acoon married his half-Native Hawaiian/half-Chinese bride, Amoi Ah Chong (1876-1938) on June 29, 1895. She was from Laupahoehoe, the “Big Island” of Hawaii. Over the course of 22 years, they produced 13 children – six sons and seven daughters. The oldest was Ah Lean (b. Jan. 16, 1895) and the youngest, Daisy Pang Oe (b. Nov 21, 1916), appropriately nicknamed “Aunty Babe”.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Grandma Ralston, born on July 10, 1907, was the eighth and last Cup Choy child to be born in Hamakuapoko, Maui, a sugar plantation town. At that time, Acoon was 52 years old and Grandma Ralston’s mother, Amoi Ah Chong, was 31.

My fertile great-grandparents  produced an additional five children – two born in Paia, Maui (Ah Fong David, b. 1910, and Rose Sun Moi, b. 1912), and the last three born in Kokomo, Maui (Ah Lau Joseph, b. 1914; Lily It Oe, b. 1915; and Daisy Pang Oe, b. 1916). The Cup Choy children numbered 13 in all.

Sugar was the dominant, high-growth industry, resulting in construction of many sugar mills, including one at Hamakuapoko in 1879 to process Maui’s increasing amounts of cane. The year before, Maui’s first narrow gauge railroad was built to haul sugar cane between the various plantations and the Kahalui port. By 1884, the Kahalui Railroad had extended passenger train service to Pāʻia, where yet another mill had been constructed.

I’d like to think that Acoon, who was about 20 years old in 1884, was fortunate enough to ride those early steam-driven iron horses. But alas, as most plantation workers were meagerly paid, he was far more likely to have loaded processed sugar cane onto the trains than to have ridden them.

Kokomo, Maui (1986)View of the Cup Choy homestead atop a hill in Kokomo, Maui (Sept. 1986)

According to birth records, sometime in 1913 or 1914, Acoon and Amoi moved the clan and settled in the hilly and verdant rural community of Kokomo, Maui, where they oversaw a loud and busy household overlooking miles of rolling hills and grasslands, the Pacific Ocean in the far distance below.

Acoon had learned a new trade as a butcher at the Pāʻia Plantation market. With an ever-growing family and many mouths to feed (13 children!), Acoon asked the camp bosses for a salary raise. He was denied. So Acoon quit plantation life and moved to Kokomo, Maui, where he opened and managed his own butcher shop. Between his time at  Pāʻia and Kokomo, he worked as a butcher for almost 45 years.

In 1938, Great-Grandmother Amoi Ah Chong died at the age of 62. Acoon would not pass away for another 15 years, or in 1953, at the age of 89.

For reasons lost to history, Acoon decided to temporarily return to China, along with some of the oldest sons. The majority of the siblings, including my grandmother, would spend the rest of their lives in Hawaii – some in Maui, others in Honolulu.

Grandma Ralston, age 26, married her first husband, Robert Aki Leong (b. 1900-d. 1940), in Wailuku, Maui, on October 7, 1933. That union bore one son (my father), Peter Dai-Pau Leong, in 1935.

Born in Waihee, Maui, Grandpa Leong‘s parents (names unknown) sent him to China at age 6 for two years of schooling. He returned to Maui to finish his studies at St. Anthony Junior-Senior High School in Wailuku.

Despite his short life, Grandpa Leong had traveled rather extensively: As a U.S. National Guardsman, he was sent to Camp Perry, Ohio, for training.  (Founded in 1909 and situated on the shore of Lake Erie, Camp Perry still trains National Guardsmen to this day.)

Grandpa Leong also lived in San Francisco and New York City, studying and working variously as a Surveyor, Instrument Man, and a Cost Data Analyst. Tragically, he died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of 40, leaving behind a 5-year-old son (my father) and his wife, Grandma Ralston. They had been married for seven years.

Grandma & Grandpa Ralston at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort in Kihei, Maui (Sept. 1986)
Grandma & Grandpa Ralston at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort in Kihei, Maui (Sept. 1986)

Grandma Ralston was particularly fond of retelling the tale of the fortune-teller she had consulted after Grandpa Leong’s death in 1940. The fortune-teller had peered at the inky-green tea leaves in her cup and predicted that Grandma would one day meet “a tall, handsome man” in a merchant marine or sailor’s outfit.  And sure enough, as Grandma would smile knowingly with every repeated telling, she spotted her future husband walking down a boat’s gangplank. She did indeed meet that tall handsome man.

His name was John Stanley Ralston (July 21, 1907 – Oct. 3, 2001) a graduate of The Kamehameha School for Boys. They married in Honolulu on August 29, 1947, when Hawai’i was no longer a sovereign nation (the monarchy was deposed in 1893), but a U.S. territory governed by Territorial Governor Ingram Stainback.

AnnRalston-2008Grandma and Grandpa’s union produced a daughter, Ann Ralston (b. 1948), who has been teaching in Germany since the 1970’s.

Grandma’s Trajectory

Between her two marriages and rearing two children, Grandma Ralston built a successful life for herself and did quite a bit of traveling.

She was educated at Makawao Grade School and Maui High School before attending the Honolulu Territorial Normal Teachers’ College, which was first organized at McKinley High School, then the University of Hawaii. (Normal schools, also called teachers college or teacher-training college, were established chiefly to train elementary-school teachers. For an interesting political and racial history of Honolulu’s Territorial Normal Teachers’ College, click HERE.)

Grandma Ralston thrived in school. Beyond academic honors, she participated in the Debate Team, Glee Club, athletics (track and field, basketball, softball, horseback riding). And she was an active member of the Girl Scouts, eventually earning a Golden Eaglet Award (the highest award offered in Girl Scouting between 1916 and 1939) among other awards.

In 1938, she was elected as a Delegate from Maui to attend the National Education Convention in New York City. Along with other honored teachers, Grandma Ralston traveled by train across Canada and the U.S. Mainland before reaching New York. On her return trip, she traveled solo “visiting friends (across) the U.S. Mainland and touring cities”, she once wrote.

Grandma taught as an Elementary and Junior High teacher for 35 1/2 years. During the summers, she supplemented her income by working at the pineapple cannery.

Her worldwide journeys included:

► Various cross-country trips (1967 and 1977) with her husband across Canada and the U.S. Mainland

► In 1971, a drive from Santa Rosa, California, to Yosemite in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, along with stops in Sacramento and San Francisco.

► A grand tour of “The Orient” in 1972 with visits to Japan, Manila, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and Penang, Malaysia.

► A visit to Beijing in the early or mid-1970’s

► Trips to Germany to visit her daughter, Ann, and grandkids Moana and Hannes.

Summer of The Happy Wanderer

Fast-forward to Maui in the 1970’s: Every summer, my parents in Honolulu would bundle up my older sister, C.J. Leong; my younger brother, Kurt Leong; and myself, for a long visit with the grandparents in Wailuku, Maui. My parents would stay home, likely enjoying the temporary peace and quiet.

(L to R): Younger brother Kurt & his Teddy bear, myself, and older sister C.J., on an Aloha Airlines flight to Maui. (c. 1969)
(L to R): Younger brother Kurt & his Teddy bear, myself, and older sister C.J., on an Aloha Airlines flight to Maui. (c. 1969)

My earliest memories of travel involve walking across a windy, jet-screaming tarmac under the Hawaiian sun to board a Boeing 737 – either Aloha Airlines (sadly now defunct) or Hawaiian Airlines (Hawaii’s largest and longest running air carrier since 1929). Air travel between the major Hawaiian islands is surprisingly short: Honolulu to Kahului, Maui, is about 18 minutes long, and to the Big Island is perhaps 30 minutes total. Reliable commercial inter-island boat travel is not a feasible option.

And so every summer of my childhood, Grandma and Grandpa Ralston would greet us at the Kahalui Airport, welcome us into their breezy 1920’s-era home, and introduce us to the rich traveling histories of our ancestors.

Of course, none of the lessons were intentional. I think a child learns best through repetition, osmosis and massive quantum exposure to Grandma’s endless stories:

  • Tales of riding to and from school alone via horseback, and Acoon warning her to never stop en route lest the paniolos (local Hawaiian cowboys) molest her.
  • Ecological lessons of the early Hawaiians taking only the minimum they needed from the sea and the ‘aina (land) – and, for good measure, Grandma Ralston would toss a seedy portion of her uneaten guava out the car window onto the roadside, so that their seeds might take root.
  • Stories of Acoon’s travels or of her trips to Mainland China (Mao Tse-Tung was still in charge) or via train to a teacher’s conference in New York – even as Kurt and I slowly drifted to sleep at the dinner table.

But as the namesake of this article suggests, there is one lesson or theme that Grandma Ralston imparted on an impressionable young mind. I cannot say if “The Happy Wanderer” was her favorite song of all time. But she certainly sang it loud and joyously during many a car trip up to Haleakalā Crater or on picnics and visits to Upcountry Maui.

Not only did she sing it; she also hummed it (even if slightly off-key) while tending her Senior Citizens’ Community Garden, or grocery shopping, or late-night dish-washing. And, of course, she taught us how to play “The Happy Wanderer” on the ukulele.

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In case the song has somehow escaped your recall, here it is:

The Happy Wanderer” (“Der fröhliche Wanderer” or “Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann“) is sometimes mistaken for a German folk song. As an original composition, the tune was composed by Friedrich-Wilhelm Möller shortly after World War II, and the original text was written by Florenz Friedrich Sigismund (1788-1857). Edith Möller adapted Sigismund’s words for a choir performance, which became a BBC Radio broadcast hit in 1953.


I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.


Val-deri, Val-dera,
Val-deri, Val-dera.
My knapsack on my back.

I love to wander by the stream
That dances in the sun,
So joyously it calls to me,
“Come! Join my happy song!”

I wave my hat to all I meet,
And they wave back to me,
And blackbirds call so loud and sweet
From ev’ry green wood tree.

High overhead, the skylarks wing,
They never rest at home
But just like me, they love to sing,
As o’er the world we roam.

Oh, may I go a-wandering
Until the day I die!
Oh, may I always laugh and sing,
Beneath God’s clear blue sky!

You can listen to the original German version here as sung by The Obernkirchen Children’s Choir, many of whom were orphans of the war:


1. Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann
Und mir steckt’s auch im Blut
D’rum wand’re ich froh so lang ich kann
Und schwenke meinen Hut
Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha
Faleri falera
Und schwenke meinen Hut.2. Das Wandern schafft stets frische Lust
Erhält das Herz gesund
Frei atmet draußen meine Brust
Froh singet stets mein Mund
Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha
Faleri falera
Froh singet stets mein Mund.
3. Warum singt Dir das Vögelein
So freudevoll sein Lied
Weil’s nimmer hockt Land aus Land ein
Durch and’re Fluren zieht
Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha
Faleri falera
Durch and’re Fluren zieht.4. Was murmelt’s Bächlein dort und rauscht,
So lustig hin durch’s Rohr,
Weil’s frei sich regt, mit Wonne lauscht
Ihm dein empfänglich Ohr.
Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha
Faleri falera
Ihm dein empfänglich Ohr.
5. D’rum trag ich Ränzlein und den Stab
Weit in die Welt hinein
Und werde bis an’s kühle Grab
Ein Wanderbursche sein
Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha
Faleri falera
Ein Wanderbursche sein.
So there you have it: A circuitous explanation of how a grandmother planted that first seed of travel in her grandson, through storytelling, a rich family history of brave journeys, and a curious Germanic ditty about a hiker’s love for exploring.



One thought on “Grandma Ralston: Origins of The Happy Wanderer

  1. What a delightful memoir! I attended Iao School, but did not have your grandmother as a teacher. I did, however, see her around school and heard her singing / humming much of the time. A friend of mine met your Aunt Ann last night in Ann’s Wailuku home. That’s how I found this blog. Keep up the good work!


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