Being the first Asian American elected to the United States Senate five years prior, the late, great Senator Hiram L. Fong had an opportunity to bring his statesmanship and vision to the White House in 1965.
But as the fates would have it, Fong ended up serving his constituents as a senator for nearly two decades, from 1959 to 1977, according to the Associated Press.
Fong was the son of illiterate Cantonese immigrants who grew up in a poor household in Kalihi on the island of Oahu.
Before becoming a successful businessman, and eventually, a respected politician, Fong had to overcome extreme poverty by working hard at a young age.
He began working at the age of four, picking up and selling algarroba beans for cattle feed. He was selling newspapers and shining shoes on the streets of Honolulu at seven years old.
As the seventh of eleven children of a sugar plantation laborer father and a mother who was a helper, Fong was forced to work his way through school. Through hard work, he was able to graduate from Harvard Law in 1935.
His passion and dedication as a businessman also paid off, and before he joined politics, he was already the president of nine companies.
”I’m symbolic of the opportunities afforded to a person in a democracy,” he once said.
When Hawaii entered the union as the 50th state in 1959, three Congressional seats opened: one in the House and two in the Senate.
Fong, a Republican, decided to run for the Senate seat.
He was sworn into office on Aug. 24, 1959. To date, Fong remains the only Republican to have represented Hawaii in the Senate.
”Civil rights was very much a concern of mine,” he said, looking back at his political career.
During his term serving in the minority, he made efforts in pushing legislation that would benefit his Asian American constituents at home.
Fong supported policies that expanded civil rights programs and liberalized immigration. He also defended President Richard M. Nixon’s policies that aimed to end the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Fong noted that during his tenure, he saw himself as the spokesman for all Asian Americans in the U.S.
“I feel sometimes they think I am their senator,” he explained. “I try to interpret America to them and to interpret them to America.”
He also traveled extensively in Asian nations, visiting a total of 13 countries in Asia between 1959-1961. He also espoused the idea of strengthening ties with China and other Asian nations.
“We need a friendly Asia-Pacific community, just as much as we need a friendly Atlantic community,” he would note late in his career.
In 1964 and 1968, he ran campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination and became the first person born in Hawaii to run for President of the United States. Until Bobby Jindal in 2016, he was the only Asian American to seek a presidential nomination of the Republican party.
After his retirement from the Senate in 1977, Fong continued to be an elder statesman of the Hawaii Republican Party.
He was 97 years old when he passed away due to kidney failure at his home in Honolulu in 2004.