A “Rainbow Bridge” is strengthening ties between Hawaii and China at a time when a trade war between the U.S. and China is pushing the nations further apart.
The trade war is all about tariffs, jobs and economic dominance. The Rainbow Bridge is all about the education and intellectual growth of young children regardless of where they live.
The architects of the Rainbow Bridge are a hui of Chinese private and public sector leaders and Loretta Yajima, founder and board chair of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, a three-decades-old nonprofit.
For the past six years, Yajima has logged hundreds of thousands of miles between the Islands and China, with side trips to the U.S. Mainland, helping China create children’s centers based on the Hawaii model. A children’s discovery center opened in Beijing in June 2015 and a second center is preparing to open in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia.
The Hawaii-China connection took a major step forward this summer when Yajima and China’s Children’s Museum Research Center signed a memorandum of understanding that will lead to more centers in China and financial assistance for the Hawaii center. For Yajima, a former Head Start teacher, the MOU means that her job is far from over.
Yajima’s work on the Rainbow Bridge began on what started out as a normal day at the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center seven years ago. Chinese philanthropist Gensheng Niu had come to Hawaii to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and stopped by the center with Yajima’s husband on the way to a golf game. The center’s hands-on experiences reminded him of an ancient Chinese philosophy: “Hands-on learning is better than reading for a thousand times.” He was surprised to learn that the center was a nonprofit and not government-owned, as would have been the case in China.
He was impressed not only with the center but with Yajima, who is of Chinese ancestry – her maiden name is Luke. A dairy farmer and founder of the Laoniu Foundation, Niu began to envision a hundred children’s discovery centers in China based on what he saw in Hawaii. But, he would need Yajima’s help.
“The Chinese recognize that children are an important audience, but they didn’t know how to reach them,” she said. “They were looking to Hawaii as a model.”
Yajima has never taken a paycheck in her 30 years as chief executive of the Hawaii center, and she was not about to receive compensation from the Chinese. She agreed to become a pro bono consultant on two conditions – the China centers must be designed and fabricated in the U.S. The quality-conscious Chinese officials readily agreed.
Niu likely will never fulfill his dream of 100 children’s discovery centers. But the Laoniu Children’s Discovery Museum in Beijing has attracted more than 300,000 visitors, and the Hohhot Children’s Discovery Museum will be the largest of its kind in the Asia-Pacific.
Next up for the Chinese is creating children’s discovery centers within existing government-owned museums throughout the country. That’s where Yajima comes in. She will serve as a liaison between the Chinese and U.S. consultants.
Yajima declined to share how much the Chinese will contribute financially to the Hawaii center, saying only that it is needed. The cost of maintaining the hands-on exhibits is high, and admission fees cover only about 60 percent of the operating costs. The other 40 percent comes from restricted and unrestricted donations.
“As a ‘please touch’ museum our maintenance, repair and replacement costs are very high,” she told me.”Yet we feel that it is imperative that a visit to the center for families and school children needs to be as affordable as possible. While some children’s museums have to raise their ticket and membership prices annually, we held to our original prices for nearly 30 years and only last year implemented a slight increase.”
Financial challenges are a common theme among nonprofit organizations, but the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center has an additional problem because of its location in Kakaako’s Waterfront Park. When then Gov. John Waihee convinced Yajima to move the center from the Dole Cannery in Iwilei 20 years ago, he and others envisioned Waterfront Park as a pristine oceanfront gathering place for the community.
But the park’s principal landowners, the State of Hawaii and the City and County of Honolulu, have failed to keep their promises to the center and other tenants, such as the University of Hawaii School of Medicine and Cancer Research Center. The park remains a gathering place, but more so for squatters who return with their makeshift camps despite occasional “sweeps” by government workers.
Yajima, who is revered in China for her work with children, often begins her day back home by removing human and other waste from the sidewalks in front of the center. She and her staff then remind parents and potential visitors that it’s perfectly safe to come to the center despite the unsightly mess across the street. She hopes that her “neighbors” will exercise civility and decency.
She is not asking local government leaders for money, but she does hope that they will come to recognize what the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center means not only to the local community but to the outside world.
“We have built a bridge between East and West and the Chinese recognize Hawaii as part of that bridge,” she told me. “I’m hopeful that some day our government leaders will recognize what Hawaii means to the world, and the work with children is what makes it so important.”
The Chinese recognize it, and coined the phrase “Rainbow Bridge.” At a symposium in Hohhot in July, the Children’s Museum Research Center paid tribute to Yajima and Hawaii.
“If the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center is the place where the dream of bringing children’s museums to China started, Loretta is the weaver and witness of the dream,” it said. “She acts as a Rainbow Bridge across the Pacific Ocean, making the dream blossom and come true.”
Contact Loretta Yajima at email@example.com.