HANAPEPE, Kauai >> Winds whipped around the camera crew at the Hanapepe Filipino Cemetery on Kauai where historians, researchers and community members cautiously stepped around gravestones — searching for the unmarked graves of 16 Filipino sugar plantation strikers killed in what has been dubbed the Hanapepe Massacre of 1924.
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stephanie Castillo was also on-site late last month directing members of the camera crew, who flew in from Oahu to work on her 11th documentary, “The Hanapepe Massacre Mystery.”
Castillo, 71, aims to uncover the full story of the massacre through oral history told by surviving family members and others who witnessed the slaughter.
“It’s a story that needs to be told. How can I not do this one in my own backyard?” said Castillo, who returned to the Garden Isle from New York in July to retire after completing her 10th documentary, called “Night Bird Song: The Thomas Chapin Story,” about a jazz saxophonist.
Castillo pushed aside retirement after reading a recent article published in The Garden Island newspaper on a research team of the Kauai committee of the Filipino American National Historical Society Hawaii State Chapter that is attempting to locate the grave site of the 16 plantation workers killed in the massacre. Castillo contacted the research team and asked whether she could follow the search.
“I was all for it,” said Mike Miranda of the Filipino American National Historical Society. “Anything that perpetuates the story, that’s really what the goal is of the historical society or any historian — that the history lives on.”
Castillo and a camera crew started filming the historical society’s research team Sept. 28 at the cemetery, next to the Kauai Veterans Cemetery.
“The Hanapepe massacre is shrouded in mystery, and today we are here to begin unveiling that shroud, I hope,” said Catherine Lo, another member of the historical society’s research team.
Miranda said the team began working on the project in 2018 and plans to present its findings at the biennial 2020 Filipino American National Historical Society conference, to be held in Waikiki in July, when approximately 800 people from other chapters across the country are expected to attend.
“They’re very committed to finding as much as they can to have the narrative be complete,” Castillo said.
Sixteen Filipino strikers and four policemen were killed in the massacre on Sept. 9, 1924.
According to stories in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the massacre broke out after a deputy sheriff arrived at a defunct Japanese school hall in Hanapepe where Filipino plantation workers had moved in during the labor strike, in which they called for better pay and working conditions.
The strike created a rift between two Filipino ethnic groups when Visayan plantation workers went on strike and Ilocano plantation workers opted not to join them.
The narrative that has been told for 95 years by the newspapers, Castillo said, is that two Ilocano boys or men were riding their bikes to a store when Visayan strikers abducted them.
A deputy sheriff arrived to retrieve the Ilocano men at the schoolhouse Sept. 9 accompanied by about 40 policemen and deputized hunters armed with pistols and rifles who situated themselves a distance away.
A September 1924 Star-Bulletin story said tensions rose as about 100 to 200 strikers armed with pistols, knives and clubs “pressed on” the deputy sheriff as he left the site with the two men.
At some point during the confrontation, a gunshot went off. It is unclear who fired the first shot. Multiple gunshots followed and fights broke out. Terrified residents hid in their homes until the gunshots, which reportedly lasted for about five minutes, ended.
“This is the victors’ history that we’ve been reading for 95 years. We want to add to that narrative and question where there are holes,” Castillo said. “The film will look at what I call the interpretation of the facts.”
“What’s in dispute is the whole picture because there was little work done to interview the striking workers who went to jail or were deported,” she added.
Castillo and the historical society are exploring the history of the massacre through oral history interviews with surviving family members of plantation strikers and others who witnessed the massacre. There are just a few surviving witnesses, who were children at the time and are now in their 90s, she said.
Castillo and the film crew from Oahu will return to the cemetery Oct. 19 to follow the historical society’s research team, which will use high-resolution, ground-penetrating radar equipment in search of the grave site.
There are accounts the men were buried either in a trench or in a mass grave in wooden coffins within or near the Filipino cemetery.
The research team will focus its search in two areas. The first site is within the cemetery in the area of a small concrete marker that has no names and only dates: “Born 1886. Died Sept. 9. 1924.” It is unknown whether the marker involves the location of any of the strikers who were killed.
The other location is covered with brush beyond the western boundary of the Filipino cemetery.
Miranda delved into the history of the Hanapepe massacre after he learned of it in an ethnic studies class at the University of Hawaii at Manoa as an undergraduate in 2002.
Through his ongoing research, Miranda has come across different accounts of what happened. The goal of the research team, he said, is to come up with an accurate account because “unfortunately, history is always taught by the victors,” Miranda said as he stood at the cemetery grounds.
One of the researchers is Chad Taniguchi, who was involved in the University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies Oral History Project in the mid-1970s when a team recorded recollections of the massacre by multiple strikers, their families and others and compiled it in a 900-page study.
A small monument in remembrance of the 16 plantations strikers was unveiled at Hanapepe Town Park in 2006, more than a mile from the site where the massacre broke out.
Castillo’s goal is to complete the documentary in three to four years and release it in 2024 for the 100th anniversary of the massacre. “We have our sights on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) as a release for this film.”
Fundraising is currently underway to raise $1.5 million for the project.
Castillo, a former Star-Bulletin reporter, won an Emmy for her first documentary, “Simple Courage,” on the leprosy epidemic in Hawaii in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when patients with Hansen’s disease were separated from their families and sent to Kalaupapa, Molokai.