Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Community Fabric

Story by Lurline McGregor. Photos by Elyse Butler.

Tucked away on a small lane in industrial Kalihi is a cinder-block building with a vinyl banner, faded and partially obscured, advertising June Fabrics. Inside, floor to ceiling and wall to wall, are bolts of brightly colored cloth. It all feels like a well-kept secret, but this store is famous—not only throughout Hawai‘i, but as far away as Japan and New York City. Over the past thirty-plus years, co-owner Chong Sun Mah—whom most know as June—has created over one hundred print designs, all based on Polynesian motifs.

Sang Chun Mah and his wife, Chong Sun, emigrated to Hawai‘i from South Korea in 1985. With limited English, they started going to local fabric manufacturers to buy remnants, which they resold at the swap meet. They soon made enough to open their own store. “When we opened, we paid for advertising in the Yellow Pages, and hālau started coming to the store. After that it was all word of mouth; we have never advertised,” Chong Sun says proudly. She loses count at fifty when asked how many hālau hula (hula troupes) have ordered fabric or finished pā‘ū hula (skirts) or aloha shirts (they also provide seamstress services). The Mahs initially stocked their store with whatever fabrics they could buy, but their early clientele—then primarily local Samoans and Tongans—wanted Polynesian prints. Chong Sun was soon working with a local printer to create her own designs. She tells them what she wants, they draft it and when she is satisfied she picks the colors. The designs are then printed on bolts of cloth, with each print exclusive to June Fabrics.

Son Daniel recently finished college in Nevada and has come home to work full-time in the store. Sang Chun is now retired but still helps out. As for Chong Sun, she wants to give Daniel a few years to settle in,“Then I’ll see if he’s qualified to take over.” In the meantime it’s clear that her biggest satisfaction is not the many print designs she’s created, but the relationships she’s built worldwide. “The children of people who used to buy from us in the 1980s are now our clients,” says Chong Sun, with Daniel translating. “Everywhere I go, someone recognizes me and says hello.”