HONOLULU -- Hiram L. Fong, who overcame poverty to become a millionaire businessman and the first Asian-American elected to the US Senate, died yesterday at his home. He was 97.
Once a shoeshine boy, Mr. Fong rose from the slums of Honolulu to the US Senate, where he served almost 18 years. He also served as president of nine companies.
"I'm symbolic of the opportunities afforded to a person in a democracy," Mr. Fong once said on the campaign trail.
Mr. Fong was elected one of Hawaii's first two senators in 1959. He was reelected twice and retired in 1977.
During his career, he was seen as an anomaly, both as a Republican and for his Chinese heritage. Other office holders in his largely Democratic state were of Japanese heritage.
He walked an often-difficult moderate course between social liberalism and a hawkish approval of military spending and defense issues. His support for civil rights legislation put him at odds with many in his party in the 1960s. He was adamant about repealing humiliating provisions in the internal security measure that had been responsible for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Mr. Fong also worked on bills that eliminated racial and ethnic quota systems in immigration. On the Appropriations Committee, he had a major role in crafting the federal budget. His routine support for education bills and cultural and economic exchanges among the United States and Asian countries created an influence far beyond the size and population of his state.
Born Yau Leong Fong, he was the seventh of 11 children. His father worked as an indentured laborer for a sugar plantation. His mother was a maid.
Mr. Fong began working at the age of 4, when he picked and sold algarroba beans for cattle feed. By age 7, he was shining shoes on the streets of Honolulu.
Mr. Fong worked his way through college collecting overdue bills, graduating in only three years from the University of Hawaii in 1930 and from Harvard Law School in 1935.
Outside out of politics, Mr. Fong founded the Finance Factors "family" of finance, insurance, realty, and investment companies.
Material from the