updated 8/18/2004 7:06:03 PM ET 2004-08-18T23:06:03

Hiram L. Fong, a son of immigrants who overcame poverty to become a millionaire businessman and the first Asian-American elected to the U.S. Senate, died Wednesday. He was 97.

Fong, a Republican, died at his home with his wife, Ellyn, and daughter Merie-Ellen Fong Gushi at his side, said Maureen Lichter, spokeswoman for Finance Factors, a financial company Fong founded.

Fong had been hospitalized recently at St. Francis Medical Center in Honolulu but had gone home Saturday, Lichter said. She said she did not know the cause of death.

Gov. Linda Lingle ordered all Hawaii state flags flown at half-staff at state buildings.

Fong, once a shoeshine boy, rose from the slums of Honolulu to the U.S. 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,” Fong once said on the campaign trail.

Elected in 1959
Fong was elected one of Hawaii’s first two senators in 1959, and remains the only Republican senator the state has had. He was re-elected twice and retired in 1977.

“I’m going to lose money,” he said in 1959. “But I’m willing to do that. I’m more than pleased with the bountiful blessings I have received which, even in my fancies, I would not have dreamed and would not have attained but for the opportunities I have received from a democracy.”

In a draw of straws with Democratic Sen. Oren Long, Fong won “senior senator” status and a longer term.

Civil rights were a focus of Fong’s Senate career. His amendment to a civil rights bill required auditors at polling places to assure minority voting rights, he said. Fong also co-sponsored a 1965 bill assuring that Asians would be allowed to immigrate in similar numbers as people from other continents.

Helped secure H-1 freeway
Fong helped get federal funding to build the H-1 freeway through Honolulu, and to establish the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, which was established in 1960 to strengthen relations between the United States and countries in the Asia and Pacific region.

Fong was born Yau Leong Fong, the seventh of 11 children of Chinese immigrants. His father worked as an indentured laborer for a sugar plantation, and his mother was a maid.

His birth date sometimes is listed as Oct. 1, 1907. But an oral history, based on a translation of Chinese family records and conducted by a University of Hawaii librarian, lists his birth date as Oct. 15, 1906.

Early in his adult life, Fong decided to change his name to Hiram, “just because it was a good name.” Most newspaper accounts embellished the story, saying he picked the name in honor of Hiram Bingham, one of the first New England missionaries to arrive in Hawaii in the early 1800s.

Working at age 4
Fong began working at the age of 4, when he picked and sold algarroba beans for cattle feed. He said that as a boy he caught and sold fish and crabs, delivered poi and worked as a caddy.

By age 7, he was selling newspapers and shining shoes on the streets of Honolulu.

Fong worked his way through college collecting overdue bills and guiding tourists at Oriental temples.

Fong graduated with honors in only three years from the University of Hawaii in 1930, then worked for two years for the Honolulu suburban water system. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1935 and worked as a deputy city attorney for the next three years.

Although Fong was full-blooded Chinese, some people believed he was part Hawaiian. It was a belief he didn’t discourage, especially in his early years of campaigning.

He won a seat in the Territorial House of Representatives in 1938, the same year he married high school sweetheart Ellyn Lo.

Served in Army Air Corps
Fong resigned his House seat in 1942 when he was called to active duty with the Army Air Corps. He left two years later as a major and judge advocate of the 7th Fighter Command of the 7th Air Force. He later retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel.

He returned to Hawaii politics in 1944, serving four years as vice-speaker and six years as speaker of the Territorial House. Fong and other Republicans were dumped in 1954, the beginning of the Democratic Party’s continuing dominance on Hawaii politics.

While out of politics, Fong concentrated on his law practice and business interests. He was founder and chairman of the board of the Finance Factors “family” of finance, insurance, realty and investment companies, and was a director of several other companies.

After retiring from the Senate, Fong served as an elder statesman of the Hawaii Republican Party. He had continued spend mornings at his downtown office until recently.

Plants and politics
His burning passion after leaving public office was Senator Fong’s Plantation and Gardens, a 725-acre commercial botanical garden he opened in Kahaluu in Windward Oahu in 1988. The garden is divided into five areas, each named for one of the presidents he served under.

Visitors to the gardens said he talked about plants with as much enthusiasm as he once talked about politics.

Fong filed for bankruptcy protection in March 2003, two days after he retired from Finance Factors. He attributed the filing to a dispute with his youngest son, Marvin. Lawsuits filed between father and son were dismissed in December 2003.

The Plantation and Gardens was sold at a foreclosure auction in October 2003. His son Rodney Fong and his wife later bought back 211 acres of the property, and the family co-owns the remainder.

Fong is survived by his wife and four children, Hiram Jr., a former Honolulu city councilman, Rodney, Marvin and Merie-Ellen.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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