Celebrating the breadth and depth of Hawaiian knowledge. Amplifying Pacific voices of resiliency and hope. Recording the wisdom of past and present to help shape our future.
One-time Hawaiian musician Bernie Ching grew up on the water. He, his brother and father would frequent the surf spots in Waikīkī where he’s father worked as a beach boy. It wasn’t until he graduated from Kamehameha and went to college that he met three other young Hawaiian boys who would change his life forever.
Camille: Let’s start with where you grew up.
Bernie: I grew up in Nu‘uanu on Vineyard Street area. Born and raised there.
Camille: What year was that?
Bernie: I was born in 1939 and I can remember when I was about two or three, running around hearing the sirens because it was 1941 and a World War was going on. I remember all those sirens. I remember crying. I remember screaming. I remember the blackout because everything was dark.
Camille: Did you hear any bullets?
Bernie: No I didn’t hear bullets. I could hear explosions, but not bullets. So, I was born 1939 and I can remember stuff in 1941. That’s pretty good. I especially remember the sirens because we had eight o’clock sirens which was blackout time. Nobody goes out into the street. I lived in what we’d call today a housing project. I had a lot of friends my age and we were all living in what they call the camp area. Similar to camps down at the plantations. We had what they called camp Hawaiian, then they called one area Chinese camp, one was Japanese camp and mixed with the Japanese camp had the Japanese bath area. A lot of good times actually. Growing up, never had TV so you played marbles. We broke our skates down and made them into scooters. All the toys we had was all handmade.
Camille: It was just you and your mom yeah?
Bernie: No. It was myself, mom and my brother.
Camille: Steamboat (Mokuahi)?
Bernie: Yeah. My brother lived with us until he was sixteen. Then he moved in with my dad. I went to Kamehameha from kindergarten. My school was down McNeil and Dillingham Street. Kamehameha property there. Then I went all the way from 4th grade to 6th grade at Bishop Museum area. Then I went up the hill for 7th to 12th.
Camille: That was when the school was brand new?
Camille: Was it all boys?
Bernie: No, no, we had girls.
Camille: Do you remember a group called Hui ʻŌiwi?
Bernie: Of Kamehameha? Yeah. A couple of my classmates was in that.
Camille: Were you in that?
Bernie: No I wasn’t in that. I guess I could have joined but I was more on the athletics side. I played three sports. Football, basketball and track. I loved the ROTC classes. Until today it’s still embedded in me.
Camille: Did you serve in the military services?
Bernie: No. Uncle graduated from Kamehameha and went to Glendale and the rest was history. That’s where I met some friends and joined the choir. I met Alan Naluai, Clayton Naluai, and Pat Silva there. We were all in the choir. There were about eight people at Glendale all from Hawaiʻi.
Camille: Can you talk about how you met them?
Bernie: Well I signed up for college choir in my second semester. Patrick Silva was my classmate and my roommate in college and he signed up for choir too. Once we got there we found these two Naluai boys who signed up too. We didn’t know each other until we walked into the class. Second semester, that’s January already, and I was on the football team. Alan and Clay were on the tennis team. So, anyway we signed up and we just walked into class and were like, oh you signed up too. So, just to make things short, we were required to do high school tours for the class so the music instructor asked us to sing some Hawaiian songs during intermission and that’s what we did. We learned three songs and when we performed for the first time the kids wanted more, but we didn’t know any more because we didn’t practice any more. Before the next tour we learned an encore. Still the kids wanted more. By the time we started going to other schools, we had a whole album’s worth of songs. Everything you hear on the album “On the Rocks” is what we did.
Camille: After Glendale where did you guys go? You didn’t finish school right?
Bernie: School had ended. Our first job was working on the weekends down at Disneyland. We did that Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. From there we got a contract to work at Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas. At that time Stardust was the big hotel. They were the first to have a revolving stage. That’s the one where the volcano would come up onstage and the waterfall would come down. They had a magician and he had all these birds coming out of his pockets. The line used to be so far out into the hotel lobby for shows at the Stardust. It was unbelievable. We didn’t do that well in the beginning, but we had some people who liked us so they gave us chance to clean up our act. We played in the lounge so in the lounge you need to have good sound. Uncle Pat went and bought some vibes, I bought some drums and that’s how we got our instruments.
Camille: Back then how many Hawaiian bands were there performing on the mainland?
Bernie: I’m sure that in LA alone there were a lot of Hawaiian groups. We met a lot of musicians from Hawai‘i. Most of the hula dancers were Mexican [laughs] though. We started working the circuit in Nevada, Reno, Lake Tahoe, the hotels, Hawthorne. Then we started branching out into Chicago, Edgewater. We went to Tahiti, New Caledonia. We did a lot of traveling.
Camille: How long did you travel with them?
Bernie: I left the circuit in ’66 I think. We started right of college around 1958.
Camille: After that you got married and started your family. Were you a beach boy by that time already?
Bernie: No I wasn’t actually. I got married in ’68 and I had my four daughters. They were all four years apart so it was easy for me to keep track of them, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1975. My brother had always had that beach service. He always wanted me to get involved but I was so busy with the family. Then finally I said okay. I really got involved with the beach stand when I started paddling for him.
Camille: At Hui Nalu?
Bernie: Well no. Sammy formed this canoe club with Hui Wa‘a which was another fraction. It was a fraction that thought they couldn’t afford a koa canoe and they only had a fiberglass canoe. But now everybody has at least one koa canoe for the club, but at that time most people couldn’t afford it. So we did that and eventually Sammy became head coach at Hui Nalu. Then I did so much paddling that I started going down to the beach and helping him with his beach service.
Camille: Did you ever see the whole beach boy phenomenon grow from just a few kids on the beach to this huge Waikīkī business?
Bernie: Actually I did. Sam and my dad worked at the beach for the Outrigger. The Outrigger Club use to be where the Outrigger Hotel is now. Now the Outrigger Club is down by the Elks Club. In the ’50s my dad worked for Outrigger. Sam was at the canoe club and I used to go down there on the weekends. So I saw all of that. Even when I was singing with the boys, we did our album and we took photos down in Waikīkī. That album had all the Hollywood hit movie songs. We did all the songs for all of the hit movies that came out of Polynesia or the Pacific area.
Camille: What about Waikīkī beach. Do you think it’s better now than it was before? Are there things you miss?
Bernie: Yeah. I’m sure every generation has their memories, but I think the ’50s and the ’60s were the best. Especially the ’50s, before statehood, but once statehood came, everything just went boom. Sometimes when I work down at the beach I think about this a lot, to try to bring back some of these things but it’s not easy to do, especially like prices [laughs].
Camille: What about the waves. I’ve heard others complain that once they started building on Waikīkī the waves began to get really junk?
Bernie: I’m not too particular about that. I find it easier but it is less attractive. I’m not a competitive surfer so I really don’t care. I’m just happy to surf.
Camille: Who taught you how to surf?
Camille: How old were you?
Bernie: I think I was about 7th grade so I think that would be around 12.
Camille: What kind of board did you have?
Bernie: I had a big board. My brother loaned me this board that the owner was Russ Sutherland. It was half redwood and half something else. It was a really nice board. Now everybody had fiberglass.