Published in Civil Beat on October 31, 2019
Generations of residents came to know the recently departed Mr. Tran as a community treasure.
By: Jacob Bryan Aki
If you grew up in Hawaii in the past 40 years, you’ve probably visited or at least heard of your local manapua man.
These individuals made a living by roaming Hawaii’s neighborhoods, often in white Chevy vans, selling local favorites at a price that even kids could afford. Chicken and rice, fried noodles, pork hash and musubi’s were common foods that could be found at manapua vans across the island.
These local businesses got their name from the original manapua men, Chinese laborers from the old sugar plantations who would carry metal cans over their shoulders on a bamboo pole, filled with manapua, looking to make extra income for their families. Beginning in the 1970s, this movement has since evolved into a craze that has become a local staple.
In Kalihi, Mr. Tran was our manapua man. You could find him parked in his white Chevy van near Kalakaua Gym every weekday afternoon. Schoolchildren from Kalihi Kai Elementary, Kalakaua Middle and Farrington High School would line the sidewalk daily waiting to order an afternoon snack from the man behind the famous plexiglass case.
Generations of Kalihi residents have come to know Mr. Tran as a community favorite.
As a child I would look forward to the sound of his van driving through our neighborhood. I’d scrounge the house looking for loose change, $2.50 to be exact, to buy some of my favorite foods: $1.50 fried noodle, 50 cents soda and 50 cents pork hash.
Even as an adult I’d find myself driving to Kalakaua Gym from the Hawaii State Capitol to order the comfort food of my Kalihi childhood.
To me, Mr. Tran was more than just our neighborhood manapua man — he was my next-door neighbor and a close family friend. Over the years, my family and I witnessed the countless hours of hard work that Mr. Tran (I honestly don’t know what his first name was) and his wife, Ann, put in to make sure that the manapua man was ready and open for business.
Mr. Tran passed away unexpectedly on Oct. 22, leaving a void for not just those of us who knew him personally, but for the thousands of customers that he served during his 30-plus years in business. Even up until his final days, you could find Mr. Tran parked at his usual spot near Kalakaua Gym, where he has been for over three decades.
News of his passing spread like wildfire on social media. People shared their fondest memories of Kalihi’s favorite manapua man:
- “He was such a kind-hearted man making sure that the kids would have something to eat, even when they didn’t have enough to pay for it.”
- “Nicest man I’ve ever encountered.”
- “Rest In Peace Mr. Tran. Thank you for being a part of our childhood.”
- “Thank you Mr. Tran for making my childhood the best for my family, friends and the community! Kalihi loves you and will never forget you! Rest in Love”
Food is what binds us together as a community here in Hawaii and I think we can all agree that people like Mr. Tran have something to do with it. Whether you were an elementary school student from Kalihi Kai looking for an afternoon snack, or a grown man craving his favorite childhood foods, you could always count on the manapua man to fulfill your every need.
The convenience of fast-food joints and other chain stores, like 7-Eleven, are beginning to replace the once prevalent manapua man craze. But let us not forget the impact that these individuals have had on our lives growing up here in the islands.
So to all the manapua men and women across Hawaii, thank you for your service.
And especially to you, Mr. Tran, thanks for all of the great memories. You will forever be Kalihi’s favorite manapua man.