I had planned on conducting a Zoom interview with Amber Imai-Hong on the same patio where I had interviewed Dr. Bolte; however, there was a sun shower that day (something I learned immediately was that rain in Hawai'i comes and goes as it pleases). So I sat in my car, scrambling to connect to the café’s Wifi while the pitter-patter of rain on my car made me feel like I was inside a steel drum. As a white-hot sun blared on cars in the parking lot, puddles of water and oil made little rainbows on the pavement. I finally connected to the internet, just in time to meet Imai-Hong, a Hawai'i Space Flight Laboratory engineer.
She was Zooming in from Oahu, but she grew up in Puna on the Island of Hawai'i. Although she is in support of the construction of TMT just like Dr. Bolte is, Imai-Hong seems to receive much more verbal abuse for her stance. Opponents of TMT aren’t shaking her hand and asking about the work she does; instead, one gave her a quasi-death threat. This is because she is a Native Hawaiian, so she said many people believe that her opinion on TMT contradicts her identity. Something that she wants people to understand is that all opinions should be respected, regardless of whether they are agreed with.
Amber Imai-Hong was walking to her car from work at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa when someone told her that she should die and should be pushed into traffic. The reason for this threat was the pro-TMT t-shirt she was wearing.
“It’s intimidating,” she said. “It was scary for a good amount of time because I did commercials in support of TMT and I was a very vocal supporter. I still am. Even if others are very pushy with their opinions, I need to stand up for what I believe in.”
Imai-Hong, an avionics engineer working for TMT, wouldn’t say that all of her interactions with those who are against the project have been violent or ended in a way where she felt intimidated. But as a Native Hawaiian, she has come under fire for being in support of the project.
Even though she was born and raised on Hawai'i Island, people have told Imai-Hong to go back to Asia. When she was in a commercial promoting TMT, numerous people called her a traitor. They said her opinion shouldn’t matter, because she’s a “sellout” and “not Hawaiian enough.”
“Who are you to judge that?” she said. “And why? Hawaiians were never about blood quantum; it’s a very Western concept. We've always, as a culture, been able to listen to both sides and agree to disagree, so I don't understand why they can't follow our traditions, if they're so set in that. If they really truly believe that, then we should be able to not agree on things but be able to talk to each other. I’m just really frustrated. I feel like we need to listen more and talk less.”
Imai-Hong was born during the Perseids meteor showers, so every year on her birthday, she and her family would go and watch the meteor shower. Growing up in Puna, her interest in stars emanated from this tradition and stargazing with her father.
“I grew up pretty broke, so it was something that didn't cost a lot of money,” she said. “But it was always something really special and something really fun to do and something to look forward to every year. We used to drive up to Mauna Kea to watch that as a family.”
When Imai-Hong first moved to Oahu as an adult, it was a dour adjustment when she realized she could no longer see the stars clearly at night due to light pollution. Tourism, she said, had an immense environmental impact on the landscape and animals.
“I don't want to see that for Hawai'i Island,” she said. “That would break my heart.”
One of her reasons for supporting TMT is her desire to diversify the economy, especially after the government has relied heavily on tourism to recover from the pandemic. She’s frustrated that astronomy is seen as a catch-all for problems in Hawai'i that have been catalyzed by other industries such as tourism and the military, which use up a slew of resources. She believes that astronomy benefits the economy by leaning into technology that is conscious of the environment and inhabitants of the island.
Imai-Hong said that TMT offers lots of employment opportunities for local people. Her father and a lot of his automotive technician friends ended up getting jobs at the observatory.
“The observatories are like robots — they're giant machines that need maintenance,” she said. “The local community is able to get the education that they need to get higher positions. But until then, there are a lot of low-level opportunities.”
Another reason she stands behind TMT is because it instituted the THINK fund. Back in 2007 and 2008, staff from the observatories began having community discussions, and one of the points that was brought up was that the standing telescopes and observatories didn't put enough back into the community. The THINK fund came into existence to yield funding for science education and STEM research in local schools.
Even though THINK was founded over a decade ago, Imai-Hong holds that it is relevant today because TMT as an organization has championed robotics, it has founded scholarships, and it has provided endless support for teachers in their classrooms.
“I know some teachers who have 3D printers for rapid prototyping,” she said. “It's definitely helping the students of Hawai’i to keep up with everyone else in the world. California and the West Coast have all these big companies that are putting money into building up their workforce and building up that STEM pipeline, but there are not that many opportunities, especially for an outer island like Hawai'i Island. We need those opportunities. We need to educate our students and get the keiki to understand the science concept so that, like our ancestors, we can keep up and not get left behind."
Imai-Hong doesn’t conclusively disagree with those who claim that the Mauna is sacred, but she does believe that there is a divider between sacred and spiritual. To her, the Mauna is a resource that should be utilized, following the tradition of Native Hawaiians utilizing the resources they have. In her formative years, she learned all about utilizing natural resources as a means of survival. She learned about the ebb and flow of the tides and the inner workings of the natural world as her family fished and gardened to put food on the table. Because of this, she doesn’t understand why Hawaiians can’t coexist with astronomy on Mauna Kea, as amity has always been a bastion of their heritage.
Native Hawaiians, according to Imai-Hong, are not like Native Americans in the sense that they do not all have to follow their elders.
"That's not how we did things," she insisted. "I was taught that we look to our past for guidance, and we go into our future that way. We honor our traditions by knowing them, but we stay at the forefront of technology."
As much as she honors the Native Hawaiian heritage that is driving people from all enclaves of the island to protect the Mauna, she urges the government to be more forceful in its efforts to complete this project. She foresees that a weak government will empower the protesters more, which will hinder progress of the observatory even further.
“I do think it's really important that people outside of Hawai'i know that this TMT issue is not just TMT, and that when you look at the people protesting, there are people who are professional protesters — that's all they do,” she shook her head. “All they do is protest, and it's making us fall farther behind.”