Contributor: Shannon Cristobal, PhD Student, Education Foundations, UH Mānoa.
Kau Kau Tin, early-mid 20th century
Lunchbox used by the contributor’s great-great-grandfather on local plantations throughout the islands.
One of the most iconic and romanticized images of the plantation era is of laborers of diverse ethnicities sharing their lunch and trying different food via various kau kau tins in the fields. It is said that this sharing of food is where “the plate lunch” originated.
The Kau Kau tin is a two or three tiered metal food container used to store plantation laborers’ lunches. The term “kaukau” is pidgin for “food” or “to eat.” There is no specific scholarship linking the Kau Kau tin to one specific ethnic group. Although closely related to the Japanese bento box, “kaukau” is said to originate from the Hawaiian word for table, “pâkaukau,” and the Chinese word for food, “chow chow.” The kau kau tin repeatedly arises as a prominent and significant part of the Filipino laborers oral histories. By paying attention to Filipino foodways, scholars can speak aptly to these laborers’ lived experiences of inequitable compensation, access to food, and family dynamics that have not been fully addressed by Asian and Filipino studies to date.