For Darah Dung, host of The Pet Hui show and MidWeek’s newest columnist, success has always been about elevating the good and making friends along the way.
Darah Dung says that she’s a failure. It’s an impossible concept to wrap your brain around — she’s an accomplished actress, admired beauty queen and a committed community volunteer. However, there is actually one thing she hasn’t been successful at: fostering dogs.
She currently has five dogs in her family: Harley, Draco, Gage, Shiloh and Stitch. Dung adopted Harley from Hawaiian Humane Society. Draco was her husband’s dog before they met (“obviously, now, he’s mine”) and siblings Gage and Shiloh, as well as Stitch, were all former fosters.
“We started out fostering a lot of them, and 12 years later, we’re foster fails because we still have them,” she says with a laugh.
“Clearly, we don’t know how to foster because we just adopt them.”
It’s no surprise that the host of The Pet Hui (on Spectrum OC16) would find it difficult to part with an adorable dog. The program is Hawai‘i’s only show that’s all about pets. Dung has been hosting it for about five years now. Her older sister, Denby, was the original host.
“I love the concept of the show because it’s about educating the public about animal care, but it’s also about helping to find lost pets in the community and reuniting them with their families and just giving back,” she adds.
The Roosevelt High School and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa alumna, along with her sisters Dana-Li and Denby, first caught the public’s attention when the trio were winning beauty pageants. But it was never about tiaras for the siblings.
“My sister, Dana, she was the very first one. She wanted to make friends,” Dung says.
Dana entered a pageant after reading about it in the newspaper, and — apropos for someone adept at befriending others — she won Miss Congeniality. She enjoyed the experience so much that she encouraged her sisters to enter pageants as well.
“Every single pageant we have ever done, she has entered us in,” Dung says.
The plan worked. Dung, who’s been crowned Miss Teen Hawai‘i 1999, Miss Chinatown Hawai‘i 2003, Miss Chinatown USA 2003 and 56th Narcissus Queen, has made lifelong friends through her pageant experiences.
“I’m still friends with so many of the girls … I’ve gone to their weddings and baby showers. I feel like that has been such an amazing takeaway from the pageantry of it, just the friendships and the sharing of the lives together,” she explains.
Dung’s chosen talent for those pageants was singing.
It’s a talent that was nurtured at home and through her theater experience.
“My mom and dad (Annette and the late Dennis Dung) were always singing, and my mom was an opera singer. They always encouraged us,” she explains.
In fact, her brother, Dean, the eldest of her siblings, was performing even before his sisters.
“My brother was in the Honolulu Boys Choir,” she notes.
All that singing “led to musical theater,” she recalls.
In the theater, Dung found another home.
“I loved the people who are in that (world) and I feel that they are so positive and happy and full of energy, so I felt really at home in that environment.”
She’s taken the stage for several shows, including The Producers (2009), The Princess and The Iso Peanut (2010) and Lisa Matsumoto’s Anniversary Show (2012). (Her film credits include 50 First Dates, Go For Broke and Netflix’s The Wrong Missy.)
It’s that positivity and desire to surround herself with like-minded people that led Dung to one of the many philanthropic groups that she works with.
She is a founding member of Echelon, a group of young professionals and leaders who support the Salvation Army and the community.
“We’ve done things like a CEO sleep-out at the state Capitol to raise awareness for homelessness,” Dung says.
The group has also fed the homeless, distributed food to underserved communities, donated school supplies to students in need and gone to school campuses to help clean them up.
“Basically, we’ve taken the mission of The Salvation Army and we’ve instigated a younger generation to get involved and just show the importance of giving back, volunteerism and serving,” she says, adding that she encourages people who’d like to get involved to visit hawaii.salvationarmy.org/hawaii_2/echelon/.
Another organization that’s dear to her heart is Ronald McDonald House Charities. Dung has been involved with the nonprofit for nearly a decade. The organization provides a home for families who have seriously ill children who need medical care on O‘ahu.
“When you’re going through something like that in your life, you can’t put a price on the kind of support the Ronald McDonald House Charities provides,” she says.
Here, she gets to combine two of her loves: her dogs and giving back. Every year, Dung takes her dogs to the organization’s Christmas parties so the kids can play with them.
“That’s kind of my family that I take to their family. It’s just a really nice event, which (is an example of) dogs being therapeutic, too.”
In addition to those two charitable groups, another big part of Dung’s community work is her involvement with the Celebrities and Their Pets Fashion Show.
“That’s a super-fun event,” she says with a laugh.
The event, which benefits an array of local shelters, features island celebrities walking the runway with either their own adopted or foster pet or a pet that needs to be placed in a foster or forever home. The purpose of the show is to encourage people to adopt shelter animals.
“Sometimes people go and watch the show just thinking they’re watching the show and end up going home with a puppy — or two. I’m not going to say who,” she adds coyly. (It’s her. She quickly notes that’s how she added Gage and Shiloh to her family.)
With all of her community work and her day job, Dung admits that it takes a lot of planning to balance everything.
“I just learned to really prioritize the things and the organizations and people that bring positivity to my life,” she says. “I think that it’s so important to just surround yourself with positive things. Especially now, I think people really need that. The things that make me happy and bring me joy are the things that I put at the forefront of my schedule. And it does take a lot of balancing and prioritizing and, sometimes, even omitting things. But, I do my best to try to fit everything in and create more than 24 hours in a day.”
That’s why she’s making time in her busy schedule to start her new column, “Mahalo Nui” with MidWeek. In it, she will seek out individuals who people want to thank for doing a good deed.
For Dung, she can understand wanting to thank someone who’s helped. Everything that she does in the community is about honoring and repaying those who’ve invested in her throughout her life.
“I’m so appreciative and grateful to — of course, my family and our community— but Hawai‘i as a whole. I’m a local girl — born and bred here — and I just hope to give back to the people what I received growing up here. This is my island home … I’m the end result of the time and dedication and hard work of people who have supported me.”
Beginning next month, MidWeek welcomes its newest contributor as Darah Dung pens a weekly column called “Mahalo Nui.” Like its predecessor, “Applause,” which was written over the past two decades by Pamela Young, the feature celebrates the good deeds that people perform for one another.
Readers are encouraged to share these random acts of kindness with Dung, who may choose to cover them in her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’m honored and optimistic,” says Dung. “I think people are looking for positivity, and the fact that it can be highlighted in a publication that goes to every home is even better.”