Hawaiian Food Disappearing?

by Latoya Peterson

In the April/May issue of Audrey Magazine, Susan Soon He Stanton takes a look at the decline of Hawaiian family-run restaurants in her piece “The Closing of Tradition.”

The article opens on a sad note:

A disappointed woman shakes her head as she reads the out-of-business sign in the window of the Flamingo Restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii, a 49-year local favorite. “I don’t know how much more I can take,” she says before moving on.

The Flamingo Restaurant, along with other Honolulu landmarks such as Columbia Inn, McCully Chop Sui and Wisteria, joins a growing number of Hawaii’s family-owned restaurants – some owned for two generations or more – that have closed for good. Locally owned mom and pop restaurants forced to close has become a nationwide occurrence. However, the loss of these types of restaurants is felt acutely in the islands where a restaurant-goer’s loyalty goes beyond a casual devotion. One man, once the doors of his favorite watering hole closed for good put it succinctly: “You’ve heard of a man without a country? I’m a man without a bar.”

The article goes on to note that the emergence of chain restaurants overtaking local establishments isn’t just bad for business – it’s a direct blow to Hawaii’s own native culture. Chef Alan Wong notes “These local restaurants run by generations of families have always been the backbone of our industry – an offshoot of our plantation heritage.”

The Library of Congress provides some background on Hawaii’s past, and how forced labor and migration patterns shaped the population of the islands:

In the 1880s, Hawaii was still decades away from becoming a state, and would not officially become a U.S. territory until 1900. However, much of its economy and the daily life of its residents were controlled by powerful U.S.-based businesses, many of them large fruit and sugar plantations. Unlike in the mainland U.S., in Hawaii business owners actively recruited Japanese immigrants, often sending agents to Japan to sign long-term contracts with young men who’d never before laid eyes on a stalk of sugar cane. The influx of Japanese workers, along with the Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese, and African American laborers that the plantation owners recruited, permanently changed the face of Hawaii. In 1853, indigenous Hawaiians made up 97% of the islands’ population. By 1923, their numbers had dwindled to 16%, and the largest percentage of Hawaii’s population was Japanese.

Plantation-era Hawaii was a society unlike any that could be found in the United States, and the Japanese immigrant experience there was unique. The islands were governed as an oligarchy, not a democracy, and the Japanese immigrants struggled to make lives for themselves in a land controlled almost exclusively by large commercial interests. Most Japanese immigrants were put to work chopping and weeding sugar cane on vast plantations, many of which were far larger than any single village in Japan. The workday was long, the labor exhausting, and, both on the job and off, the workers’ lives were strictly controlled by the plantation owners. Each planter had a private army of European American overseers to enforce company rules, and they imposed harsh fines, or even whippings, for such offenses as talking, smoking, or pausing to stretch in the fields. Workers shopped at company stores and lived in company housing, much of which was meager and unsanitary. Until 1900, plantation workers were legally bound by 3- to 5-year contracts, and “deserters” could be jailed. For many Japanese immigrants, most of whom had worked their own family farms back home, the relentless toil and impersonal scale of industrial agriculture was unbearable, and thousands fled to the mainland before their contracts were up.
Plantation life was also rigidly stratified by national origin, with Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino laborers paid at different rates for the same work, while all positions of authority were reserved for European Americans. Plantation owners often pitted one nationality against the other in labor disputes, and riots broke out between Japanese and Chinese workers.

During this tumultuous time, many different types of people began to learn to live and work together, and that was ultimately reflected in Hawaiian food culture. Stanton writes,

Local food carries great cultural importance because it is one of the foremost experiences that the diverse population of Hawaii has in common. […] All of these ethnic groups have left an indelible mark on local cuisine , infusing their cultural flavors with such Hawaiian ingredients as taro root and native fish.

While Stanton’s article goes on to discuss two family run businesses where the children have decided to preserve the family heritage. Helena’s Hawaiian Foods was taken over by the owner’s grandson. The Highway Inn, owned by the Toguchi family, was passed down for three generations, and the current owners are working to create a family constitution to alleviate pressures dealing with the restaurant.

Still, these two success stories are still small stop gaps against the wave of change that may take Hawaiian food to brink of culinary extinction.