By Phillis Hayashibara
Esther Chaing, proprietar of Venice’s oldest sushi restaurant, Hama Sushi at the Venice Traffic Circle, will host three fundraisers at her restaurant on April 25 on behalf of the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker (VJAMM) Committee.
On March 22 the Department of the Interior, through the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, awarded VJAMM a $50,000 grant for the 2012 grant cycle. The Park Service grant requires a $1 match in non-federal funds and “in-kind” contributions to qualify for every $2 in federal money.
A series of Hama Sushi Restaurant fundraisers will ensure that the VJAMM Committee will top the requisite $25,000 in non-federal money.
Through Hama Sushi, Esther has been able to demonstrate her appreciation by contributing to a number of causes, including the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami benefit to which Esther donated almost $5,000t.
For the VJAMM fundraisers at Hama Sushi on Wednesday, April 25, Hama Sushi head chef Kinya Aota created a special “bento” box lunch that includes teriyaki chicken, cucumber and potato salads, spicy tuna and California rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, plus a soft drink for $20. All profits from the lunch will be donated to the VJAMM Committee. That evening, Hama Sushi will donate 10 percent of all food and drink purchased between 7 and 11 pm to the VJAMM Committee. In addition, Hama Sushi will allow the Venice Arts Council to exhibit art works for sale on its walls from April 25 through June 25. Forty percent of the sale price of an artwork will be donated to the VJAMM Committee, with 40 percent going to the contributing artists and 20 percent retained by Hama Sushi.
Esther Chaing grew up in Taegu, south of Seoul in South Korea, and emigrated to Los Angeles in 1972 with one of her older brothers, leaving her parents, two brothers, and one sister in South Korea. She studied English and art in night school classes, and worked in garment factories in Los Angeles during the day. “I was a trimmer, and worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, and brought home between $60 and $70 a week when $1.65 was the minimum wage.” In 1977, Esther graduated from Trade Tech with an AA in fashion design. She worked at Condor as an art designer and pattern maker. She worked at International Costume, which made all the uniforms for the “cast members” in the newly opened Disney World and EPCOT Center in Orlando.
Three years later, eager to become her own boss, Esther opened her own garment factory, borrowing ten sewing machines and renting 900 square feet of space in Carson. Building on her success with her mantra of “quality and on-time delivery,” the next year Esther expanded to twenty machines in 2000 square feet of space.
By the fourth year, Esther bought her own building in Harbor City and employed 120 people. She remembered being an employee in a downtown Los Angeles sweatshop, eating hurried lunches at work stations or on the grimy steps near the employee’s grimy bathrooms.
Esther vowed to improve working conditions, and built an executive-style lunchroom with a refrigerator, a microwave, and a food warmer, using 700 precious square feet of her factory floor, an unheard of luxury for employees entitled to two ten-minute breaks and one thirty-minute lunch hour. Esther also purchased an adjacent property in which she opened My First School, a non-profit day care center for the children of her employees. “I’m living in Palos Verdes, I have a very successful business, and I want to give back to the people who made my business possible,” said Esther.
Competition from China undercut Esther’s sales, so she began to look for another business and property in which to invest. In 2004, Esther found Hama Sushi in Venice, and when she went to Central Venice to look at the property, she remembered the early days of her courtship on Venice. The man who would become her husband had worked at the Robert Graham studio in Venice, and they would meet in Venice for dates on the boardwalk amid the roller skaters with their big boom boxes and the odor of marijuana everywhere.
Esther purchased the business and the property, and returned to work and live in Venice with her husband and four children. She sold her preschool in 2005 and her garment factory in 2006.
What Esther hadn’t counted on was the 26 years of new regulations that she, the new owner of Hama Sushi, had to comply with, from which the original owner had been exempted. To avert disaster, she called the Health Inspector for much-needed help, and soon brought everything in the restaurant up to code. She kept most of the long-time sushi chefs, including Arthur Takakuwa, who has been preparing sushi at Hama Sushi since 1983.
Many of Hama Sushi’s present staff have had ten or more years of experience preparing sushi, and also have a variety of professional and personal interests. Arthur is an avid golfer, Masayo Onuki teaches Japanese cooking, Masatoshi Shimoda composes musical scores, Akihiro Nobu is a photographer, the very creative Elizabeth Valencia devotes her time to her son, and the second head chef, Kenny Moon, loves and trains dogs.
The current head chef, Kinya Aota, practices karate, and had just been hired by the former owner, who had not revealed that he would be selling one month later. In fact, Kinya thought Esther was one of the servers at Hama Sushi, someone with “a great smile,” while Esther, for the first few months, hid in the kitchen and the office, peeking out at her customers and wondering how to greet them or what to say to them.
Today, the very outgoing and gracious Esther is very comfortable amid her customers at Hama Sushi, and loves to give back to her community in Venice. Esther and Kinya joke that they have both been “promoted.” He to head chef, and she from the server-with-a-great-smile to the owner-proprietor of Hama Sushi. Esther adheres to her mission statement for Hama Sushi, to be “fresh, fun, and friendly,” as exemplified by the freshest, highest grade fish and organic vegetables prepared without MSG, and by her warm and welcoming head server, Athena MacDonald.
Hama Sushi, founded in 1979, was one of the first authentic Japanese sushi restaurants in the U. S. Esther strives to retain the loyalty of long-time customers as well as introduce a new generation of foodies to Hama Sushi by treating each diner as an honored guest. She takes pride in the many “Hama romances,” “Hama marriages,” and “Hama babies” that have emerged from sharing good food and a great time in this icon of Venice, Hama Sushi.
Phyllis Hayashibara is a member of the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker Committee.