The Fruits of Their Labor

How pineapple culture shaped Island life

May, 2006

Del Monte Corp.’s announcement that it would be shutting down its Hawaii operations in 2008 in favor of lower-cost production elsewhere came as no surprise. For decades, Hawaii’s share of the worldwide canned-pineapple market has steadily decreased, while cheaper labor in places like Thailand and the Philippines has fueled overseas production. Del Monte itself has moved the majority of its production abroad. It’s also been no secret that, for a few years now, both of Del Monte’s local competitors, Dole and Maui Pineapple Co., have been moving from the canned-fruit market to the more profitable premium, fresh-fruit market.

But just because Del Monte’s departure isn’t shocking doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. It represents, after all, the closing of yet another chapter in Hawaii’s glorious agriculture history. Since the introduction of pineapple in Hawaii dozens of decades ago, the crowned crop has had considerable economic impact throughout the Islands. At its peak, pineapple employed close to 4,000 people and produced $107 million worth of crops. Beyond that, for thousands of Hawaii residents, working in the canneries and in the fields was much more than a paycheck, it was a way of life.

“Pineapple was one of the two great agricultural industries in the modern era in Hawaii. It brought employment, altered land use over vast areas, promoted immigration, and created a certain image for those abroad,” wrote Jan K. Tenbruggencate, in his book, Hawaii’s Pineapple Century, A History of the Crowned Fruit in the Hawaiian Islands. “… Plantations supplied housing and medical care, provided retail stores, hired police and meted out justice, maintained the utilities, and offered recreational opportunities.”

FIELD OF DREAMS: Beatriz Pagaling, dressed in typical pineapple picking attire, gazes out at Dole’s Wahiawa plantation, where she’s been employed for more than 20 years. photo: Monte Costa

Indeed, the plantations offered much more than housing and employment. The plantation lifestyle, as so many locals adoringly refer to it, influenced everything from what we eat to how we interact. In those ways, and in many others, the plantations shaped much of modern Hawaii, its people and their social values.


When Colbert Matsumoto turned 15 years old, he was excited that his time had finally come to work in the pineapple fields in his hometown of Lanai. Like most other teens who grew up on plantations, he knew that when he turned 15, he’d be called to work in the fields like his parents and grandparents before him, and he looked upon the opportunity with enthusiasm. “I looked forward to it, because it was almost like a coming of age back then,” says Matsumoto, who today is the chairman of Island Insurance Co. Ltd. “It was a rite of passage that nearly everyone I knew had to go through.”

Matsumoto remembers his first day on the job like it was yesterday. He awoke before dawn and grabbed the bento his mom had packed specially for his first day of work. He spent several good hours picking pineapples until he was finally told to break for lunch. “By that time, I was so exhausted that I had no appetite. I gave away my bento and all I did was drink water,” he says. “By pau hana time, all I had the energy to do was bathe, eat dinner and immediately fall asleep. And the next thing I knew, it was 4:30 again and my father was waking me up, telling me I had to go back to work. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a nightmare. Working in the fields is hard, hard work.'”

Ask anyone who’s ever done it and they won’t disagree. Whether they shed pounds working in the sweltering heat of the fields or suffered acid burns on their fingertips while cutting fruit at the cannery, Hawaii’s pineapple workers developed a strong work ethic, a trait most have attempted to pass on.

“Every summer, I make my kids pound the pavement to find their own jobs. Sure, I could call people and get a job for them, but I refuse to do that,” says Kathy Inouye, chief operating officer of local development firm Kobayashi Group, who learned the value of hard work picking pineapples at Del Monte’s Wahiawa field. “I want them to develop a work ethic like I did while working the fields.”

Value of Hawaii Pineapple Production (in $1,000) Pineapple Employment Crop Acreage
(In 1,000s)

Fortunately for them, Inouye’s children found work elsewhere and weren’t subjected to the grueling field experience. However, many local families have had multiple generations picking and packing pineapple. “When our parents moved to Hawaii from Japan, Korea, China, Philippines, they all understood that they were mainly going to work on the plantation, whether it was sugar or pineapple,” says second-and-a-half generation (his father immigrated from Japan, his mother was born in Hawaii) plantation worker Keiji Amemiya. “My dad worked on both the sugar and pineapple fields, and I grew up in the plantation camps, starting at Kemoo. When you spend your whole life on the plantation, you don’t think too much about it, you just go to work.”

And that he did. Beginning as a laborer for Hawaiian Pineapple Co. (the predecessor to Dole) in 1941, Amemiya dutifully worked the plantations until his retirement from a supervisory position 47 years later. Amemiya’s wife, Setsuko “Vivian,” also worked for the pineapple company (as a secretary) and, when the time came, so did each of their five children. Daughter Debbie Lunig says that it was hard, labor-intensive work, but that the work greatly inspired each of the siblings to seek success in less physically demanding ways: “Today, my oldest sister is an appellate court judge, my other sister is an elementary school principal, one of my brothers is a vice president of a major local bank, and my other brother is head of a genetics research facility.”

THE QUEST FOR THE PERFECT PINEAPPLE: Picking pineapple was, and still is, a labor-intensive task. Many people credit the plantations for fostering Hawaii’s hard work ethic. photo: Edgeworth photo/Hawaii State Archives

In fact, if you look around downtown Honolulu and other business hubs in Hawaii, chances are it won’t take long to stumble across local executives with plantation tales of their own. While their stories may differ, Matsumoto says they all have one thing in common: “I think, if anything, the work inspired all of us to make sure we got an education so we were able to do something with our lives other than having to work in the pineapple fields.”


Typically dressed in their fresh-pressed aloha shirts and professional attire, it’s hard to imagine the Colbert Matsumotos and the Kathy Inouyes of today working alongside everyday laborers in the plantation fields. But, back in the day, that was exactly the case. And not only did they work alongside one another, but they lived and socialized together as well.

“I think that the saddest thing about the demise of the plantation communities is that they were true communities. Everything we did was a shared experience, whether at work or in the neighborhood,” says Matsumoto. “When the fishing boat would come in the evening, you’d smell the same fish at all the houses, because people would share your catches. You literally knew almost everyone in the town. Today, the social environment is different, because we live in a much more urbanized society. I think, to a certain extent, it doesn’t allow people in communities to really bond.”

Amemiya can relate to the sentiment. After living most of his young adult life on Kemoo plantation, he moved to Whitmore Village, one of several plantation towns in and around Wahiawa, to raise a family of his own. He says Whitmore, like Kemoo, was a very close-knit community, where neighbors looked after one another and no one locked their doors. Dole provided ample opportunities for socializing, including parades, fishing contests and all sorts of sports leagues. In his day, Amemiya was an all-star on the Hawaiian Pine baseball team.

In 1969, Amemiya sold his Whitmore home and bought a place in Oahu’s newest town, Mililani. Amemiya says his new neighborhood boasted some exciting features that Whitmore lacked–new playgrounds and rec centers for the kids, for example–but it lacked the sense of community that he had felt living in the plantation villages. “Life was a lot different on the camp. Over there, we knew everybody, and everybody did everything together. We had a deep fellowship and friendship and we enjoyed being so close to each other,” he says. “We moved to Mililani and even now, I don’t know all the people around my neighborhood. People move in and out and we don’t even bother to find out who came in. But that’s how it is.”

Women workers in the cannery. Chef Alan Wong jokes, “All the country guys used to work the fields, while the townies worked the cannery,” because it wasn’t as hard. These ladies, however, prove otherwise.

Brian Nishida, the former head of Del Monte Fresh Produce (Hawaii) Inc. and current Maui Pineapple Co. president, also witnessed the fostering of tight-knit communities in the plantation camps. He says they were good models, from which modern-day developers should take some cues: “As we go about building communities, rather than simply houses, I think there’s an important need to maintain that sense of neighborhood, which, again, the plantations–the camps, if you will–brought. You’re self-contained in villages, with the person you worked with all day long, and you just talk story sitting on the porch. For those who build real estate in Hawaii, there are some lessons to be learned from some of that.”


Another common component of plantation villages was their rich ethnic diversities. Although the typical portrait of an old plantation worker tends to be of a Filipino immigrant, laborers came from all different backgrounds. They were Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean and so forth.

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK: (Left) It’s pau hana time for these pineapple employees in the 1950s. photos: Hawaii State Archives

Because many of them were first- or second-generation immigrants, they maintained strong ties to their cultural and ethnic identities. As such, different ethnic groups were introduced to the customs, traditions and religions of other groups, often merging their traditions and forming the basis for what we now know as “local-style” culture. Many say the blending of different ethnicities on the plantations during Hawaii’s formative years as a state lent itself to higher racial tolerance and more interaction among social classes.

“I used to work with a gang of boys from Nanakuli. Some of them were from detention homes, many had fathers in prison,” says Inouye, who was born and raised in Wahiawa. “If you ran into someone like that today, you probably wouldn’t want to talk to them. We were from different cultures, different worlds with different upbringings. But back then, we became friends.”

Inouye says that interaction affected many of the choices she’s made for herself and her family–right down to her children’s educations. “Deciding where to send my kids to school was something I struggled with. One of the things that concerned me is the insular environment of private schools. Basically, they’re attended by people who are from a better social upbringing. I wanted to be sure my kids could appreciate the differences in people,” says Inouye. In the end, she compromised. Her children went to private school, but spent summers with the neighborhood kids at the local YMCA.

The multiethnic environment on the plantation was also responsible for one of modern Hawaii’s greatest culinary offerings–the mixed plate. “If you can imagine, back in the day on the pineapple field, the workers take their lunch break. It would be very common that they form a little circle, they all squat and put their food in the middle. They each get their own pail rice, but otherwise they’re all sharing their food,” says chef Alan Wong, who earned $1.60 an hour picking pineapple for Del Monte as a teenager. “So get the Japanese guy with his musubi sitting next to the Filipino guy with his pinakbet, next to the Korean, next to the Chinese next to the Portuguese … That’s how cross-cultural cooking started.”

Now, several decades later, it remains the inspiration behind what Wong and other top local chefs commonly refer to as Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. “That was really the birth of that kind of style of cooking,” says Wong. “That’s a big part of why I chose the pineapple as our logo. Pineapple had a lot to do with Hawaii’s identity.”

PLANTATIONS AREN’T JUST FOR PARENTS: Children of pineapple workers spent their time in plantation nurseries, such as this one at the former Hawaiian Pineapple Co. photos: Hawaii State Archives

Whether by influencing our food habits, our customs or social values, it’s clear that pineapple (along with sugar) had a lot to do with the shaping of modern Hawaii. Although pineapple isn’t entirely gone from Hawaii–both Dole and Maui Pineapple Co. are still in the game, with emphases on premium products–it’s pretty safe to say that, for all intents and purposes, the plantation lifestyle is. Maui Pineapple Co.’s Nishida says as Del Monte prepares to shut its doors for good in Hawaii, a century after pineapple pioneer Alfred Eames founded one of Del Monte’s first local holdings, it’s worthwhile to pause and reflect on all that the industry has meant to Hawaii.

“From a societal perspective, much of Hawaii’s success comes from the cultural diversity, the ethnic tolerance and the work ethic that have come from the plantation life,” says Nishida. “As the industry evolves, and as we move faster toward a global society, I think it’s really important that we keep as many of those values alive for the next generation and those to come.”


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