Cannery Tales: Community Leaders Talk Story About Bygone Summers in Honolulu’s Pineapple Factories

Honolulu’s pineapple factories provided a rite of passage for generations of teens, including state senator David Ige and sumo star Konishiki. These summer jobs tossed them into the grind of a production line and left them with a mix of memories.


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Stuart Ho

Community leader and retired financier, 79, worked as a tray boy at Dole Cannery in the early 1950s.

 

It was pretty good money in those days— almost a dollar an hour. I was the lowest of the low, what was known as a tray boy. I worked at the Dole Cannery. It was good work when you could get it because of the labor laws at that time. With the summer rush of pine, when the harvest was at its peak, you could work until you dropped. When you worked over eight hours, you could work overtime, you could even get doubletime.

 

You didn’t think of it as a hard job. Everybody thought it was a neat way to make money during the summer. A lot of your classmates were either working on the line or were tray boys like you. The more experienced, year-round workers became your supervisors during the summertime.

 

If you were going to a school like Punahou, you sure met the community, I tell you that. You met all kinds of people. It pretty much opened your eyes. You met a lot of guys that you would meet later in life. Tommy Fujiwara, the singer? He was a good-looking guy. He was a mechanic and wore a khaki cap that allowed him to roam anywhere throughout the cannery. He was always hitting on the girls and they loved it. You met all kinds of guys. It was a lot of fun. You met the main street. You learned discipline. You learned you had to show up on time and get back from your break on time. You had to meet a schedule. You were expected to do your job or things started to pile up. You were in a factory. In a factory, you keep going and, if you don’t, things stop.

 

 

Keith Amemiya

48, senior vice president of Island Holdings Inc. parent company of several subsidiaries including: Island Insurance, Tradewind Capital Group, Atlas Insurance Agency, Pacxa, IC International. He worked the night shift as a palletizer at Dole for the summer of 1982. (Disclosure: Keith’s wife, Bonny Amemiya, is the chief financial officer of our magazine’s overall owner, aio group.)

 

I was 16 and I needed  a job to make money. We just all went down and filled out paperwork and got hired. Several of the people I met working at the cannery, I still keep in touch. It seemed like everybody worked there, until the early ’80s.

 

You did it not only for the money, but to prove yourself in a challenging working environment. It was hard work. I didn’t necessarily go out of my way to tell them I went to Punahou. You worked constantly. I worked the night shift. I swear it was a quarter more. I had an unusual job. I was a palletizer. I stacked the pineapple cans on a pallet. The cans just keep coming down this conveyor belt. The palletizer device had suction cups.

 

When there were enough cans, you drop down the suction cups, it would suck up all the cans, drop it to the right, and you put a piece of cardboard on. And do the process over and over and over for eight hours.

 

Sometimes they would be large cans, sometimes the tiny tuna-size cans of rings. It just depended on the day and what was being processed. It was monotonous, but it forced you to pay attention. You had to move fast. If you let the suction go too early, all 50 cans just fall. If you released it too early before the cans reached the pallet, then all the cans would go flying all over. The bad thing is then you slow down the rest of the line.

 

If the palletizer has to stop the cans from coming down, then you slow down everybody. So there was pressure to not screw up. If one person doesn’t do his or her job, it stops the whole process. I was the end of the line.

 

You always smelled like pineapple the whole summer. The smell and stickiness of pineapple. For years, I didn’t want to eat any. But eventually I got over it and I like it again. Just the one summer, that was plenty.

 

Saleva‘a Atisanoe

Best known as the Hawai‘i-born sumo star Konishiki, worked for Dole in the late ’70s/early ’80s, first in the field, then on the line at the cannery as a UH Lab School student. Now 50, he lives in Tokyo, and his current jobs include entertainer, producer, DJ and founder of the Konishiki Kids Foundation which benefits the children of the Leeward Coast.

 

It was fun. I was young and wild. I was picking pineapple one summer, and then I worked the cannery one summer. I think the cannery was better. I was working nights. We had the graveyard shift.

 

During the summer, it was mostly all same-age people, and you see guys who played football on other teams. We trained all day and that’s why we worked graveyard.

 

I used to throw the pineapples down into the shoot. It takes off the heads. I worked the section where the pineapple goes through the machine, and then it cleans around and takes off the skin, and then it goes down into the section where they cut the pineapples. You got to watch out, the pineapples fly out of the machines and the things hit you in the arms. Everything was so itchy. Our arms used to be all scratched.

 

It wasn’t a good job; it was the only job. No more too much choices. Some of my friends used to go to Lāna‘i and pick pineapples. It was the only thing they really had. You don’t have to use your brain. You use your brain all year round for school.

 

Anytime you’re thrown into a community of workers that has rules and regulations and uniforms, it teaches you. It’s like a team. If you don’t have the labor to carry out the ideas, this world won’t turn. The laborers should get more pay. Imagine if they all walked out? I own my own company.  I create and produce shows. That was my first experience working with hundreds and hundreds of people. I would encourage any kid at a young age to try to get into a workforce where there are a lot of people, so they can see the importance of labor in anything you do. It’s like in football, if you don’t have the linemen, the quarterback would never make points.

 

Teamwork is very important. You have to have a solid team all focusing on the same goal, making sure everybody stays with the plan. If you try to be different, try to be too slow or too fast, you spoil the whole team’s efforts.

 

I had a lot of fun. We’d take breaks. We used to sit in the parking lot. Sometimes we’d fall asleep and they would find us sleeping in the parking lot. I think we got fired. It was almost the end of the summer.

 

We were getting ready for football anyway, so it was a good time to go.

 

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