The Market by the Bay

After more than one hundred years and two devastating tsunamis, Suisan is still Hilo’s commercial fishing hub
Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by PF Bentley.

In the darkness an hour before dawn, a fishing boat slips into Hilo bay and glides toward a familiar landmark, the red neon sign of Suisan Fish Market. Meanwhile, fisherman Ricky Torres empties a thousand pounds of fresh fish from the back of his pickup truck, license plate BIGEYE, at the loading dock of Suisan’s cold-storage facility. As usual, bystanders lean against the railing that separates the sidewalk from the open-air receiving area, waiting to see what creatures have been lifted out of the ocean this time.

Torres has been selling his fish to Suisan for as long as he has been a fisherman, which is more than thirty years. He remembers the time when customers bought his fish at Suisan’s waterfront auction, con-ducted by auctioneer Hiro Nishimura, who calculated prices on a wooden soroban, a Japanese abacus.

Icy water tinged with blood pours out of a coffin-size cooler as Torres and the loading dock crew use a crane to hoist out a headless mako shark. The shark hangs by its tail, taller than the men, as they unload the rest of Torres’ catch, which includes six ‘ahi, lined up like silver torpedoes; a few marlin, one with eyes as big as fists; and more than two dozen mahimahi, which are hauled off in buckets, their tails sticking in the air.

In 1907 a group of Japanese immigrant fishermen pooled their money to start a fish market in Hilo. One hundred and ten years later the Suisan Fish Market is still going strong at its original location along Hilo bay (opening spread). Above, Bossy Sitiru hangs ‘ahi fresh off the boat in Suisan’s cold-storage facility.

It’s all delivered to a refrigerated room where almost a hundred large fish, mostly ‘ahi, hang upside down from a track similar to that of a slaughterhouse. In another cold room, fish cutters wielding hacksaws and knives deftly cut the whole fish into fillets, piling up slabs of red, pink and white meat.

Fresh fish is a product that devalues itself every day, which makes the seafood business a precarious one. Sell ’em or smell ’em, as they say. But Suisan is a stalwart. The family-run Hilo institution has been a purveyor of fresh seafood along Hilo’s waterfront for 110 years. The company was founded in 1907, when fifty immigrant Japanese fishermen and fish peddlers formed a cooperative, Sui San Kabushiki Kaisha (suisan is Japanese for marine products, and Kabushiki Kaisha means stock company). They each owned fifty shares at $5 apiece, raising $12,500 to start a fish market and auction.

Kamezo Matsuno, at age 29, was the youngest member of the group. He had moved to Hawai‘i five years earlier from a tiny fishing village in Japan, where he worked as a fisherman and raised silkworms. Upon arriving in Honolulu, he was mistaken for a contract laborer and sent to Hakalau Sugar Plantation on Hawai‘i Island. A week later his uncle found him and cleared up the mistake. He settled in Waiākea, at the time a fishing community mostly made up of Japanese immigrants. He didn’t want to be a fisherman again, but knowing little other than that business he became a fish peddler, traveling by horse and buggy and selling fish from a basket with no ice.

Over the years, Kamezo bought out the other investors. He stuck with Suisan, as the business would become known, for six decades, weathering the Great Depression and World War II, when the military seized boats and restricted fishing by local Japanese. Kamezo’s favorite saying was, “Man must have hope, for hope will help a man rise in this world,” and he had many opportunities to employ it. He saw two tsunamis devastate the waterfront fish auction on Waiākea peninsula in Hilo bay. Today a park and a golf course cover much of Waiākea peninsula, but in its heyday there was a neighborhood adjacent to the market, with a school, homes, shops and a theater. Battered by the 1946 tsunami, both Waiākea town and Suisan rebuilt, only to be destroyed by another tsunami fourteen years later.

Kamezo’s son, Rex Yoshio Matsuno, was at the fish auction when the tsunami hit. He watched the water recede, exposing the seafloor in Hilo bay, before hearing someone shout, “Run!” He ran through Waiākea, heard the roar of surging water behind him, followed by an explosion and darkness when the wave consumed the Hilo Electric Light Company power plant. The water washed him down Kamehameha Avenue and dropped him in front of the old Sure Save grocery store.

Residential construction was banned on the peninsula after that, and the other businesses that had been there relocated. But Suisan, which needed to be close to the fishing dock, rebuilt where it had been. The fish market is all that’s left today of the old neighborhood. But thanks to Rex, who became company president in 1967, it’s not all there is to Suisan.

The key to its longevity lies partly in fishermen like Torres and the productive fishing grounds around Hawai‘i Island. But the key also lies in the Parmesan cheese, pork butt, packets of sushi ginger, lettuce, Lunchables and any number of other foods that Suisan handles.

Rex led a move to diversify Suisan decades ago, creating a food distribution arm to fortify Suisan against the vagaries of fishing. After serving as an interpreter during World War II, Rex went to work at Suisan as a bookkeeper, which gave him an intimate understanding of the company’s numbers. They weren’t great. To generate additional revenue Rex came up with the idea of using Suisan’s fish freezers to get into the frozen food business. Rex launched Suisan’s frozen food division in 1949, capitalizing on the growing popularity of frozen vegetables and meats, and on the novelty and convenience offered by frozen TV dinners.

Suisan is best known for retail and wholesale seafood, but behind the scenes the company has long been a major a food distributor on Hawai‘i Island, with about 1,200 customers ranging from corner convenience stores to Walmart. Above, posting prices for the daily catch at Suisan’s retail market.

Among the items he wanted to stock was Swanson’s frozen chicken—a product Hilo shopkeepers initially laughed at. Who would buy a frozen chicken when everyone in Hilo already had chickens in their backyards? Furthermore, where were the shopkeepers supposed to put the things? Freezers were still a novelty in Hilo then.

Rex made the stores a deal: If they didn’t sell the chicken, he would buy it back and throw a barbecue. The shopkeepers agreed and stuffed a few chickens into the iceboxes where they kept the ice cream. As it turns out, Hilo’s home cooks were happy to pay more for a chicken they didn’t have to kill and pluck themselves, and they snapped up the frozen birds. Suisan’s great frozen chicken barbecue never happened.

The demand for frozen food grew in the decades that followed, and Suisan kept pace. It also expanded into internationally sourced packaged food, which arrives in tidy boxes that are labeled, coded and stored in Suisan’s warehouse, a former sake and shoyu factory across Waiākea peninsula from the fish market. In 1983 Rex installed an 11,000-square-foot freezer, nicknamed the Super Jumbo Freezer. “He always wanted to have the largest freezer on the island to dominate the market,” says Glenn Hashimoto, Suisan’s executive adviser, who worked with Rex for forty years. Today the company’s roughly 1,200 customers, primarily Hawai‘i Island-based, range from the corner convenience store to the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai to Walmart.

CEO Steve Ueda, great grandson of one of Suisan’s founders, is determined to keep the fish market alive. “It’s tough, but my grandfather always made it a point to keep that part of Suisan going. I feel the same thing. It’s our roots,” he says.

“I think of Suisan when I drive down the Hāmākua coast,” says Derek Kurisu, executive vice president of the local grocery outlet KTA Super Stores, a longtime Suisan customer and another Hawai‘i Island institution with deep local roots. The Hāmākua coast is replete with mountain streams running to the ocean, pouring through large, deep ponds along the way. “I look at Suisan as being one of these ponds,” Kurisu says. “It’s like a dam where they can monitor the flow of goods to our stores.”

Not all of Rex’s enterprises worked out so well. Gone is Suisan Seafood International, which distributed fish across O‘ahu and beyond from the erstwhile Hawaiian Tuna Packers warehouse at Kewalo Basin. Gone is Suisan’s fruit processing business, where the company made fruit purées and jellies from guava, papaya and liliko‘i, selling them around the Islands, on the Mainland and even in Japan and Taiwan. After ninety-four years the fish auction, too, closed. An FDA inspection in 2001 cited the operation for record-keeping violations; the cost of compliance was too much of a strain for Suisan, and it shuttered the auction. “We went through two tsunamis, but this thing is too big for us,” Rex said at the time.

But Suisan kept its fish wholesaling and retailing operations open, and it continues to buy fish directly from fishermen, distributing to restaurants and hotels. It also sells fish next door, at the Suisan Seafood Market, where bins of colorful reef fish, such as the bright red, wide-eyed menpachi laid out on ice, are so fresh that they look like they’re just taking a break from swimming. More than a dozen varieties of poke (cubed, raw fish salad) glisten in the refrigerated glass case. Thanks to the Mainland poke craze, the retail side of Suisan is more popular than ever with tourists. (Attached to the seafood market is a separately owned plate-lunch counter, where visitors and locals alike can get a mahimahi plate with two scoops of rice and a big scoop of macaroni salad.)

Suisan’s market sells more than a dozen varieties of poke. Thanks to the Mainland poke craze, tourists — who haven’t traditionally had much interest in Suisan — are now lining up alongside locals at the poke counter.

Today the business is run by Rex’s grandson, Steve Ueda, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and enjoyed a successful career as a developer for Ford and other companies. Initially he was reluctant to join the family business, despite his grandfather’s entreaties. “He uses guilt and what we call mental judo to get you to agree,” Ueda says. “It can kind of irritate you.” Still, Steve said no. It took a meeting with other Suisan executives to change his mind, and in 2007 Ueda returned to the Suisan family fold. This year he was promoted to president, just in time to oversee the 110th anniversary celebration of the company his great-grandfather helped start.

Ueda is committed to continuing to deal in fresh fish. “It’s tough, but my grand-father always made it a point to keep that part of Suisan going. There was some duty he felt to his father that it shouldn’t close in his lifetime. Through thick and thin, through all the challenges that they had, even though everyone recommended closing it, my grandfather kept it open. I feel the same thing. It’s our roots. It’s part of our history and how we started.” HH