Hama Sushi commemorates its 35th anniversary with a party celebrating Venice’s storied past
By Michael Aushenker
“Rebel Without a Cause” opens with James Dean collapsing in front of Beyond Baroque.
“At the time it was city hall, and SPARC next door was the old police station,” explained Todd von Hoffmann.
A Venice resident since 1986 who for 20 years has collected historic images of his community, von Hoffmann curates twin Venice-centric exhibits — one of vintage photographs, the other of vintage movie posters — during a 35th anniversary party for Hama Sushi on Nov. 20.
The celebration includes DJ Loboman (a.k.a. Eduardo Manilla) spinning “Venice Beach House” music, an extended happy hour at the bar and free tempura ice cream dessert with each dining-area meal.
In addition to “Rebel Without a Cause,” the 18-poster collection in the restaurant’s bar area includes “The Big Lebowski” (the Coen Bros. shot the Dude’s pad in Venice) and Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” which immortalized the boardwalk (doubling as a Mexican border town) in its famous three-and-a-half-minute opening shot.
From the silent era, there’s Charlie Chaplin — whose Tramp character debuted in 1914’s “Kid Auto Races in Venice” — and the 1928 Buster Keaton classic “The Cameraman,” which includes an extended scene at the Venice Plunge, the big heated saltwater bathhouse that Abbot Kinney built right on Ocean Front Walk, von Hoffmann said.
Meanwhile, the sushi restaurant’s dining room features eight historic images “reflecting the Japanese American experience in Venice, which really goes back to the beginnings of Venice,” said von Hoffmann. After Venice founding father Abbot Kinney became smitten with “Japan Beautiful” exhibitions presented at World Fairs by Yumeto Kushibiki (who von Hoffmann calls “the greatest exhibitor and ambassador of Japanese culture in his day”) Kinney, in 1909 and 1910, brought “Japan Beautiful” home, where Venetians illuminated the night with thousands of paper lanterns.
A panoramic photo of the era identifies a cottage next to Antler Hotel, which housed a speakeasy during Prohibition, as Hama Sushi’s precursor.
Ever since purchasing the property in 2004, Esther Chaing has celebrated such Venice history and showcased its artists on the walls of her establishment.
Before buying Hama Sushi, then-Palos Verdes resident Chaing actively sought a new business to invest in after her clothing company, where she employed more than 100 employees, languished.
“At that time, I was desperate. My big accounts moved away to China,” she said.
Through a Korean-language newspaper, the Seoul native learned Toshi Sugiura was selling the Venice restaurant he had opened in 1979 with an adjacent sushi academy. Chaing said she bought Hama Sushi without having ever stepped foot inside the restaurant because of its beach-adjacent location.
She also had fond memories of the area from 1977, when she was being courted by her future husband, artist Jung Chaing. Many of their dates unfolded where he was living and working for the late sculptor Robert Graham.
“We used to hang around Windward Circle,” she recalled. “There was nothing. A hamburger stand, a liquor store. Abbot Kinney Boulevard was West Washington.”
After marrying, Chaing started her South Bay sportswear manufacturing business, Le Bouquet Customs, in 1981, and side business My First School, a preschool originally intended as a safe harbor for her immigrant workers’ children, in 1992.
Following her acquisition of Hama, Chaing kept on Sugiura-appointed manager/head sushi chef Maoko Masayo (she’s still there), doubled down on promoting local culture and eventually moved to the Venice Canals in 2007.
“Esther has been a huge supporter since we started,” Venice Art Crawl leader Sunny Bak said of Chaing, also an active supporter of the Venice Arts Council and Venice Japanese American Memorial. “She has opened her heart, her restaurant and parking area to the crawl and is always open to emerging artists.”
After nine years of serving dinner, Chaing added lunch and happy hour menus this year. Two weeks ago, she introduced a vegetarian sushi roll menu. This spring she renovates the bar patio, where she will continue holding openings and screenings.
As for franchising Hama, Chaing balked.
“Some people like a big plate. I like a small dish,” she said.
The 35th anniversary begins at 7 p.m. on Nov. 20 at Hama Sushi, 213 Windward Ave., Venice. Call (310) 396-8783 or visit hamasushi.com.