It’s early Saturday morning, just after 6:30 am. I parked in a municipal lot in the center of downtown and after escaping the bowels of the multi-story parking garage, I began walking up Hotel street toward Bishop street. The soaring megaliths of the financial district cast long shadows and the normal weekday crowds ebbed to a scattering of citizens. Business owners and shop workers were out, as was the normal congregation at the transit stop on Hotel street at the Fort street walking mall, but the workday masses of office workers that flooded the wide promenade were absent.
It’s December and Christmas lights were still lit and the weather was cooler (in the upper 60’s) and it was dry, but the forecast was for showers. Afternoon squalls are the norm for this territory.
The Chinatown Historic District is located in Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Honolulu is the center of government and commerce in Hawaii. One of the eight main islands in a chain that spreads 2500 miles across the central Pacific ocean, Oahu is suffused with interesting and historical landmarks and my destination is one of them.
Chinatown is located in the northern quarter of
Honolulu, bordered by Beretania street, Nu’uanu Stream, Nu’uanu avenue, and Honolulu Harbor. The Hawaiian language newspaper Nupepa Kuokoa describes it as .”..that place Chinatown is that whole area from West side of Kukui street until the river mouth called Makaaho, then travel straight until reaching Hotel street; and travel on Hotel street on the West side until reaching Konia street, and travel until you reach King St.” The edges of the boundary are not as finely defined, but the newspapers description defines the general area.
Regardless of the description, Chinatown is notable for its Chinese American heritage. In Chinese it is known as 檀香山 (Tánxiāngshān), meaning Sandalwood Mountain, and it is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States.
Chinese immigrants arrived on the shores of Hawaii in 1788 to work on the sugar plantations as laborers. When their service was complete they stayed and became merchants, opening markets, restaurants, curios shops and more. Filling a much needed cultural niche in this waypoint of the Pacific.
Today, Honolulu Chinatown covers 15 blocks and has become a vibrant community for Hawaiians, Koreans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and many others from around the Pacific Rim. And it is a window into a foreign world for travelers from outside the world of Oceana.
While Honolulu downtown sleeps in on weekend mornings, Chinatown bustles with crowded Asian markets. Early morning patrons visiting a favorite shop hoping to get the freshest catch for tonight’s dinner, or vegetables from local farms, still coated with the earth they were grown in. The fragrance of cooking meats and spices share the air with greetings from shop owners to familiar patrons, and friends greet each other on the sidewalks. As I raised my trusty Canon to compose another image across from the Maunakea Market, a woman called to another, who turned to see who sang out her name. They hugged and laughed and hugged again. A warm reunion right there in the middle of the sidewalk.
In times past, the area was likely used by fishermen in ancient Hawaii. The nutrient-rich water of the estuary of Nu’uanu stream still attracts fish at the harbor, but no fishing occurs there today and little evidence of those days remain. Many europeans also came to Hawaii for various reasons. Among them was Don Francisco de Paula Maran, who came from Spain. He settled in the southern end of the area in the early 19th century, and planted a vineyard, for which Vineyard Boulevard is named.
Two major fires destroyed many buildings in 1886 and 1900. The 1900 fire was started in an attempt to destroy a building infected with bubonic plague, which had been confirmed in December of 1899. Schools were closed and 7,000 residents of the area were put under quarantine. After 13 people died, the Board of Health ordered structures suspected of being infected to be burned. Residents were evacuated, and a few buildings were successfully destroyed while the Honolulu Fire Department stood by. However, in January of 1900 the fire got out of control after winds shifted. Most of the neighborhood was destroyed.
After World War II the area fell into disrepair and became a red-light district. In recent years there has been a revitalization and things are getting better. About 36 acres of the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places listings in January of 1973. During the administrations of mayors Frank Fasi and Jeremy Harris the area was targeted for revitalization. Restrictions on lighting and signs were relaxed to promote nightlife. Special zoning rules were adopted to allow the cultural heritage to remain. The Hawaii National Bank was founded in the district in 1960, and still has its headquarters there.
Today, Chinatown is teeming with activity. There are traditional dim sum restaurants, noodle shops and hip bars and converted lofts. These have become additive to crowded Asian markets full of foodstuffs, antiques and stalls selling lei flower necklaces. The area is also an artistic hub, home to indie art galleries and the art deco Hawaii Theatre Center, which stages concerts, musicals and comedy. Temples in the area include the Buddhist Kuan Yin Temple, with its striking green roof.
At the eastern edge of the district, the Hawaii Theatre was restored and re-opened in 1996. The area around the theatre is called the Arts District. In 2005 a small park near the theatre at the corner of Hotel and Bethel streets was opened and called Chinatown Gateway Park. In November 2007 the park was named in honor of Sun Yat-Sen who came to Chinatown in 1879 where he was educated and planned the Chinese Revolution of 1911.
A trip to Chinatown in Honolulu is not complete without checking out its marketplaces. Head to Oahu Market for a tantalizing display of exotic tropical fruits, such as watermelons, pineapples and many others. It has been at the corner of King and Kekaulike since 1904.
On just about every corner there is a market brimming with local fare. And fans of Filipino, Korean, Chinese and Thai cuisines will love the food court at nearby Maunakea Marketplace.
A squall moved over Honolulu near the end of my journey, and like many others, I took cover under one of the many awnings that line the sidewalks. In Honolulu the rain is usually short-lived, but it gave me a few more short moments to watch the activity and appreciate the distinctive blending of cultures in this quarter of Honolulu known as Chinatown.
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