The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Waikiki's International Market Place


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Vendors must clear out by the end of the year.

Photos: Olivier Koning


The end is near for the International Market Place, that decaying maze of open-air souvenir stands and faded Polynesian pop-era grandeur in the heart of Waikiki.

After 56 years, visits by millions upon millions of tourists, and a long slide into ruin, the landmark shopping bazaar will close at the end of the month. In its place will go a high-end retail, dining and entertainment complex, three stories tall on Kalakaua Avenue, and seven along Kuhio Avenue. In other words, a big, glitzy new mall, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue.

Only two things from the original International Market Place will remain: the name and a few trees, including—thankfully—the venerable old Indian banyan tree.

For most Honolulu residents, the International Market Place lost whatever appeal it might have had decades ago—along with the parking. Still, its closing represents the end of an era, which makes this a good time to rummage through the Market’s kitschy past, ponder its upscale future, and check in on the gigantic banyan tree at the center of it all.
 



Some of the original tikis still stand.
 

Shabby wreck or working class refuge?

It’s at the Banyan that I meet Zabia Dolle, the International Market Place’s preeminent palm reader, tarot card dealer, astrologer and psychic. Her business, the Enchanted Banyan, operates out of a tiny bamboo booth nestled against the tree’s trunk. She and the tree have been close like this for many years.

Dolle has listened to the tree, she says, and it is not happy that Saks Fifth Avenue is coming. In fact, she says, “It’s bummed out, shocked and pissed off.”

She feels the same way herself. For her, the International Market Place is Waikiki’s last refuge for the working class. As Kalakaua Avenue has been increasingly dominated by the Yves Saint Laurents, the Tiffany & Cos., the Coaches and all the other pricey retailers, the Market has remained a place where budget travelers still feel comfortable shopping. For small-business owners of modest means, it has been the one place in Waikiki where they might have a shot.

“Now it’s just going to be another fancy, shiny, brand-new shopping center, and there’s not going to be any soft, gentle, aloha-y place left for a certain type of people who come to Hawaii,” she says. “The tourists are devastated. They’re crying, they’re so sad.”
 

As strange as it might sound to those who get hung up on the shabby exterior, the Market Place has a lot of fans. More than 2,500 of them signed an online petition to “Stop the development of Saks Fifth Ave. at the International Market Place.”

But the greatest tribute to the International Market Place in its current condition has to be its Las Vegas impersonator, the Hawaiian Marketplace. Located on the Las Vegas Strip, between the Aladdin and the MGM Grand hotels, the Hawaiian Marketplace is a forlorn little shopping mall and food court shamelessly modeled after the original. Souvenir kiosks with funny roofs? Yep. An assortment of affordable ethnic eateries? Yep. Polynesian dancers? Two shows a day. Live parrots? It’s got animatronic ones. Enormous Indian banyan tree, planted circa 1850, offering shade, soul and the occasional bird dropping? It’s got fake trees that look more like redwoods, but close enough.

Yelp reviewers describe the Hawaiian Marketplace as “trashy,” “dirty and rundown” and “definitely grungy and not the cleanest place on the Strip.” In terms of capturing the essence of the original, Vegas outdid itself once again.

 

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