The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Waikiki's International Market Place
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An Insider Tour
Aside from the banyan tree, there’s probably nobody left today who was more deeply embedded in the International Market Place’s golden age than Twain Newhart.
“You know that kid who grew up in the hotel because his father was the manager?” Twain asks. “That kid who ran roughshod over the place and knew every nook and cranny? I’m that kid!”
Except Twain’s dad didn’t manage a hotel, he managed the International Market Place, from 1959 until 1987. Twain, who was born in 1960, agrees to give me a tour, and he wasn’t kidding about the nooks and crannies.
He shows me where he used to sneak up on the roof of one of the Polynesian longhouses to watch the Aloha Week Parade. He points out the old tea house, now a T-shirt shop, where formal Japanese tea ceremonies were held. He estimates the locations of the amphitheater where Polynesian dancers performed, and the imu where a pig was roasted every Friday—both now covered with concrete.
He shows me Duke Kahanamoku’s nightclub, now the food court, and points out where Kahanamoku himself used to sit in his peacock chair greeting guests, and where Don Ho used to sit at his piano. He remembers the tree house dinners he attended with his father’s celebrity guests, such as Sammy Davis Jr. He recalls the smell of Donn Beach’s Cuban cigars and the pet gibbon that Beach’s wife, who wore bracelets up to her elbows, walked around with.
“It was a completely different world back then,” he says.
I follow as Twain marches past a sign that says “No Entry,” climbs a set of stairs and tries a doorknob. The door is locked. “We can’t go in right now, but on the back side of this wall, there was a giant bed,” he says, laying his outspread fingers on the wall as if touching something sacred. “A big, big bed! On the other side of the room, on the far side, there was an ofuro. A Japanese bath. You could go in and take baths!”
He moves to another spot on the wall and says: “Inside a little room behind here there was a slot machine. A nickel slot machine. I’m sure they were all totally illegal at the time. And then there was a shower right on the other side of that. Let’s see if we can go in.”
Twain tries another door, which opens, and we step into the Market Place’s management office. A big painting of Queen Emma and King Lunalilo, posing in the garden outside of The Queen’s Hospital, hangs on the wall.
“We’re just reminiscing,” Twain tells a couple of surprised office workers. “My dad used to be the manager years and years ago, and this used to be his office. There was a shower behind this wall. Is the shower still there?”
“No showers,” says a woman behind a desk.
“Can I show him the room back here, really quickly, do you mind?” Twain asks.
We march down the hallway to a big, dark room that looks like it’s mainly used for storage today. There’s no bed and no ofuro. The shower’s gone, too, and, in the little room where the slot machine used to be, there’s just a refrigerator.
Back outside, we sit on a bench that Twain says used to be a planter. I ask him how he feels about the idea that it will all be gone soon.
“You get sentimental, you get a little misty eyed,” he says. “Because it will never be the same. But you don’t want it to be the same. It can’t be the same. So tear it down, do it quickly, and rebuild something special. The next generation of kids will have no idea that this was ever here, and they need a place for their own memories.”
Save The Market
This isn't the first time the International Market Place has faced redevelopment. The first time was in 1988, and a riot nearly broke out at the state Capitol because of it.
It happened on the night the Legislature decided that the site of the Market Place would be a perfect place to build a convention center.
The Market’s merchants, faced with losing their livelihoods, roughed up a security guard, menaced a newspaper photographer and shouted death threats at lawmakers. The next day they marched through Waikiki carrying protest signs written in blood and matted human hair. Then, as now, most of the merchants were immigrants, and many had gone deeply into debt to get their spots at the Market Place. One man was so upset he threatened to set himself on fire rather than see the Market Place close.
A competing plan to build a convention center just outside of Waikiki, on a site preferred by the Honolulu City Council, ultimately prevailed. That’s why the Hawaii Convention Center is where it is today, and that’s how the International Market Place dodged its first bullet.
A second redevelopment plan came out in 2003, after the Market Place’s original owner went bankrupt, and the leaseholder, Queen Emma Land Co., took over. Queen Emma Land planned to tear down the obsolete, termite-ridden Market and build something similar in its place. The merchants, at this point, knew redevelopment was inevitable, and there was no rioting, blood letting or talk of self immolation.
But that plan fell through when Queen Emma Land—whose mission is to fund The Queen’s Medical Center, not manage fancy retail outlets—decided it didn’t really want to be in the mall business, after all. The Market Place dodged another bullet.
Today, Queen Emma Land has a partnership with Taubman Centers, a Michigan-based mall developer that has plenty of experience in upscale retail. Taubman will build, then run, the new International Market Place. And there’s no bullet dodging this time.
By 8 p.m. on Dec. 31, every cart, shop, kiosk, dive bar, hole-in-the-wall eatery and fortune-teller’s booth at the Market Place must clear out. The same goes for the tenants of the adjoining Waikiki Town Center and the neighboring Miramar hotel. Altogether about 180 tenants will be displaced. Then everything on the six-acre site will be razed, and construction will begin. The new mall is set to open in 2016.