The King of Chinatown
How Dave Stewart revived an ailing neighborhood with booze and six simple rules.
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If there’s a king of the new Chinatown, he’s not Chinese.
He’s New Zealander Dave Stewart. On this particular Saturday night, the king is hiding in the alley alongside Bar 35, grilling 250 bratwurst.
He’s giving away the bratwurst to the crowd of 20- and 30-somethings who’ve stood in line to get into Bar 35’s sixth anniversary celebration.
Only a few of the 300 people here would recognize 63-year-old Stewart, with his receding hairline and eye-popping floral shirt, even though he owns the place, not to mention Du Vin, Bambu2 and The Venue, all within two Chinatown blocks.
He’s not mingling. “Take it from me,” he says. “This is the safest place. It’s madness in there.”
The music electropops from the speakers in the dark main bar, so loud that it rattles the plywood partitions in the men’s room several doors away.
Couples of assorted genders bomp together on the concrete dance floor. Others flail more or less together in abstracted groups.
For the party, Stewart has hired “that girl Serena, or Selena.”
That girl turns out to be Cyrina Hadad, who describes herself as an “avant-garde social darling.” She will, for a price, fill your party with performance art and artists. “I love working with Dave,” she says. “He is as outrageous as I am.”
“Great for us,” says Stewart. “You give her a little money and she takes care of it all, these theme things.”
Tonight’s theme is Freaky Circus Fun. There’s a ringmaster, Johnny Shaw, who stands all of 3-feet, 3-inches tall. He wanders the room accompanied by a spectrally thin, heavily tattooed model named Caleb Shinobi, who stands 9-feet tall on stilts.
The cast also includes a yogi flexing himself in impossible postures, a go-go dancer with a hula hoop, a bearded lady, a stripper in a quaint 1940s-style peepshow, and a “lion temptress” in spangly leotard, a top hat and fishnet hose.
Not only do these characters occasionally dance, or at least pose, onstage, they also star in a video that loops endlessly on the far wall.
Three minutes of this and I need a drink. I find Kelsie, the waitress, who’s complaining about the stiff corset Hadad has made her wear, though she thinks the moustaches painted on all the waitress’s faces are pretty cool.
Before I get my drink, I’m dragged onto the dance floor by two mid-30s women in pricey cocktail dresses. We don’t talk much, but I am guessing that, during the week, they have grown-up office jobs. They’ve showed up at Bar 35 to add a little avant-garde social spice to their lives.
Dave Stewart has rules.
Stewart Rule No. 1: “It’s not enough to open a place. You have to give people a reason to come.”
Dave Stewart has been giving people a reason to come to Chinatown since 1994, when he and chef Glenn Chu opened Indigo on Nuuanu Avenue.
In 1994, Chinatown was still a no-go zone at night. Even the Hawaii Theatre, Indigo’s landlord, would not open its doors until two years later.