The King of Chinatown
How Dave Stewart revived an ailing neighborhood with booze and six simple rules.
(page 2 of 5)
“Chinatown still had hookers in the middle of the afternoon,” recalls Stewart. “Debauchery all around us. We wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t started valet parking.”
Stewart built, literally hands-on, much of Indigo, especially the extensions, the Green Room and the Opium Den. Then he went to work giving people reasons to come. He made a deal with Skyy Vodka, new at the time, and began selling $2.75 martinis. “The place was on fire,” he says. “We sold 1,200 martinis between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.”
Stewart Rule No. 2: “The money’s in liquor. But if you’re going to sell anyone more than two drinks, you need food.”
He took the leftovers from the Indigo lunch buffet and gave them away free. “They just mobbed the food. Like locusts.”
Indigo established itself as Honolulu’s go-to spot. Still, all was not well. Over the years, Stewart was locked in continual disputes with his landlord, the Hawaii Theatre. Eventually he and Chu had a falling out over the lease. Chu, who had a cookbook in the works with the name of the restaurant on it, wanted to renew. Stewart didn’t like the terms.
In Stewart’s view, Chu and another partner simply threw him out of the business. Chu’s view differs, of course. He insists that the Hawaii Theatre would not renew if Stewart was in the mix, so he was bought out.
No matter, because, by this time, Stewart was frustrated, and not just with the lease. The landlords along Nuuanu Avenue, he says, lacked his vision of what the street could be. “They just couldn’t see what I saw.”
What could Stewart see?
Ponsonby Road, Auckland, New Zealand.
Stewart grew up in New Zealand, part of an extended family whose patriarch, Stewart’s grandfather, was a civil engineer named H.H. “Steam” Stewart. Steam Stewart designed roads, bridges and steam engines.
“My grandfather was offered the Ford and Chrysler franchises for New Zealand,” says Stewart. “If he’d taken them, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I’d be on my yacht.”
Instead, H.H. Stewart chose the Stanley Steamer dealership. Unable to cope with competition from internal combustion automobiles, Stanley Motor Co. shut down in 1924.
Dave Stewart got the yacht, anyway. On his own. Twice.
Lacking patience for school, he apprenticed as a draftsman. New Zealand began conscripting soldiers for Vietnam. While still in his teens, Stewart discovered a loophole in the law. It exempted principals in a business—so he started one. He and a friend manufactured carts for lady’s golf bags.
The business was not a roaring success, he says, but he managed to sell it stock and all for a profit, and retired at age 21. He chipped in with three friends to buy a fixer-upper yacht. After much labor and a two-year cruise through the Southwest Pacific, the friends resold the yacht at a profit.
“The spoils were considerable,” says Stewart. Considerable enough that Stewart could afford to tour Europe for a couple of years. In London, he met Mari Inui, the daughter of a Japanese writer who’d emigrated to England.
By 1977, after a brief detour in which Stewart designed North Sea oil platforms, the two were back in New Zealand.
Stewart’s family had a hard time accepting that he was going to marry Mari. Says Stewart, “They couldn’t get over having fought the Japanese in World War II. Mari wasn’t even born during the war. She’d grown up in London, anyway, she wasn’t even culturally Japanese. I told them to go to hell. Racist dolts.”