Name Over?

Many of the world’s great cities— Vancouver, London, San Francisco, New York—have places called Chinatown. I’m proud Honolulu is one of them.


Photos by Michael Keany and Kristin Lipman

I need a favor from you. Please raise your right hand and solemnly swear that you will keep calling Chinatown ... Chinatown. Because there’s a movement afoot to rebrand part of the neighborhood with a new name: The Honolulu Culture & Arts District.

To be fair, the term Honolulu Culture & Arts District actually dates back to 1999, when an association started with the goal of reviving downtown/Chinatown. And it has enjoyed remarkable success, transforming a once-seedy neighborhood into a vibrant new place. Grants for low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs, First Friday gallery walks, a promotion of artists and art venues, changes in loft-space zoning ordinances, the renovation of the Hawaii Theatre—all these efforts have paved the way for the reawakening of Chinatown into a lively business and social scene.

The name Honolulu Culture & Arts District works fine for the name of a neighborhood organization, but lately, the name is being snuck into everyday use for the place. I’m sure this sneaky rebranding is based on the kind of concern that only an employee of the Vistitor’s Bureau could dream up. For example, I was invited to a fundraiser “in Honolulu’s Culture & Arts District.” On the Oahu Visitors Bureau Web site, there’s a writeup on an event that took place in “the Arts District in Chinatown.”

Uh-oh. Looks like we’ll have to act quickly, before the Jell-O of commonly used expressions sets too firmly. Our salvo: a bullheaded refusal to refer to the neighborhood as anything but “Chinatown.”

Because saying “Honolulu Culture & Arts District” sounds blander than unsalted butter. More generic than a Safeway cola. It’s snore pie with yawn a la mode. It’s also stating the obvious. Was SoHo renamed “New York’s Shopping Neighborhood?”

No one’s re-christening the Las Vegas strip a “Top-Free Trade Zone.” That’s because Chinatown and SoHo and Sin City sound cool. Jack Nicholson starred in a movie called Chinatown. Would he have signed on for a flick set in the underbelly of Los Angeles’s Culture & Arts District? I don’t think so.

No one in their right mind is going to turn to their officemate and say, “Hey, Ken, let’s go grab a beer in the Honolulu Culture & Arts District!” Perhaps when the Visitor’s Bureau types head to lunch, they say things like “Anyone want some pho? I’m headed over to the Honolulu Culture & Arts District—on Oahu, the Gathering Place.”

So what if the word “Chinatown” suggests what—gasp!—used to be there? The worst we’ll suffer is a flashback of scuzzy bar patrons rolling around in the streets, or the time we had to step over a pair of red panties that were lying in the gutter.

Chinatown has been Chinatown since 1870. It shook off the plague. It rose from the ashes after a fire that left 4,000 people homeless. It’s been stung by the whip of Chang Apana. It dodges the stink of fish and pig heads and very ripe bananas. Chinatown has been there, and will continue to be there, even as the Hubba Hubba sign crumbles and hipsters drink Belgian beer. Surely, it can survive the onslaught of the Visitor’s Bureau.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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