Afterthoughts: What Happened to Chinatown’s Arts District in Honolulu?
There goes the neighborhood.
It may be called the arts district of Honolulu, but it’s getting harder to find the spirit that earned Chinatown that designation.
Up until the mid-2010s, Dave Stewart, Christa Wittmier, Daniel Gray and Josh Hancock were some of the most recognizable names and faces in Chinatown, well known for their bars, performance venues and parties. But in 2020, their presence is all but gone, along with many of the places that revitalized the neighborhood in the beginning of the 21st century.
I was in college the first time I went downtown for the nightlife in the early 2010s. My friends and I grabbed a map for the First Friday Art Walk and found a ton of interesting exhibits and people when the artist lofts first opened. I went to see The Ataris perform at The Loft on the second floor of the Wo Fat Building, site of the tiniest, sweatiest mosh pit I’ve ever been in. The first time I watched Kings of Spade, one of my favorite local bands, they played to a small crowd in one of Indigo’s many rooms; after the show my friends and I headed down the hall and danced under a disco ball.
A few years later, I felt so cool and grown-up going to events at The Venue, swooning to Tavana and watching a fashion show in the large performance space next to BambuTwo. When those two venues closed and reopened as Eleven44, it was a great place for dates. Now it’s a Blank Canvas T-shirt store and a Haul2hi showroom.
I used to go to events at Downbeat Diner and Lounge, most recently finding a spot at the bar to sing my heart out at City and Chainsaw Productions’ emo parties. It’s the only place that held open mics and shows six nights a week. It went up for sale last summer, and though the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the owner hopes new management will retain the concept, there’s no guarantee that will happen.
Loading Zone Arts is gone. Thirtyninehotel. Mercury Bar. Ong King Arts Center shuttered at the end of 2019. When I started looking into what’s bringing the scene down—why all these former hot spots for gigs and performances closed only to be replaced by more restaurants and an architecture firm—there was no silver bullet, just a mix of increasing rent, owners wanting to pursue other interests and the typical issues of struggling businesses. That’s just how it happens. The Hawai‘i State Art Museum is now the most exciting place on First Friday with new exhibits, fashion shows, entertainment and shopping. It’s fun, but it doesn’t really promote niche or fringe arts the way those other venues did. And if those can’t survive in the arts district, where do they go? One woman commented on Ong King’s Facebook post announcing its closure: “Thank you for allowing me to do my open mics freely at your location. As a plus-size belly dancer it is hard to be accepted on this island for the way I look. … It will be lonely when passing through Fort Street Mall.”
Every so often there’s a communitywide question of whether Chinatown’s golden days are behind it, with the energy moving to Kaka‘ako and Ward. And every time, Chinatown fights back with some cool new endeavor. The Good Vibe Center and Sakura Loft opened recently, with spaces for poetry and dance. And the Downtown Art Center by the nonprofit Creative Arts Experience, spearheaded by longtime Chinatown champion Sandra Pohl, is ramping up at Chinatown Gateway Plaza. It may not have the same party-cool vibe as it did a decade ago, but Chinatown still has life. Here’s hoping it reclaims its title as Honolulu’s arts district in 2020.