Chinatown Now


For some, it’s a bustling marketplace, full of bargains and unique items. For others, it’s an arts district that comes alive on the first Friday of every month. Some know Chinatown as home to the hippest nightlife in town, and still others mention it only to warn of drug dealers and prostitutes.

The crowd pulsates during this year’s Chinese New Year celebration. photo: courtesy Downtown Planet. “Chinatown,” drawn by Ding Quan Liu.

In fact, Chinatown is all of these things, and more. In the following pages, we’ve taken on the formidable task of cataloging the best shopping, dining, personalities and landmarks of this historic area. Even after countless hikes from Nu‘uanu Avenue to River Street and everywhere in between, we only scratched the surface of what Chinatown has to offer. After you check out what we found, we encourage you to go out and discover your own Chinatown.

Next year marks the second time Chinatown merchants and societies collaboratively celebrate the’s biggest holiday of the year—Chinese New Year. The annual festival at the Cultural Plaza spills out into the streets, with lion dances on Mauna Kea and King Streets and a Chinese New Year’s parade along Hotel Street. Also keep an eye out for the annual Narcissus Festival Pageant, held last year at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Next year’s celebrations are set for Feb. 15 and 16. If you can’t have two birthdays a year, you might as well have two New Years.

The river-side pavilions near the Chinese Cultural Plaza are popular spots for playing cards, mahjong and dominoes. photo:Karin Kovalsky

Often unseen outside of Chinese New Year’s festivities, Chinese societies remain vital community forces in Honolulu. Underneath the still surface lie more than 100 societies with busy schedules. With more than 1,000 members, See Dai Doo Society is one of Chinatown’s largest. When it started in 1905, See Dai Doo originally functioned as a resource for immigrants from the Zhong San province of China, helping people adjust to their new home and find jobs so they could bring more of their families here. Today, See Dai Doo plays a more recreational, social function. The older generation can play mahjong and bingo, while the younger generation competes in ping-pong tournaments and goes on family picnics. The society also preserves Chinese culture by celebrating holidays such as Qing Ming, the day for honoring ancestors.


photo: K. Gonzales

Sun Chong Co. has everything. Really. On a recent trip to this overflowing North King Street grocery and import store, we uncovered not only a healthy selection of familiar crack seed, but some Chinese kung fu liniment, herbal supplements, seedless licorice olives, dried scallops, salted duck leg, ginseng in bulk, jasmine tea, dried sea cucumber, essence-of-chicken drink, Tibetan goji berries and dried mackerel in a bag. If you can’t find it here, you’re not looking hard enough. 127 N. Hotel St., 537-3525.


photo: Paul Chesley

Every town needs a mayor, and Chinatown’s got one. Sun Hung “Sunny” Wong has been Chinatown’s honorary mayor for decades. The 86-year-old dedicated his time to repairing Chinatown before it was in vogue to do so. Wong began working in the community during the ’60s and ’70s, when the neighborhood was in such bad condition, “you could practically give [land] away and no one would want it,” he says. But over the years, partnerships with politicians and community members have developed the area, creating housing, community events and areas such as Maunakea Marketplace. “We always had to remember,” Wong says, “Chinatown is Chinatown, we need to help the small businesses.”


photo: Rae Huo

The calligraphy is meant to look easy, but mastering it actually took Ding Quan Liu 40 years. For the past four years, the Zhong San native has sold everything from small, photo-sized paintings to poster proportion calligraphy from his cozy shop, Classic Embroidery Art Gallery, on 52 N. Hotel St. Each work can take as little an hour to produce or as many as 40 days to finish. Prices run from the $40 Chinese Zodiac keepsake to a $9,000 watercolor painting of a white tiger. If nothing on the walls strikes your fancy, Liu is open to requests. The most popular request is the character for luck, but feel free to branch out. 52 N. Hotel St., 538-0028.

photo: Rae Huo

Finding the right combination of herbs to treat your ailments is sort of like “making a dress,” says licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist Leanne Chee. “It needs to fit the body.” Chee worked alongside her father, who opened the shop in 1972, until he retired in the early ’90s, passing the family business on to Chee. The earthy-smelling herbs, which are said to cure anything from headaches to back pain, are stored behind a counter in glass jars identified, rather cutely, by “Hello My Name Is” labels. Shelves along the back contain teas, ingredients for soups and prepackaged Chinese medicines. Acupuncture sessions last 45 minutes and cost $30. 1159 Maunakea St., 533-2498.


photo: K. Gonzales

On the recent one-year anniversary of their store, Alan Carell and Glenn Stewart, the proprietors of INTO, an upscale home furnishings and accessories boutique, raised a glass to their success, and then got right back to work. With business thriving, there’s been little time to celebrate. Carell and Stewart are constantly adding to the store’s mŽlange of hip, modern accoutrements for the home, including wall art, lamps in all shapes and sizes, colorful vases, throw pillows and small furnishings. There’s also funky, handmade jewelry, handbags and more, sourced from locales throughout the world. 40 N. Hotel St., 536-2211,

Ong King Art Center has something of a Haight-Ashbury vibe to it. The center, located in a loft space, holds various classes in the creative or healing arts, including shamanic dance and yoga, every night. Saturday nights come alive with dance concerts, reggae music and other performances, and Sundays are all about personal expression, with open mic from 8 p.m. to midnight. “Ong King is a place for up-and-coming artists, a place for sustainable art and creative risk taking,” says owner See. First classes are free, additional classes are generally about $15. 184 N. King St., 428-3233.

photo: Rae Huo

Open Space Yoga Studio co-owner and instructor Mary Bastien (seen center in photo), a native New Yorker, opened the Nu‘uanu Avenue location last November, after a year operating out of a place on Maunakea Street. For Bastien, setting up shop in Chinatown was a no-brainer. “In New York, there’s this mix of dingy, grimy, drugs and prostitution with trendy restaurants, galleries, boutiques,” she says. “When I came to Chinatown, I said, ‘I want to do yoga here.’ Everyone thought I was crazy. But what drew me to Chinatown was the diversity.” Classes for all experience levels are held Sunday through Saturday. A class costs $12. 111 Nu‘uanu Ave., Ste. 211, 232-8851,

photo: K. Gonzales

“I wouldn’t want to be in a strip mall,” says J Salon owner Joe Randazzo. “I like mixing the old architecture with the new and having lots of space.” Indeed, the salon is open and spacious, with a clean, modern look. The clientele, like the neighborhood, is diverse, ranging from twenty-something, trendy fashionistas to conservative businessmen. Even with a relatively small staff of 11, including the “guard dog,” Sally, J Salon’s business is flourishing. “I felt like there was a need for something like this here,” says Randazzo. “People are starving for something different.” Cuts range in price from $40 to $90, depending on the stylist. 1128 Nu‘uanu Ave., Ste. 103, 550-4441.


photo: Karin Kovalsky

Inside, rRed Elephant looks like any other coffeehouse—there’s a bar with a barista working the espresso machine, bags of the shop’s exclusive coffee blend, a case of pastries, a smattering of tables, for-sale art on the walls and a small stage for musical performances. But what you may not notice is the red door off to the side, which leads you into LIVE @ rRed Elephant, a recording studio/concert venue and home to Elepani Productions, the independent record label started by rRed Elephant owners Joey Wolpert and Paul Kreiling. LIVE @ rRed Elephant hosts everything from Trailer Trash Tuesdays, a mini moviefest showcasing art-house flicks, to local musicians such as John Cruz, to an avant garde talk show, “A Dark Night Live at rRed Elephant,” that’s sort of like “Lake Wobegon on acid,” says Kreiling. 1144 Bethel St., 545-2468,


photo: K. Gonzales

“Find anything you can’t live without?” These are likely the first words you’ll hear when you step into Lai Fong. The antique shop has been in on Nu‘uanu Avenue for more than 70 years, selling a hodge-podge of Asian collectibles. Whether you’re in the market for an elaborate, custom-made silk dress, a set of antique dishware or a mother of pearl wooden chest, chances are you’ll find it if you rummage around the four-room store long enough. It’s best to call ahead to schedule an appointment, and clear your schedule—you’ll want to take your time. 1118 Nu‘uanu Ave., 537-3497.


photo: K. Gonzales

In the 18 years that she’s lived on the edge of Chinatown, Lynn Matusow has watched Chinatown bloom. As chairperson of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, she’s encouraged the area’s positive transformation, working closely with the local police to chase out crime and pushing for community-building resources such as Smith-Beretania Park. “It’s really helping to create a sense of community,” Matusow says, “because you’ve got people from different buildings actually socializing with each other, and kids playing.” She says one of Chinatown’s toughest challenges at this point is shucking its old reputation.


photo: Rae Huo

The sound of the market in the morning. The mixing of cultures. The “pumping energy.” The people. For all these reasons, Takeo has kept his design studio on Nu‘uanu Avenue for more than a decade, creating gowns for pageants, celebrities and local customers. Recently, Takeo redirected his creativity onto canvas. And, as it turns out, he’s just as successful with a brush as with a needle and thread, selling out his first show this past January. His next ambition is the Fresh FACE of Nu‘uanu, an all-day community event on Oct. 14, created to celebrate all types of art in the neighborhood. “Life is experimental,” he says. “Ten years ago, not many people were here, now it’s an art district.” 1128 Nu‘uanu Ave., Suite 204, 538-6690.


Poets hold forth at reVERSES, a monthly spoken word event at Marks Garage. photos: Michael Keany


The ARTS at Marks Garage opened five years ago, and has since become a cornerstone of the burgeoning arts district. “Our vision was to take advantage of the wonderful character of the neighborhood,” says Rich Richardson, who runs the gallery. “And that, through artistic activities, more people would grow to appreciate the neighborhood, and we would be able to create an artistic ground zero to centralize artistic production.” Marks Garage puts on about 15 exhibits and more than 100 performance pieces a year, including spoken word and improv comedy by On the Spot, which takes the stage the first Saturday night of every month. 1159 Nu‘uanu Ave., 521-2903,

Sandra Pohl, the owner of Louis Pohl Gallery, which opened at its current location in 2002, remembers getting maybe 150 people when First Fridays started. These days, she barely has time to replenish the refreshments for the thousands who crowd into Chinatown on the first Friday of each month. “I still get a lot of people who say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was here,’ says Pohl. “I even had a legislator in here who was surprised at how nice the neighborhood had become. It’s become a fun place to shop, stroll and browse.” The gallery specializes in the work of local artists, such as Hans Loffel, Tamara Moan, Janice Brown and others. 1111 Nu‘uanu Ave., 521-1812,

photo: courtesy Hawai‘i National Bank

The original Hawai‘i National Bank building at 45 N. King St. Founded by real estate entrepreneur Kan Jung “K.J.” Luke in 1960, Chinatown’s most well-known bank continues today under the leadership of K.J.’s son, Warren Luke. The building was replaced in the late ’80s by Hawai‘i National Bank’s current headquarters.

The 6:30 p.m. crowd on the corner of Pauahi and Maunakea means one thing: dinner at River of Life Mission. Nearly 400 of Hawai‘i’s homeless regularly come through the Pauahi Street doors to receive a balanced meal and a clean, safe place to relax—if only for a few hours. Since 1986, the faith-based organization has been fostering relationships with the neighborhood homeless, providing hot meals three times daily, clean clothes, job training, medical and legal services and a brief chapel service for those who are interested. Local businesses, the military, community members and nearly 50 churches support River of Life Mission—donating food, clothing, money and time. “Our long term-goal is to go out of business,” says long-time River of Life employee Davi Teves, though in the meantime, the mission plans on expanding its services to provide housing and more education to our homeless. 101 N. Pauahi St., 524-7656.

photo: Karin Kovalsky

Chop, chop, chop. It’s easy not to mind the line that inevitably stretches out of char siu purveyor Nam Fong when you’ve got a show to watch: The knife-wielding men behind the glass who skillfully reduce roast pigs and ducks to delicious, bite-sized pieces. It’s a compelling, carnivorous performance, and the finished product is famously tasty. We like picking up half a roast duck and then sneaking morsels as we walk though the rest of Chinatown. Nam Fong, 1029 Maunakea St., 599-5244.

photo: Karin Kovalsky

With orchids from Thailand, carnations from Maui, pikake from Moloka‘i and ginger from O‘ahu, Cindy’s has been stringing lei in Chinatown for nearly 50 years. The local go-to shop for graduations, birthdays, bon voyage parties and other lei-giving occasions started out as a side business in Karen Lee’s grandfather’s barbershop. “The flower part of the business got bigger and bigger,” Lee says. “It’s unreal to be a part of this industry. We’re maintaining the tradition of giving lei.” 1034 Maunakea St., 536-2169.

Nothing says Chinatown like your neighborhood one-stop shop. Necklaces bearing Chinese zodiac characters, silk dresses, the requisite jade bracelets and figurines, gold dragons and smiling Buddhas of every size line up, row after row. People come from all over to peruse the potential treasure trove, from Honolulu to Australia, says Kimi’s manager, Sabrina Pham. “Before, people heard about Chinatown, but didn’t want to come down,” Pham recalls, but these days business is good. Kimi’s Maunakea Marketplace location expanded into three units and added a location across the street. 1120 Maunakea St., 524-6698.

photo: K. Gonzales
If you’ve ever wanted a belt buckle that doubles as a deadly weapon, then Bad Sushi is your place. Owner Bobbi Blackford designs Kung Fu Fashion, a line of loungewear-style clothes and accessories with a self-defense twist. Other labels to look for include trendy casual wear by Lucy Love, swimsuits by Jen Sheridan and Havaianas slippahs. The shop is also full of fun surprises: The dressing room is equipped with a black light, so you can see how your gear will look up in the club; there’s a turn-table for business partner and dee-jay Miki Maddes, and even a space for $1-per-minute chair massages. 935 River St., 221-3747,


photo: Karin Kovalsky

Local designers Rona Bennett and Lan Chung launched their women’s clothing line, Fighting Eel, in 2003. What followed was beyond their wildest dreams: The line was picked up by Barney’s New York, featured in The New York Times and Lucky Magazine and is now sold in almost 150 stores nationwide. The fashionable young women decided to open an office in Chinatown, on Hotel Street, for one simple reason: The space and the neighborhood had character. “We looked at other office spaces, but they were too much like working in an office,” says Bennett. “In L.A.’s Fashion District, a lot of the showrooms have that loft feel. We wanted something like that.” And, they note, the neighborhood is on the up-and-up, as more businesses open and events, such as First Fridays, continue to bring more people to Chinatown.


photo: courtesy Victor Giordano

Artist Pegge Hopper opened her namesake gallery in Chinatown in 1983. Today, the arts are thriving, and many credit Hopper with inspiring other artists to move into the area. Hopper studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, then worked as a designer for La Rinascente department store in Italy for two years. Many of her fashion prints have been shown at the gallery, alongside her original paintings, drawings and ceramics. This month’s exhibit features the black-and-white photography of Victor Giordano, photo at right. 1164 Nu‘uanu Ave., 524-1160.

Experiencing Chinatown is as easy as 1, 2, 3. Start your month with First Friday, where every first Friday of the month you can take an evening stroll through restaurants and galleries, drinking in live music and street entertainment. If nighttime isn’t your thing, head out on the second Saturday of the month for the aptly named Second Saturday, a family day featuring Chinatown’s culture, art and cuisine. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., you’ll find art sales and events such as the Louis Pohl Gallery’s Culinary Walking Tour of Chinatown and Next Door’s Summer Cinema Series. For a more intense look at art, bounce down to Chinatown to experience exhibits and presentations on the third Thursday of the month for—you guessed it—Third Thursdays in the Gallery.


photo: K. Gonzales

Pipe Dreams Smoke Shop specializes in handblown glass art, mostly of the “tobacco-smoking” variety. Owner Leif Hart, who is trained in the art of glass blowing, handpicks the selection, which includes whimsical, intricate glass pipes in a myriad of shapes, sizes and colors, as well as elaborate water pipes and other accessories, with prices starting around $10. It’s not all about smoking, either; there are funky, swirling glass wine stoppers your local sommelier isn’t likely to offer, glass bracelets and fragrant incenses. Stop by on First Fridays to check out the live band, River Street Collective, and partake in the free drinks, or swing by the Nu‘uanu location any day of the week to light up in the free hookah lounge. 181 N. King St., 587-7776; 1160 Nu‘uanu Ave., 585-7770.

photo: Karin Kovalsky

You could say Dave Stewart has the Midas touch. The entrepreneur has been drawing the masses into Chinatown for more than a decade, turning novelty into gold. Long before hipsters flocked to the district, Stewart opened Indigo Restaurant. The exotic indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar renowned for its intriguing cuisine, $2.75 martinis and relaxed pau hana crowd. More the import-beer-loving kind? Enter Stewart’s Bar 35. With its oversized leather sofas, dimly lit rooms and patio beer garden and menu with more than 100 beer varieties, Bar 35 caters to the downtown 20-somethings. And if that’s not enough for you, Stewart is slated to open his third venture, Du Vin, this month. The French provincial cafŽ, geared to sophisticated diners, promises a relaxed environment to munch on finger foods and sip wine. “People want to come to Chinatown,” says Stewart. “We’ve just got to give them a reason to come.”


photo: Rae Huo

Is Chinatown getting safer? “If you’re talking statistics, we don’t see a dramatic [change in] numbers,” says officer Spencer Andersen, of the Honolulu Police Department’s “weed and seed” unit. But the changes that are visible are more tangible than numbers. “You had guys flooding the streets dealing drugs,” Andersen says, recalling the Hotel Street of just a few years ago. Today, college students, downtowners and hipsters roam and bar hop on the same strip. On Aug. 5, the weed and seed unit, in partnership with local community organizations such as Marks Garage, will host the National Night Out, in which citizens patrol the streets to “take back their community through community policing and neighborhood watch,” Andersen says.


Local band Sage rock Hank’s CafŽ everything Saturday night. photo: Rae Huo

Hank’s CafŽ is a tiny, little bar with a big, ol’ personality. It gets much of its character from its owner, Hank Taufa‘asau, a former marketing executive for Reader’s Digest who left the corporate gig to focus on his art. “I opened the bar to show my art and pay the rent, because artists starve,” he says. His paintings, many depicting local scenery, Polynesian people and canoes, hang on the walls, alongside 1940s Hawaiian memorabilia, pictures of bar regulars and other assorted knick knacks. There’s live music every night, with an open-mic policy—the bar’s motto is, after all, “Come sing with us.” And now there’s more of Hank’s to love, as Taufa‘asau recently added an upstairs jazz club. 1038 Nu‘uanu Ave., 526-1410.

The only real way to experience Chinatown’s bar scene is to take it all in. photo: Lora Lamm

Nowhere is the clash between new and old Chinatown more evident than on the one-block stretch of Hotel Street between Nu‘uanu and Smith, where, on a typical Saturday night, you’ll find both the hippest hipsters and the crustiest denizens of Honolulu. Most of these nightgoers choose to ignore each other, sticking to their respective bars, which is a shame, because the only real way to experience Chinatown’s bar scene is to take it all in.

The natural starting point for a proper night out on Hotel Street is Smith’s Union Bar (19 N. Hotel St., 538-9145), Honolulu’s oldest bar and still one of its most old-school. Two-dollar beers are the rule, and the regulars are happy to welcome visitors to their dark and narrow hangout. (We managed to make a friend picking out classic ’80s tunes on the jukebox.) Just don’t expect any high-falutin’, gourmet beer.

For that, you’ll have to step over to Bar 35 (35 N. Hotel St, 537-3535), where the menu sports 120 different beers from across the globe, all $3 before 8 p.m. Bar 35 is also the spot to grab dinner, with nouveau pizzas seasoned with everything from Cantonese plum sauce to squid ink. Beware the big, black couches—they’re so comfortable you may get stuck in one all night.

But there’s more to see, so on to the next bar. Thirtynine Hotel (39 N. Hotel St., 599-2552) has a steep, narrow flight of stairs that seems a bit onerous right after a big serving of pizza and beer, but the sight of beautiful people under the light of a spinning disco ball makes it all better. Here, the focus isn’t on alcohol or food, but on socializing. Art exhibits and forward-thinking live music draw an eclectic, interesting crowd, and the outdoor lanai area feels like a roof party.

When you’re ready to dance, head next door to, um, Next Door (43 N. Hotel St, 548-6398), where you’ll find crowd-pleasing hip-hop hits, and a cavernous space that looks 100-percent rave ready. Next Door is just over a year old, but it’s already got well-worn ambiance in spades, thanks to rough, exposed brick walls, doors floating in limbo at the now-gone second-floor level and iconic wall art by subversive graphic artist Shepard Fairey.

The perfect after-party cool-off spot, though you may not think so, is Amy’s Place (49 N. Hotel St, 550-8168) (or Palace, as the regulars like to call it). We encountered old men shooting pool, enthusiastic karaoke singers and general good vibes. After the well-meaning karaoke butchers called it a night, and Willie Nelson’s “Georgia” came wafting from the jukebox, it occurred to us that there could be no better end to an evening in Chinatown. When we finally left Amy’s, everyone turned around in their seats and waved us a good night. It certainly was.

photo: Karin Kovalsky

Terry Kakazu, who grew up in Chinatown, and opened Paul & Terry’s Place, a “Cheers-style bar,” at the Chinese Cultural Center in 1989, had been considering opening a wine shop for several years, when she stumbled on the location that is now HASR in 2005. The quaint boutique, which was designed to recall Napa and Yountville wineries, is home to more than 1,000 bottles of mostly hard-to-find California varietals, as well as wines from Oregon, Washington, Spain and Australia. Additionally, HASR hosts free wine tastings every Tuesday and Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. 31 N. Pauahi St., Ste. 1B, 535-WINE.

After grabbing a couple pints and the last available bar stools at O’Toole’s, a friend exclaimed, “So this is where the haoles hang out!” So, OK, O’Toole’s doesn’t attract the most diverse crowd, but don’t let this deter you from checking out one of the most raucously fun bars in Chinatown.

It’s a laid-back, attitude-free zone, where casual dress goes, smoking stogies is encouraged (for now) and getting up to dance a jig is commonplace, especially when the Doolin’ Rakes take the stage on Saturday nights. The band’s mix of folk rock, Irish cover tunes and the occasional reggae song always gets the crowd singing, dancing and drinking. Speaking of drinks, the libations menu is what you’d expect to find at an Irish pub—beer of the dark, eat-it-for-breakfast variety (in other words, Guinness) and hard liquor. 902 Nu‘uanu Ave., 536-4138.

photo: Lora Lamm

The block containing some of Chinatown’s newest night spots is also one of its most dilapidated, with boarded up windows, creeping foliage and the iconic but battered Club Hubba Hubba sign. That’s likely to change in 2007, thanks to a $250,000 grant by the legislature to the Honolulu Culture and Arts District Association to renovate the broken-down fa?ade of the buildings on Hotel Street between Smith and Nu‘uanu. The only catch is that the building owners must match the funds to spruce up the interior and find new tenants for the empty spaces. “From what I’ve heard, the building owners are pretty excited about it,” says Ed Korybski, the association’s executive director. The fate of the actual Hubba Hubba sign is still up in the air, but we’re hoping to see it bright and glowing once again.