Chinatown’s Latest Revival is Putting it Back on the Map. But Will it Last?
In the year of the rooster, O‘ahu’s most authentic and vibrant neighborhood seems poised to preen, thanks to hip restaurants, hot boutiques and a tenacious arts and entertainment scene.
Dim sum and then some: Fook Lam Restaurant (left) and Downbeat Diner.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
On a Hotel Street sidewalk one morning around 11, a very tall man in his late 50s stretches up, watering can in hand, to gracefully sprinkle a potted flower hanging from the sign for a coffee bar called Manifest. Backlit by the sun, he looks like a former football player who’s found inner peace as a modern dancer in Honolulu’s original Bohemian neighborhood.
Inside Manifest, only a few seats are occupied. But, in an enclosed back courtyard space, a cluster of people is admiring and passing around a baby under a strong shaft of sun from upper-story windows. It has the feeling of a religious painting. Less Giotto, more Caravaggio, the scene is observed by Nicole Reid from a nearby table, smiling at friends and employees cooing over her baby.
“We opened Manifest during the economic downturn of 2009,” she says, speaking of the coffee/bar/art space she started with her husband, Brandon Reid, who learned bartending at Chinatown anchor Murphy’s Bar & Grill.
Hotel street’s HQ: Nicole and Brandon Reid with baby Simone outside Manifest.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino
Things weren’t so sunny in 2009, but sit in Manifest’s front window and you can wave to many of the revitalizers of Chinatown as they pass by or come in for coffee. In one 15-minute span recently, a flow of designers, musicians and artists also included Dusty Grable of Lucky Belly/Livestock Tavern; Miki Lee, tireless community advocate and manager of brand-new Bethel Union; and Bar 35 owner Dave Stewart, credited with starting the current Chinatown revival when he and Glenn Chu opened Indigo in 1993.
The tall man with the watering can? That’s Allen Stack, of the McCandless Building family. For decades, the Stacks have played a large role in Chinatown, lately through Allen, sister Lee and mother Elizabeth, during cycles down and up. They renovated buildings into shared office space way before it was cool, and maintained historic integrity with the help of tax credits.
Up is the word for a Hotel Street that seems almost shiny-bright—for all of 100 yards. The sun is strong and workers are tidying up yet another restaurant about to open in a row that owes its existence, in part, to pioneer Manifest: Encore Saloon, between already popular newcomers Fête and Brick Fire Tavern. An upscale mezcaleria, Encore comes from Cocina of Kaka‘ako owner Danny Kaaialii and serves Mexican food in a subdued interior while also sharing a courtyard with the other two restaurants. It’s a space created by leaseholder Real Office Centers, a Mainland company that rents out offices in emulation of Silicon Valley-style startup incubators.
Click on the image to enlarge the map.
Illustrations: Sergio Garzon
To anyone who has lost count of the “revival of Chinatown” stories of the past few decades, this one feels more real, less hyped. Part of that is the presence down the street of Grable and partner Jesse Cruz’s twin Chinatown cornerstones, Lucky Belly and Livestock, now joined by Tchin Tchin! Bar. Nearby on Hotel there’s Grondin French-Latin Kitchen and, on a darker and even more challenging North King Street, Andrew Le’s The Pig & The Lady shines a light. A dozen boutiques range from Echo + Atlas on Hotel to The Bungalow Hawai‘i near the fruit stalls of Maunakea Street; Sig Zane even has a Friday-only outpost.
Meanwhile, classics Little Village Noodle House and plain but popular Mei Sum, both favorites of Chinatown Chamber of Commerce president Mona Choy-Beddow, satisfy cravings for the district’s original cuisine.
Add in the presence of longtime anchors Hawai‘i Theatre, The Arts at Marks Garage, and Pegge Hopper and Louis Pohl art galleries and it’s almost possible to skip past the shopping carts and improvised bundles of the homeless people in Sun Yat Sen Park. It helps to think of them as reminders of a gritty past when Hotel was home not only to dive bars and tattoo parlors, but dime-a-dance halls and, most infamously, 15 brothels catering, during World War II, to an estimated 30,000 military and civilian war workers a day.
As of January 2016, 21 percent of Chinatown’s 2,800 residents were living below the poverty line; at least here rents are cheap. Any short walk yields hand-written signs offering rooms and jobs.
For immigrants and new arrivals, evidence of success is there to see, and to emulate. At Lee’s Bakery and Kitchen, the holiday line for pies stretches down King Street. Sisters Wendy and Eui Lee took over the 40-year-old business from their parents in 2000. “Every year it’s the same,” says Wendy of the four-hour line. “On Thanksgiving, we are open from 8 a.m. Wednesday to 5 p.m. on Thursday.”
The herbalist: Suen Hang Yee, owner of Fook Sau Tong Chinese Herbs Co., runs one of several Chinese medicine shops in the area
Word of mouth brings many to Jerry’s Jade & Gems on Maunakea Street, where for 35 years Jerry Cheng has built a reputation for the best prices for diamonds and jade, as well as for providing services like resizing rings. Lately, though, he worries. The old customers know where he is, but will the younger generation discover him?
The scarcity of parking makes it “hard for customers to just pull up when they feel like it,” he says. The close lots are always full, the cheap lots out of the way and booby trapped with uneven curbs and lumpy pavement, not to mention stingy meters.
Everybody complains about the parking.
SEE ALSO: Downtown Honolulu Parking Guide 2017
Though its physical footprint is small, Honolulu’s Chinatown is one of the best-preserved, historically and architecturally speaking, of the many that sprang up around the globe during a trading boom that kicked off in the 1600s. But, with only 1,297 of those 2,814 inhabitants identified as Chinese, it’s hardly an ethnic center—unlike New York’s Chinatown, which, fed by a stream of immigrants, has expanded.
For Eddie Flores Jr., the CEO and founder of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, Chinatown will always evoke the excitement he experienced as a 16-year-old in 1963, newly arrived from Hong Kong. The family lived on Liliha Street with a Chinese association upstairs. “From day one I was always in Chinatown and spoke fluent Chinese.” The former president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, whose building on King Street was recently named after him, never stopped coming. “I always go there, three or four times a week. I shop on Kekaulike Street, see all my friends there, talk story, reconnect with my roots.”
For others without a personal connection, Chinatown presents a rough-around-the-edges reality, haunted by its brushes with oblivion. “The historic district was one of the earliest designated districts in Hawai‘i,” says Kiersten Faulkner of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation, “but urban renewal in the early ’70s was very insensitive to context and early buildings. What we saw was large-scale demolition.”
One who fought back early was community activist Nancy Bannick, as well as the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai‘i. “It took them all working together in order to save Chinatown,” says Faulkner. “But nothing is saved forever. It takes constant vigilance and continual renewal and refreshing.”
Trained in urban planning and design, Faulkner is wary of a theme-park approach to preservation. “What we don’t want to see is a false historic look that wasn’t ever there. We can’t freeze Chinatown in time, but we’re always looking for authentic expressions, whether in building form or streetscape or architectural details.”
Some merchants, such as Taiwan-born Michael Wu of Feng Shui Arts & Gifts on Maunakea, don’t see the point of the whole teeming-exotic-historic Chinatown thing. “When I go to Shanghai or Hong Kong, I don’t see dirty streets and old buildings. I see new towers. Why can’t we have those here?” At least he’s moved up from an interior stall at Maunakea Market, where he started in 1991. “Business is a lot better now, out on the street,” he says.
Harrison Rue is in charge of upgrades, including the big one: rail and its surrounding transit-oriented development. “From a planner’s standpoint, Chinatown is a jewel,” says the city’s community building and TOD administrator (and yes, that’s his real title). “Any city in the country would be happy to have something like Chinatown in place 30 years after a rail project. It’s the original TOD. Ours has a cultural mix, it’s right next to Downtown, there’s a huge amount of housing nearby.”
In other words, Rue and the city don’t want to tear Chinatown down only to rebuild what Faulkner would call the theme-park version. Instead, Rue’s job is to bring the community together and help balance the yin with the yang.
Fortunately for preservationists, Chinatown is, well, Chinatown. Large developers have shied away from aggregating the 90-plus landowners, some of whom may only have a piece of a 100-square-foot slice of alley. “That would be like herding cats,” says Manifest’s Reid. Many developers large and small avoid the Chinatown hassle of obtaining permits for renovation in a historic district. Pioneers such as Reid talk of 14-month delays in approvals, which, if you’re paying rent and can’t open for business, can be a dream killer.
With rail’s funding questions overhanging transit, Rue is tackling the smaller but more immediate stuff. “We’re not waiting,” he says. “A new Bikeshare Hawai‘i system will be implemented to Waikīkī in 2017 to make Chinatown more accessible. It will help make Chinatown the place to be, to hang out after work, not just at lunchtime. At the moment, you’re not allowed to ride your bike on the River Street mall—we will tweak that.” To help the merchants, new signage is a priority (they’re calling it wayfinding, in homage to the Hōkūle‘a). “Pedestrian improvements, new wait signs, all up in early 2017, with a wayfinding app,” Rue says.
And he has a fix for parking in mind, too. “Other cities have done this with an app that tells you where the spaces are, how much they cost. We’re aiming for this year. We think we can do it in-house, without consultant money.”
But, make no mistake, all eyes are on the prize: redevelopment fueled by the new rail line. A master plan derived from community input envisions a River Street bike- and walkway running from the Nimitz Highway station to transit-oriented housing back of Beretania. Also, says Rue, “we’ve had preliminary conversations to knit together sections of the Nu‘uanu corridor from Foster Botanical Garden to College Walk and Sun Yat Sen Park.”
“Street closures,” says Reid, echoing many community stakeholders who’d like to see less car traffic, more foot traffic. In fact, the idea of thousands of daily commuters walking through Chinatown on the way to work is what keeps some business owners’ hopes alive, as they struggle with a far-less-shiny daily reality.
But reality has a way of sneaking up on you in Chinatown, including the old forces that have held Chinatown back.
For example—the homeless.
“Homelessness and the issues related to it seem to go in cycles,” says Rue. “Chinatown is the place to be for a while, then the cycle turns down.”
“To crusade, to save, is not necessarily a mindset you need to have to live in this area,” says Reid, “but you do have to have a strong stomach.”
State homeless director Scott Morishige recalls that, as a child, he’d walk after school from his grandparents, who were, like the Flores family, living on Liliha Street, “through Chinatown to my father’s office downtown. A long walk, but I thought nothing of it”—because there were virtually no homeless back then.
A career in social work, including 16 years spent working with the homeless, prepared Morishige for his appointment. He’s proud that, after two years of back-to-back 12-percent increases, the rise in homelessness on O‘ahu dropped to 1 percent in 2016—while the rate for Hawai‘i still rose 4 percent.
Morishige knows there is a solution for the persistently troubled population: “If you want to end homelessness, you have to give them a home.” But he also knows that doesn’t mean a shelter bed, because shelters aren’t that effective. “We know we have vacancy rates from a third to a half at shelters every night,” a situation that costs the state money. “We pay a flat rate regardless of whether the shelter is empty or full.” (The numbers are similar across the state.)
Why are so many beds empty? Reasons vary: Most shelters don’t allow pets, require very early hours of departure and have no storage facilities for possessions. These rules have recently been tweaked. But, “due to the challenges of mental health and addiction,” many homeless have criminal records, making it harder to qualify for shelters. “With a record, the difficulty compounds,” he says. “You’re almost trapped. And so they self-select themselves out.”
Right now, Morishige says, a constellation of nonprofit and government actors are cooperating on Housing First, a national movement that puts homeless into apartments without requiring that they eliminate all drugs, alcohol or other contributory behaviors.
But even apartments don’t guarantee changes in behavior. A landlord points to the rather well-known woman in a wheelchair who frequents Hotel, Smith and Nu‘uanu streets. He swears she has a bed in transitional housing but still prefers to plant herself in the street, panhandle and watch the world go by, a puddle of urine growing beneath her wheels.
Morishige doesn’t deny the challenges. But, “I really believe in working this out in the community,” he says. “I go out with outreach workers. If you actually get to know the homeless individuals, if you meet them face to face, you think about the problem differently. I believe in keeping things on the human level.”
Chinatown’s new senator, former representative Karl Rhoads, counters: “I’m a liberal Democrat, but there has to be some sort of baseline level of behavior.” In 2004, after witnessing a homeless man urinate on a playground slide in full view of families, Rhoads proposed a bill that addressed what he thought was an obvious problem: “It made it illegal to urinate or defecate in public.” For that, and a more recent bill that would require at least 36 inches of sidewalk to remain open at all times, he’s been accused of “criminalizing homelessness,” which he strongly disputes. “What about people in wheelchairs? It’s an Americans with Disabilities Act issue for me. And, if you bust somebody for it,” he points out, “there’s an opportunity for intervention.”
Longtime outspoken resident Lynne Matusow recently stepped down from the Neighborhood Board but hasn’t lost her voice. “I’ve been here since 1988, I’ve seen the ups and downs. I remember when we didn’t have the homeless. We’ve seen bad times, but not like this.”
Anyone who has seen the police interacting with an obviously distressed person knows what a difficult and often unresolved task this can be. But for a decade there has been plenty of dissatisfaction with policing in Chinatown. “They send rookies out to learn how to write a summons by issuing jaywalking tickets to my customers,” says one small-store owner. “Meanwhile there’s a guy dealing drugs and a homeless person defecating on the street and they do nothing.”
Police reports don’t come close to capturing reality. Anyone can Google the 2015 Chinatown Action Summit and see where the action is, as reported by people with skin in the game—residents and business owners. For prostitution and drugs, head up to Smith-Beretania Park; for drugs without a side of sex, 26 trafficking spots were identified. The top three were on Pauahi Street—intersecting at Smith, Maunakea and River streets.
Policing, by itself, isn’t the solution, says Rhoads. “It’s such a small place that if you pick on a problem in one space,” pushing drug dealers from notorious street corners, “it bulges out into another space”—one that previously didn’t have a problem. He sees education, housing and more slots for prevention and rehabilitation as the keys.
Entering the year of the Rooster in 2017, Chinatown still has plenty to crow about. New events are taking root, including the family-friendly Second Saturday. Give us a parking app and a transitional housing approach that works and maybe this will be the long-anticipated revitalization that finally sticks. “I think this one is gonna last,” says J.J. Niebuhr, who, with partner Danny Dolan, opened JJ Dolan’s in 2008 and now, Bethel Union.
In the meantime, Nicole Reid of Manifest calls the neighborhood home, no matter what. “Even if it’s the drug dealer on the corner who says hello to me, the people here I see more than my family. The people here have seen me pregnant. I don’t know about the moral sense; all I know is that, in seven years, there has been only one incident when I felt a threat to my safety.”
She smiles. “Chinatown is a welcome little slice of life.”
3 Things You Didn’t Know About Chinatown
Secret Zodiac Animals Live Above Gateway Plaza
Along the Chinatown Gateway Plaza roofline, the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac look out over Chinatown. These textured bronze medallions were commissioned by the City and County from artist Jill Burkee in 1994 and have been on the lookout ever since.
Third Time’s the Charm for Wo Fat
The Wo Fat Building at the corner of North Hotel and Maunakea streets isn’t the original. That one opened in 1882 and burned down in the first, 1886 Chinatown fire. A second was built—and then burned down in the second, 1900 Chinatown fire. The current building was rebuilt at the new, present location in 1938. No open flames, please.
Proof-of-Concept for King Kamehameha V’s Royal Palace
The first building in Hawai‘i to be completely constructed using concrete blocks reinforced with iron bars is at 46 Merchant St. (today Kumu Kahua Theatre) and was built by architect J.G. Osborne in 1871. The success of this new method would be replicated the next year with King Kamehameha V’s royal palace, Ali‘iōlani Hale.
A History of Chinatown
Ancient Hawaiians build a fishpond in the area, known as Kou.
First Chinese arrive in Hawai‘i as crewmen on trading ships
Chinese laborers come to Hawai‘i to work on sugar plantations.
After their plantation contracts end, Chinese workers move into business.
Fire breaks out in a restaurant on the corner of Smith and North Hotel streets and burns for three days over eight blocks.
A fire set deliberately to control the bubonic plague gets out of control and decimates the area for the second time.
O‘ahu Market, Honolulu’s oldest outdoor market, opens.
Hawai‘i Theatre constructed.
Smith’s Union Bar opens on Hotel Street.
Chinatown becomes a sanctioned red-light district.
Norman Collins, better known as Sailor Jerry, opens a tattoo shop on Hotel Street. He shuts it down in the 1950s but reopens it at 1033 Smith St., its current location, in the 1960s.
Chinatown designated a National Historic District.
Maunakea Marketplace and Kekaulike Mall built.
Hawai‘i Theatre restored and reopened.
Club Hubba Hubba closes.
First Friday begins.
Wo Fat Restaurant closes.
Lin’s Lei Shop
From Pakalana —April to September—to delicate fuchsia akulikuli lei, Lin’s Lei Shop will match the flower to the special occasion. That’s why people drive from all over O‘ahu to the Maunakea Street store. Loretta Le (above) acquired the shop in 1988 and kept the name and the commitment to quality and customer service. “Lin is a Chinese last name, but we’re Vietnamese,” says Lin’s manager Tony Nguyen. “My auntie didn’t want to change it because it had been around for so long.” Nguyen’s aunt—as well as his parents and brother—all work at Lin’s, stringing everything from puakenikeni to pīkake together. During graduation season, they move more than 200 lei a day. They even sew the retro 1960s-era double carnation lei. Lin’s ships as far as the East Coast, and can advise what’s banned from travel (Maunaloa, sea grape, jade flower, hala and mock orange). Friendly advice: Call a day ahead to order something special, a week ahead when you need 20 or more.
1017 Maunakea St., #A, 537-4112, linsleishop.com
Faces of Chinatown
“My grandfather owned a Chinese grocery store in Tin Can Alley, where the Chinese Cultural [Plaza] is today. He used to sell crack seed, Popsicles and canned goods, and I think it was a front for mahjong gambling! I just remember everybody going over there.”
Sandy Pohl, Owner, Louis Pohl Gallery, Co-Organizer, Creative Arts Experience + Second Saturday, 70, Nu‘uanu
“A few years ago, some people in the neighborhood told Mayor Caldwell, we need an Honorary Mayor of Chinatown. We had an inauguration and everything. So, now, when the mayor has a bill that affects Chinatown, the secretary calls me up and I’m there.”
Dr. Joe Young, Honorary Mayor of Chinatown, Dentist and Former Airline Engine Mechanic, 91, ‘Āina Haina
“There are actually two Chinatowns, maybe three. One starts at 4 a.m. with the markets. Open most of the day, they shut by 5 p.m. Other businesses open at noon and they stay open until later—the restaurants and bars. Later, around eight at night, it’s the clubs.”
Lynne Matusow, Longtime Chinatown resident
“Over the years, Chinatown has really been transformed from probably one of the worst neighborhoods in the Pacific to one of Hawai‘i’s favorite neighborhoods and that’s a tremendous achievement.”
Rich Richardson, Director, The ARTS at Marks Garage, 53, Kalihi Valley