O‘ahu Walking Tour: Eat (and Explore) Your Way Through Chinatown

We try walking tours that uncover O‘ahu’s rich history and culture.
O'ahu market chinatown
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


We walk through our neighborhoods every day, but do we really know about the history and culture that shaped and molded them? I didn’t, that is, until I got a glimpse into O‘ahu’s past by trying historic walking tours in downtown Honolulu, Chinatown, Waikīkī and Hale‘iwa, all offered by established nonprofits. From old buildings, untold stories, cherished traditions and timeless architecture, these tours (plus a few extras) will give you a better sense of this place we call home. We’ll be publishing an article every Thursday in July. We started with downtown Honolulu last week. Our second stop: Chinatown.


SEE ALSO: O‘ahu Walking Tour: Explore Downtown Honolulu’s Most Famous Buildings


When you step into the Hawai‘i Heritage Center’s office on Smith Street, a hodgepodge of old and new greets you. There’s the colorful lion dance costumes peeking over large storyboard posters detailing the history of Chinatown and Chinese immigration to the Islands. There’s the glass case full of 30 artifacts—ceramic bottles, a book and other antiques—dug up from nearby buildings. And there’s the Chinese butterfly harps stacked delicately on a table underneath pictures of a local family who donated many of the items that fill the office. I’m told that what I don’t see are the dozens of other exhibits stored off-site (in the office of the center’s president).


Chinese butterfly harp
Photo: Jayna  Omaye


This is your introduction to the heritage center’s 2-hour Chinatown historic walking tour. Tours are run by volunteer docents (my guide was a retired DOE librarian), who have been leading groups around Chinatown for years. The center has been offering the historic walking tours since it was founded in 1980.


My tour guide and I (I was the only one signed up that day), started at the heritage center’s office and ended at the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawai‘i, a Shinto shrine on North Kukui Street. That’s about a mile walk.


We perused through O‘ahu Market, known as Honolulu’s oldest outdoor market, and Maunakea Marketplace (of course), visited Fook Sau Tong Chinese Herbs to meet owner and popular herbalist Suen Hang Yee, and many more businesses, buildings and restaurants that reflect Chinatown’s unique culture.


Chinese herbs
Suen Hang Yee of Fook Sau Tong Chinese Herbs.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


The great part of the tour is it also includes food from five Chinatown shops. The eateries and routes vary depending on your guide. The day I went, we stopped by places like Char Hung Sut, Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery (arguably one of the best dim sum bakeries, in my opinion) and Naty’s Kitchen for everything from ma tai soo to glazed banana lumpia.


There was an ease and flow that made it feel like my guide and I were more like friends walking through Chinatown and talking story (the benefits of being a tour of one). The sidewalks and streets did get pretty crowded at times, so I imagine bigger tours might need to get creative when finding places to stop and talk. My guide was open to lots of questions and had the answers to most of them (it was pretty apparent that she knew her way around a library and research books).


Some interesting tidbits from the tour: When you’re at Chinatown Gateway Plaza, look up. Surrounding the roof are black medallions of the Chinese zodiac animals. You know the pair of lions at the entrance of Chinatown on South Hotel Street? If you look closely, the lion on the left has a paw on a cub (apparently that indicates the lion is female). And the one on the right has its paw on a ball, the male. The statues were given to Honolulu by a sister city in Taiwan.


Chinatown Gateway Plaza
Chinatown Gateway Plaza
Photo: Jayna Omaye


If you want to learn more about historic Chinatown, you’re in for a treat (literally).


What You Need to Know

  • When it happens: Tours are offered every Wednesday and Friday at 9:30 a.m. No reservations are needed. You can walk in.

  • How to sign up: Call (808) 521-2749 or visit the heritage center at 1040 Smith Street

  • Cost: $30 per person

  • Tips: Remember to wear comfortable shoes and bring water. A hat or sunglasses might also be helpful for those sunny mornings

  • Parking: Marin Tower, 60 N. Nimitz Highway for 75 cents per half hour for the first two hours and $1.50 per half hour after that