Things Fall Apart: Chinatown’s Lai Fong Building

Chinatown's Lai Fong building is still falling down.

Back in September, KHON-2 reported that the metal awning of the Lai Fong building on Nuuanu St. was falling down after being hit by a delivery truck. Fast-forward five months and not much has changed. A wood support structure has been put in place, supposedly to prevent the awning’s collapse, though you still couldn’t pay me to walk under it.

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs for a building with so much history. I plucked this interesting account from the Honolulu Culture and Arts District Association website:

Located at the edge of the 1886 Chinatown Fire, it is likely that the original building or buildings on this site burned or at least suffered    extensive damage during the conflagration. The owners of the building in the post-fire period were Manuel Paiko and his wife Domitila M. Paiko. Luckily, for the Paikos, the disastrous 1899-1900 fire came close but did not destroy their building. In 1906, a solid brick two-story building still stood on the site. Both the mauka (north) and makai (south) sections sold general merchandise, apparently the Paiko’s own business. In 1904, presumably after the death of her husband, Domitila sold the property to Herbert Austin (b.1829), the son of New England immigrant James Walker Austin (1829-1895) and Arianna (or Ariana or Amanda) Elizabeth Smith Sleeper (1829-1911), of Charleston, Massachusetts. The younger Austin was the owner for the site throughout the early part of the twentieth century, when it served as rental space for a variety of mostly Japanese tailors and general merchandise shops. The Austin descendants sold the property to Lai Fong, Inc. in 1971.

The building currently has two ground-floor tenants, including Worldwide Travel Services and Lai Fong Department Store, an antique store. According to the Chinatown Honolulu site, Lai Fong was a “picture bride from Canton who came to Hawaii and quickly established herself as a skillful dress designer. She sold bolts of fabric door to door and was soon able to open the store in the heart of Chinatown, which is still operating fifty years later. The stone sidewalk in front of the store is made from the granite blocks from China, which were used aboard ships as ballast. These blocks are scattered throughout Chinatown, and were used in the construction of a few buildings that are still standing.”

So, what’s the status of the repairs? According to Kimi Morton Chun, the interim executive director of the Honolulu Culture and Arts District Association, the building’s owner, Robert Au, had the support installed a few months ago and is currently waiting on a permit before proceeding with renovations. “As a community, we do check in with the city to see that they’re on it,” she says. “The last I heard there was a permitting issue.” Permitting issues in older historic districts, like Chinatown, are not uncommon, so no surprise there. But time is not kind to old buildings, so here’s hoping that permit comes through soon.