Good Fortune Smiles on Chinatown in Oahu

History, culture and the arts comingle in this revitalized neighborhood
By: Marty Wentzel
Display of dim sum, Chinatown, Oahu. // © 2011 Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson
Display of dim sum, Chinatown, Oahu. // © 2011 Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

The Details

Oahu Visitors Bureau
Twenty years ago, Oahu's Chinatown drew tourists by day but, each evening, the streets cleared out. There simply wasn't anything for visitors and locals to do at night. Now, however, thanks to improvements by dedicated merchants and an injection of arts and nightlife, clients can find plenty of reasons to visit Chinatown under the stars as well as the sun.

Encompassing 15 blocks in downtown Honolulu, Chinatown got its name when Chinese immigrants who worked on Oahu's sugar plantations in the mid-19th century began opening their own businesses in the area. Eventually, it evolved into a community of merchants from many Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and Korea. That multicultural flair is one of Chinatown's unique selling points for visitors, said Paula Quon of Supreme Travel in San Francisco.

"San Francisco's Chinatown caters mostly to the Chinese and Vietnamese, while Honolulu's Chinatown is unique in its diversity," said Quon. "It's a true melting pot of the Asian community."

Quon recommends a visit to Chinatown to her clients who are shoppers, food lovers and anyone interested in local culture and arts.

Chinatown is a delightful maze of surprises. Around each corner, clients might encounter a serene temple, a vibrant dragon dance, a lively bar or a creative art gallery. Bustling markets burst with exotic delicacies such as pig heads, chicken feet and duck eggs. Retailers sell souvenirs, from jade jewelry to antique teak furnishings. Herbalists share time-honored natural remedies, while tea specialists pour steaming brews. Enhancing the ambience are mom-and-pop lei shops that tout some of the freshest floral strands on the island at some of the best prices.

Chinatown's food emporiums reflect the diverse cultures that intersect in the neighborhood. Carry-outs, casual eateries and formal restaurants satisfy an eclectic range of tastes, such as dim sum (Chinese tea lunch), pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and kimchee (spicy Korean pickled cabbage), while bakeries draw customers with almond cookies and candied fruits.

Overcoming Adversity Over Time
Flanked by downtown's modern high-rises, Chinatown's historic buildings tell decades of stories. This neighborhood has bucked the odds, including two devastating fires at the end of the 19th century. During World War II, it became a center for prostitution, burlesque and gambling clubs. In subsequent years, structures fell into disrepair and the area developed a seedy reputation.

But in recent years, public and private sectors have recognized the historical and cultural importance of Chinatown and stepped forward to revive it. One such entrepreneur was Glenn Chu, who boldly chose Chinatown as the location for his Eurasian restaurant, Indigo, which opened in 1994. Chu was drawn to Chinatown out of a sense of personal history.

"My great grandfather came to Oahu by ship in 1864, and my grandmother and mother did their shopping in Chinatown," he said.

A Center for the Arts

Chu was further motivated to open his restaurant in Chinatown because, nearby, a $30 million renovation was taking place at the Hawaii Theatre, a 1922 landmark that had been vacant for years. At the same time, Chinatown was drawing more and more visual artists who were setting up shop around the neighborhood. Today, the restored theater is a lively center for the performing arts, and the surrounding streets are teeming with galleries holding plenty of visitor appeal.

In 2001, a group called Arts at Mark's Garage was launched to further nurture the area's arts scene and encourage visitors to explore it. Today, one of its most successful projects -- First Friday -- lures thousands of people downtown for gallery browsing, live music, street entertainment, shopping and restaurant and bar hopping on the first Friday of each month.

Clearly, Oahu's Chinatown has met with good fortune while steadfastly serving as a fascinating cultural hub. Oahu Visitors Bureau travel industry sales director Stacy Martin Alford called it ìone of Oahuís most happening neighborhoods' and a "great visual history of the island."

"Each building has its own story about the evolution of Oahu," said Alford. "At the same time, Chinatown's renaissance has brought new life to the area, exemplifying the island's overall vibrancy and diverse offerings."
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