Honolulu's Chinatown enjoys a renaissance after overcoming obstacles
For a glimpse of what Honolulu looked like 100 years ago, head to Chinatown, a roughly five-block square neighborhood in the heart of the city’s downtown.
Nowhere else in the state can you find such a wide range of architectural styles as in this small area, everything from Renaissance and Florentine Gothic to Beaux Arts.
As a unique district on Hawaii’s most populated island of Oahu, it’s a must-see for tourists. And whether you’re a visitor or resident, Chinatown offers a heavenly concentration of Asian restaurants and stalls selling fresh produce, fish and meat.
The district’s businesses are now dominated by the most recent waves of immigration from Vietnam and the Philippines, but the neighborhood earned its name in the latter half of the 19th century with the influx of Chinese hired as contract workers for the sugar fields.
As those contracts ended, many Chinese established businesses or took new jobs in the area that became known as Chinatown, with roughly 5,000 Chinese living in Honolulu by 1882.
Ironically, many of the classic buildings of Chinatown exist today because of two massive fires at the end of the 19th century.
By 1886, Chinatown was a warren of one- and two-story wooden shacks that housed not just people but also animals. When a fire broke out one night that year, it quickly spread and destroyed eight blocks of the district. In response, the city government decreed that future buildings be built of brick or stone and that streets be widened.
Alas, the regulations weren’t enforced, paving the way for the Great Honolulu Chinatown Fire of 1900.
A Chinese bookkeeper had been diagnosed with bubonic plague the year before, and Chinatown was quarantined under military guard, according to a history written by the Honolulu Culture and Arts District Association.
The local board of health instituted a series of “sanitary” fires, burning down buildings it believed had been exposed to the so-called “black death.” When the winds unexpectedly changed direction during a controlled burn in January 1900, fire once again swept through the wooden buildings of Chinatown, leaving the district smoldering for 17 days and nights.
The neighborhood was reconstructed primarily as a business district — this time actually using more fire-resistant materials — because most of its former inhabitants had made homes elsewhere during rebuilding. Significantly, most of the new buildings were built of brick and stone in the early 20th century, and most stand today.
Among the notable are:
• Former New Senator Hotel, 121 No. Hotel St.: One of about 25 establishments that made up Honolulu’s red light district during the World War II era. The territory of Hawaii had established a system of controlled prostitution beginning in 1935, which more or less stayed in place until 1944 as the war was coming to a close.
A pedestrian walkway near this building was the scene location of a brawl between characters played by Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity.”
• Yokohama Specie Bank, 36 Merchant St.: A Beaux Arts-style building constructed in 1908, the Imperial Japanese Government had used this bank as its agent in Honolulu. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Alien Custodian Agency confiscated the property and liquidated its holdings.
The U.S. Army turned the basement into an ad hoc jail during World War II, and it was often used to lock up servicemembers involved in benders and brawls.
• McLean Block, 1121 Nuuanu Ave.: Built almost immediately after the 1900 fire, this Renaissance Revival-style building has housed everything from a garment factory to a bar.
Chinatown’s heyday, for good or bad, was during World War II, when a flood of soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors moved through Hawaii on their way to the war in the Pacific.
“Quick to spend military paychecks before entering combat zones, men indulged in drinking, tattoos, souvenirs, massages, penny arcades, fortune telling and prostitutes within a 10-block area of Chinatown,” according to a history of those years posted on website of the Honolulu Culture and Arts District Association. “There was a lights-out policy at sunset instituted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which increased the urgency to fit in all vice activities during the day. These factors, combined with price controls, created a common scene in WWII Chinatown — lines everywhere, and lots of them. Some bars served patrons four shots at once so they would leave quickly to make room for the next customers.”
The blend of booze, prostitutes and ink shops gave rise to the mantra of the day: “Stewed, Screwed and Tattooed.”
Today’s Chinatown is sedate by comparison, but it’s still a hubbub of activity during mornings as vendors lay out freshly caught whole fish, along with vegetables and fruits, some of which are raised on the islands. And there’s no better price for produce in Honolulu than in Chinatown.
The indoor food court at Maunakea Marketplace offers a nice selection of prepared Asian dishes, from the Korean Kitchen and Malee Thai Cuisine to Naty’s Kitchen serving Filipino food.
Most vendors close by 2 p.m., so when it comes to Chinatown, arrive early and come hungry.
Getting there: Frequent city buses travel through Chinatown on Nimitz Highway and King Street, including the number 20 from Waikiki Beach. For a complete listing see: thebus.org/Route/Routes.asp.
Parking: Metered street parking is limited. There is a municipal parking ramp with meters; entry off Nimitz Highway between Kekaulike and River streets. There is an outdoor parking lot off Nimitz Highway between Maunakea and Kekaulika streets.
For more information on history and architecture, see: chinatownhonolulu.org