With the Chinese New Year around the corner, those of us here at Luxe Travel Hawai‘i thought it would be the perfect time to highlight the history of one of O‘ahu’s cultural melting pots; Honolulu’s very own Chinatown district. Situated in downtown Honolulu, Chinatown serves as today’s epicenter for diverse, Asian-infused restaurants, authentic Chinese culture, and the “hot-spot” for evenings out on the town. Please continue reading for a condensed version of Chinatown’s history. If you would like to learn more, follow this link to Honolulu Culture & Arts website dedicated to preserving Chinatown’s rich history.
Before “Chinatown” earned its name, the area was known as the “Ahupua‘a of Nu‘uanu.” The “ahupua‘a” was a system that separated the island in to sections in order to divide the land and its resources, where each was governed by a different chief. The division of resources, both of the land and of the water, allowed the communities to sustain themselves. Also within each section was sacred land, and in this particular ahupua‘a, religion ran especially strong. However, this area was considered to be too hot for many Hawaiians, so the population was small, but its proximity to water caused it to be associated primarily with fishing and marine gathering. The outrigger canoes that the Hawaiians used complimented the freshwater river that flowed through this ahupua‘a, but they were not utilized for the deep sea harbor, which became a major port for the Westerners and their ships in the early 1800’s.
The origins of an important industry in Hawai‘I began after Captain Cook’s arrival in the islands; sugar cane. Seeing the potential for growth in this business, sugar mills slowly started populating the different islands in the early 1800’s. Soon thereafter, it became one of Hawai‘i’s most important agricultural crop, and the owners wanted to produce the sugar on a much larger scale. To replenish Native Hawaiian laborers, who had died due to foreign diseases, the former missionary families, who controlled this industry, needed workers to fill the labor shortage and harvest the sugar cane. (To put this in perspective, the population had decreased to 1/6th of O‘ahu’s original size because of disease.) This was when plantation owners started importing workers from China, and subsequently from Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Between the years of 1879 and 1885, about 3,000 Chinese laborers entered Hawai‘i per year on five-year contracts. After these contracts expired, more than half of the laborers moved back to China due to low wages and expensive passages, but those who stayed became clerks, domestic workers, produce stand owners, and merchants in Honolulu, some of which sold opium and ran gambling dens. Many of the Chinese residents lived in the lowlands of Nu‘uanu and married Native Hawaiian women, thus resulting in land rights for the husbands. Once the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 halted all Chinese immigration to the islands for some time.
The growing neighborhood of residents of Chinese descent soon established itself as “Chinatown,” with more than 6,000 Chinese living in the area. Chinatown was built of one- and two-story wooden shacks, with narrow streets and poor water supply. Humans, animals, and pests all lived within the limits of this neighborhood. One night in 1886, a fire broke out and completely destroyed eight blocks. Even though the city government passed laws to only construct buildings in brink or stone and to create wider streets, no effort was made to enforce these laws, and soon thereafter, disease ran rampant. To combat the spread of disease, the city conducted “sanitary” fires to prevent further contamination, primarily of the Black Death. One fire grew out of control and burned for seventeen days. This fire became known as the Great Honolulu Chinatown Fire of 1900. The reconstruction of Chinatown looked different this time around, though. Merchants and shop owners were only rebuilding their businesses in the area and not their homes. This opened up the opportunity for other immigrants, including the Japanese, Filipinos, and Portuguese to live in the neighborhood.
Once the US annexed Hawai‘i, the islands became a safe destination for tourists to travel, as well as an opportunity for the US to establish military bases around the islands. Honolulu’s population dramatically increased during this time. The huge boom of military men caused Chinatown to become a place of gambling, drugs, and tattooing, among other activities. As the need for female companionship increased due to the high numbers of male visitors and immigrants, organized prostitution flourished around the port and lodging near the port. It was initially a regulated business, split between Chinatown and a neighboring area, and stayed that way for decades; but the end of marital law in 1944 caused the brothels and the industry to go underground. Aside from these aspects, Chinatown was also tourist-friendly, with souvenir shops and lei stands lining the streets. Because of this flow of people, entertainment was at high demand, and the number of theaters increased to accommodate and attract visitors.
As the popularity of the car, the suburbs, and the shopping mall increased in the 1960’s, the population in Chinatown declined. This caused a rise in adult films, sex shops, and gambling dens. The city, concerned by Chinatown’s reputation and safety, instituted urban renewal plans and pushed for a historic district designation, which it was awarded, along with a Chinatown Special District designation, which preserved the cultural and architectural history of Chinatown.
Unfortunately, the 1980s were hard on Chinatown as well. Homelessness, drugs, and the sex industry continued to dominate its image. The Japanese recession and the Gulf War impacted the economy negatively, overflowing on to the Chinatown revival efforts. But! The hope for Chinatown was not lost. In the mid-1990’s, restaurants, bars, and art galleries opened to attract a younger crowd. Promotional campaigns to create street festivals and encourage business owners to rehabilitate their buildings were formed. As the popularity of Chinatown grew, the late 2000s welcomed artists, musicians, architects, media firms, designers, vintage boutiques, and other creative endeavors.
Chinatown is now the home to the creative and media district of Hawai‘i. The streets are lined with elegant restaurants, little eateries, bars, and art galleries, but the culture and spirit of Chinatown continue to prevail. Looking for a lei? No problem—Chinatown lei stands have you covered. Craving pork hash, manapuas, and dim sum? Check—each can be found from favorite local restaurants. Want to hit the town? Let me answer that question with another question; which of the many bars do you want to check out?
Chinatown offers an authentic experience to the traveler looking to immerse him- or herself in to the culture and lives of the locals. It is definitely worth a visit when you come to Honolulu.