Honolulu’s Chinatown is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States and it has an interesting history.
The AJF and Malt thought a ramble through Tánxiāngshān (the area’s Chinese name meaning “Sandalwood Mountain”) would be interesting, so off we went.
In ancient times, before there was a town called Honolulu, there was village built on mud flats and raised coral called Kou. Nearby was Nuuanu Stream which provided the settlement of Kou with fresh water and created an estuary with rich soils and nourished a fishpond archaeologists have dated to 890 AD. Adjacent was Pukaka Heiau, an Hawaiian temple of healing dedicated to the god Lono.
Kou wasn’t a hugely popular area. In fact, Oahu’s ali`i (royalty) much preferred Waikiki.
Kou offered limited canoe landings while Waikiki enjoyed many channels through the reef for easy beaching of canoes, better surf and closer access to deep sea fishing.
Plus Waikiki was chock-a-block with maitais and semi-naked dancing girls.
Nah, just kidding about that last part.
Except for Hawaiians, Kou never caught on as a name for the area. For a spell, the harbor area was known among foreigners as “Fair Haven.” In turn, Fair Haven fell out of use by the 1820s. Honolulu became the official name of the growing town in 1825 or so, years after the arrival of foreigners began to swell the population. The name Honolulu means “sheltered bay’.
OK, now that we’ve established how Honolulu got its start, here’s where the Chinese come in…
Historians trace the arrival of the first Chinese in Hawaii to 1789 but they were not a significant social force in the islands until the 1850s.
Up to the mid- 1800s the whaling ships that arrived in Honolulu every Spring and Fall dominated Honolulu harbors’ economy.
But as whaling began to decline, sugar plantations became the main industry in the islands. Needing a source of low-cost, controllable and hard working laborers the plantations started recruiting Chinese laborers in large numbers and signing them to 5-year contracts.
When their indenture expired, many of the Chinese immigrants relocated from the plantations to Honolulu’s Chinatown to work for existing businesses or open their own. The name “Chinatown” was first used around 1870 to describe the community of primarily family-run shops.
Chinese immigration to the island kingdom climbed steadily until the political coup in 1893 that unseated Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani.
By the mid-1890s, 20% of Hawaii residents were of Chinese descent. Ever industrious. they started families, established schools, newspapers, businesses, cemeteries, temples and ancestral societies. Unlike other groups of immigrants, however, the Chinese did not assimilate well into Hawaiian culture, preferring instead to retain a separate society.
Chinatown in the late 1800s was not pretty. Just the opposite: it was filthy, devoid of sanitary constraints, a ramshackle boomtown of narrow streets, and primitive wood-framed construction. About 7,000 people of diverse ethnicities lived in jammed quarters. There were especially large numbers of Japanese who had succeeded the Chinese as imported plantation workers.
Chinatown had become the hub of organized crime, especially prostitution, a niche business that provided economic entre for new immigrants. At a time when a plantation worker made about $18 a month, Japanese prostitutes were making hundreds of dollars. Surprisingly, in 1900, over 80 percent of Honolulu prostitutes were Japanese; all of the pimps were Japanese. When I pointed this out to the AJF she feigned deafness.
Chinatown was squalor on an epic scale. It was disdained by polite society but while everyone tut-tutted about the horrible conditions, everyone also knew that Chinatown was an economic engine, pumping huge sums into the pockets of the upper classes. Disaster came in the form of the Great Chinatown Fire of 1900 which was a result of an outbreak of bubonic plague.
The plague reportedly started at the Wing Wo Tai grocery on Nuuanu Avenue when a 22-year old bookkeeper You Chong scratched idly at a flea bite allowing the contagion known as the Black Death to enter his bloodstream.
Untreated, black plague is fatal from 75 – 100 percent of the time depending on the version.
Spread by fleas on rats, the bacillus found perfect conditions to spread in Chinatown.
The bubonic plague had the potential to kill everyone in the islands; there was nowhere to run.
It has been said that next to the Pearl Harbor attack, the outbreak of plague was the greatest public-safety disaster in Hawaiian history. The government was determined to do anything to save the city — even burn it to the ground.
Within hours of doctors diagnosing You Chong, four more cases of bubonic plague were discovered in Chinatown.
The government took action: ships’ passengers were quarantined, schools were closed and disinfected, guards were posted to prevent movement in and out of Chinatown, and monies were appropriated to battle the disease.
A Portuguese band marched up and down the street playing funeral songs to a frightened populace. This was Armageddon level trouble.
After 13 people died, the Board of Health ordered structures suspected of being infected to be burned.
Residents were quickly evacuated, and a few buildings were successfully destroyed while the Honolulu Fire Department stood by. However, the fire got out of control after winds shifted, and destroyed most of the neighborhood instead.
The runaway fire burned for seventeen days and scorched 38 acres of Honolulu.
The fire campaign continued for another 31 controlled burns after the incident. The 7,000 homeless residents were housed in detention camps to maintain the quarantine until April 30. A total of 40 people died of the plague. By June, Honolulu was declared plague-free.
By the 1920s, Chinatown was back on its feet economically speaking but the Chinese population had been shrinking. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 slowed immigration from China, sugar plantations turned instead to Japanese immigrants and then later Filipinos and Portuguese sources of labor.
By the late 1930s, Chinatown had begun to decline as many of the Chinese residents moved to other areas of Honolulu to live while still keeping their businesses in the district.
During World War II, however, Chinatown enjoyed a new vitality as the “red light district” with cheek-to-cheek nightclubs, restaurants and brothels along Hotel Street with gambling parlors targeted at the military population.
After the booming war years, Chinatown fell into a long slow decline, becoming known as a hotspot for illegal activities.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of people living in Chinatown continued to drop and businesses began to suffer.
Shopping centers displaced the Chinatown markets, tourism displaced the plantation economy and, with the arrival of Statehood and jet air access, Waikiki grew as the center of Honolulu’ visitor trade.
In 1973, Honolulu’s Chinatown was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district.
As a result, the area began to revitalize and the city started to invest in Chinatown and its unique history.
Today, Chinatown Historic District is the largest area in Honolulu that reflects an architectural and historic character with a distinctive sense of time and place. While virtually everything pre-1900 was destroyed by the fire, there are secret spots where you can see a glimpse of the past.
The sidewalks, for example, are embedded with some rough looking stones which were originally ballast for clipper ships that arrived in Hawaii, left behind when the hulls were loaded up with the islands’ precious native woods of koa, sandalwood and ohia.
Rather than throw them overboard, the ballast stones were re-purposed as sidewalk pavers.
A Bank of Hawaii branch on King St. looks unassuming from the outside, but inside are teller cages framed in polished wood and a historic drawing of the Honolulu waterfront hanging on the wall.
Look carefully and you’ll see the signs of the Chinese zodiac are represented by medallions embedded into the upper perimeter of the Chinatown Gateway Plaza building and if you know where to look you can spot the Lucky Lions, marble sculptures that guard the eastern gateway to Chinatown on Hotel and Bethel streets.
By day, today’s Honolulu Chinatown is bi-polar. On the one hand the traditional open markets remain popular, especially with Asian immigrants. But it is also all about trendy start-up restaurants of all flavors. By night Chinatown is all about the clubbing scene with bars ranging from dive to swank. It’s about art gallerys and lofts.
It’s still more than bit dirty. It’s more than a little seedy. There are still plenty of rats both bipedal and quadrupedal. Interestingly, there are more Vietnamese than Chinese living in the neighborhood, a sign of the progression of immigrants through Honolulu.
But Chinatown, schizophrenic as it may be, is a unique part of urban Honolulu and a place where the Malt’s sensitive nose works overtime.