A Different Kind of Chinatown

1. Hawaii Theatre, built in 1921, is known as “The Pride of the Pacific” for its opulence and Beaux-Arts interior architecture. 2. Chinatown Cultural Plaza has some of the best Chinese restaurants on the island as well as gold and jade jewelry, custom clothing and unique gifts. 3. The L. Ah Leong Block building was built in 1909 and belonged to L. Ah Leong, an extremely wealthy self-made merchant and a founder of Chinatown. His granddaughter wrote a book called The Money Dragon based on his life.

THERE ARE JUST OVER 100 CHINATOWNS in the United States, but none compare to the Chinatown of Honolulu. While the Chinatowns of the continental U.S. were largely pioneered by Taishan immigrants, Honolulu’s Chinatown was started by early settlers from Zhongshan of Guangdong Province. Honolulu is where revolutionary Sun Yat-sen received his Western education that would lead to his role in the Revolutionary Alliance and later as the provisional president of the Republic of China. Chinatown, Honolulu also served as the base of operations in a series of crusades against ruling Qing Dynasty that culminated in the Revolution of 1911. The historical relevance of Honolulu to modern China is visible around every corner and preserved in its architectural structures.

Today, Chinatown is an upscale Asian inspired arts district blended with traditional Chinese bazaars and family owned stores. It remains Hawaii’s most exciting and mysterious neighborhood, located in downtown Honolulu, and has long been a popular gathering place for kama‘aina and visitors.

Chinatown is diverse with Pan-Asian and Pacific Islander businesses. Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean and Caucasian merchants work harmoniously side by side in markets, bakeries, Chinese porcelain shops, herbal medicine shops and more. At noon, people in the downtown business community flock to the nearby area for dim sum, or lunch at one of the delicious and inexpensive specialty restaurants.

4. Nuuanu Stream was once the water source for loi (irrigated terraces) for taro or rice in ancient Hawaii. The stream runs from the ocean into the city, lined with lava rock walls built in 1937. 5. Decades-old buildings house family-owned shops that have survived for generations.

Early Development

Chinese historians commemorate 1789 as the official arrival of the first Chinese in Hawaii. With the growth of the sugar industry came an urgent need for plantation laborers, and China was the best source of direct inexpensive labor because of its proximity and its interest in Hawaii. Chinese men were contracted for five years at $3 per month to work in the plantations. The work conditions were harsh by today’s standards, but for many were better than their home villages in China.

Between 1852 and 1876, almost 4,000 Chinese workers arrived in Hawaii, a dominating figure compared to nearly 150 Japanese and 220 South Sea Islanders. By 1882, the Chinese in Hawaii formed nearly 49% of the total plantation working force, outnumbering Caucasians.

8. The Lum Sai Ho Tong was a clubhouse that featured a temple to Tin Hau (Heavenly Queen) and was named Sai Ho Tong (West River Hall) after the members’ ancestral homelands. It only stands because it lay outside the quarantined area during the epidemic that caused the great fire of 1900—the same year the clubhouse opened.

By 1884, the Chinese population in Honolulu reached 5,000 and the number of Chinese doing plantation work declined. The Chinese were enterprising, and preferred self employment. As a group, they became essential to business in Hawaii, and 75% were concentrated in the 25 acres of downtown called Chinatown, where they built clubhouses, herb shops, restaurants, temples and retail stores.

Many clubhouses still in place today retain the original structure and furniture from their original construction, despite the two major fires that laid devastation to Chinatown.

In 1886, disaster struck when a fire raged out of control for three days, destroying the homes of 7,000 Chinese, 350 Native Hawaiians and most of Chinatown. When the flames died down, the Legislative Assembly enacted laws to regulate Chinatown’s reconstruction in accordance with fire precautions, but many new buildings were put up in violation of government rules.

However, soon after the reconstruction, an even larger fire ripped through Chinatown in 1900—a deliberate set of fires ignited by the Board of Health in an effort to wipe out the bubonic plague, which was rapidly spreading through the town.

10. The Mendonca Building at the corner of Smith and Hotel streets is a two-story Italianate-style block built in 1901, immediately following the disastrous Chinatown fire of 1899-1900. The fire drove many Chinese tenants out of Chinatown, allowing Caucasian speculators to develop buildings of worldwide architectural influences.

A Thriving Chinatown

Just 70 years after it had degenerated into a red light district, Chinatown is now the place to be any time of day, any day of the week, with boutiques, fine art galleries, nightclubs and an extensive variety of dining restaurants lining the streets from corner to corner.

Stop at the many dim sum restaurants, florists, Chinese porcelain shops, herbalists, dressmakers and more during the day, then take a walk through the galleries into the evening as the district comes alive with music, food and adventure.

Chinatown is most vibrant and festive in the weeks surrounding Chinese New Year. Click here for more about the New Year festivities.

Photos by Cliff Kimura



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