Although there are Chinatowns in major cities all around the world, Honolulu’s is one of the most fascinating. The financial and political center of the state, downtown Honolulu and its colorful Chinatown boast history, high-rises, funky back alleys, a bustling harbor and some of the best Asian restaurants this side of Hong Kong. Dating back more than 150 years, soon after the first migrant laborers arrived in the Islands from Southern China, Honolulu’s Chinatown is much more than a tourist attraction. Providing invaluable services and products for Oahu’s Chinese community, as well as the recent immigrants from Vietnam and all over Southeast Asia, Chinatown is the perfect place to spend a morning or afternoon during a walking tour of historic Honolulu and its surrounding neighborhoods.
If you plan to spend more than a few hours in Chinatown, we suggest you park at one of the many municipal lots in the downtown area. Bishop Street is the main thoroughfare of Honolulu’s financial district, running parallel to Fort Street Mall, a pedestrian mall that begins your walking tour of Chinatown at the intersection of Hotel and Bishop streets.
A true exploration of Chinatown would take weeks, not hours, but anyone can get a taste of the area’s rich flavor by window shopping, stopping into several of the numerous art galleries, savoring the sights and sounds of the lively Asian markets (Oahu Market being the old-time favorite) and taking a break for a leisurely lunch (try one of the many Vietnamese pho restaurants) or a sampling of snacks on Maunakea Street (try the sesame squares). The Chinese Cultural Plaza, with a commemorative statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (the father of modern China) is another favorite spot with great restaurants and cultural happenings.
Chinatown’s character during the day and night is as different as, well, day and night, when some side streets exhibit a bit of a seamier side. On the other hand, it seems as though all of Honolulu turns out for the gala First Friday, held from 5 to 9 p.m. on the first Friday of each month. Hundreds of art fans and revelers of all ages stroll in and out of the galleries, bars and restaurants that populate the area, centered around Nuuanu Avenue. The evening features opening receptions, refreshments and live entertainment.
As you make your way around Chinatown, on a tour or on your own, you may wish to sample these possibilities:
Between Beretania and Hotel streets:
JJ Dolan’s (537-4992). Honolulu’s hottest new hangout features thin-crusted pizza, a full bar (with special beers on tap) and a lively crowd. Fridays are jam-packed after work.
The Pegge Hopper Gallery (524-1160). Don’t miss the chance to view the original paintings, drawings and prints by Pegge Hopper, one of Hawaii’s best-known artists.
The ARTS at Marks Garage (521-2903). This community art center presents exhibitions and performances, distinguished as an arts-business incubator.
Fresh Café (688-8055). A hidden oasis with an eclectic mix of artists, students, musicians and creative fusion cuisine.
Hawaii Theatre (528-0506). Built in 1922 and refurbished beautifully in 1996, the historic theater, in its own words, is dedicated to “providing a broad range of entertainment, cultural and educational experiences to benefit the people and visitors of Hawaii in a facility of recognized excellence.”
Hank’s Café Honolulu (526-1410). Get a flashback glimpse of downtown Honolulu in the 1940s, with impromptu live music and fascinating characters, including artist Hank Taufaasau.
Between King Street and Nimitz Highway:
Murphy’s Bar and Grill (531-0422). Honolulu’s oldest salon is the gathering spot for downtown’s business and pau hana crowd. Lunch and dinner are served daily.
O’Tooles Pub (536-4138). This popular Irish Pub, across from Murphy’s, features live music every night.
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