Where You Live: Chinatown

Published On: Feb 20 2014 07:57:00 PM HST

Most great cities of the world have Chinatown's, but few today have little to do with China anymore. These are the districts that historically welcome immigrants.

In Honolulu, our newest residents include people from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Micronesia who are taking the same journey of assimilation paved by Pake plantation workers more than 200 years ago.

Click here for Pamela Young's report.

As their labor contracts expired, the Chinese moved to town and set up shop. Honolulu Harbor was to the south, Nu'uanu stream to the west and Bethel Street to the east. To the north they found themselves neighbors to Spanish grape growers around the boulevard we now call Vineyard.

The families prospered, but their upward mobility was stopped dead by rats. The rats brought fleas, the fleas brought bubonic plague and the plague prompted the city to start a fire that quickly got out of control.

"Two generations, they were built up their businesses. They lost their businesses. They lost their homes. They lost everything they worked so hard to build up," said Karen Motosue of the Hawaii Heritage Center.

The fire raged for 17 days, destroying 38 acres of Honolulu, but the Chinese rebuilt, this time in stone.

World War II brought a change of identity. There was a red light district where soldiers and sailors could have a good time.

30 years later Mayor Frank Fasi, then Jeremy Harris, had launched revitalization projects putting in new sidewalks and signs.

"It is all part of the revitalization plan to make Chinatown a place where people can live, where they can work and where visitors and our residents can come and enjoy great restaurants -- great shops. It's a revitalized place," said Harris.

But the spanky new image was tarnished by chronic problems: vandalism, the homeless, and crime.

"There's a lot of homeless people in the area. Whenever you have a high density of homeless, these things are bound to happen," said Chinatown resident Stanford Yuen.

Then it was time for a new identity, once again. You can see this new look, this new energy emerging every First Friday.

"There's a lot of things going on down here -- Chinatown festivals, restaurants, boutiques, entrepreneurial businesses. So, there's a lot of things we want people to see, to know it's down here," said Kai Rilliet, a community volunteer.

"First Friday is the busiest time of every month. I think more and more people are having the confidence to come to Chinatown for dinner late at night. It's great for all the businesses down here in Chinatown," said Chef Rodney Uyehara of HASR Bistro.

Now in its ninth year, First Friday re-branded Chinatown as the art district.

"It's just an awesome phenomenon that people want to meet their friends here and take off into the evening at an art gallery," said Rich Richardson of the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts.

"Chinatown is the heart of Honolulu. Coming down, getting together, feeling the vibe and unity of the people here in Honolulu -- there's nothing better," said Melanie Rulnick, an event coordinator.

So how do we define Chinatown today? It's a place for the aged and ageless, for the traditional and the trendy. One thing that has never changed is this neighborhood's ability to evolve and make the moves necessary to meet its economic and social challenges.

"Back in the past, Chinatown had a bad stigma and reputation, and we're trying to turn that around and make everyone feel welcome down here," said James Siemons, a Chinatown resident.

Chinatown is one of Honolulu's oldest districts. It's one of the few districts zoned residential, business, and historic.

What location should we visit next in our "Where You Live" series? Comment below or on our KITV4 Facebook page.

Chinatown 1

Chinatown: From past to present

Click here for pictures of Chinatown from past to present.


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