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Defining Chinatown: Touring Honolulu's storied downtown district

Our tour group picks up peanut-sesame candy at a Chinatown bakery.

Just before the start of Hawaii Heritage Center’s guided walking tour of Downtown Honolulu’s 163-year-old Chinatown district, which crisscrosses the heart of this eclectic urban neighborhood and business and arts area, Karen Motosue shares a brief overview of the district’s past and present.

“They were smart,” says Motosue, of Chinatown’s founders. “They gravitated to this area because of instant commerce.”

Such business opportunities were tied to the nascent merchant area’s location near Oahu’s government and financial centers as well as Honolulu Harbor, which then served as the primary arrival site for visitors from the U.S. mainland and elsewhere.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, Chinese laborers were recruited by Hawaii’s plantation owners to work in sugar and pineapple fields. As the decades passed and thousands of workers wrapped up their labor contracts, many moved into what was then a dilapidated stretch of Oahu’s south shore rather than re-up for work in the fields.

These days, Chinatown continues to serve as a gateway or “transition zone” for immigrant groups endeavoring to make a go of it in the United States, says Motosue, who serves as vice present for the nonprofit Hawaii Heritage Center. In addition to China, many business owners and other residents of the district maintain close ties to Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Korea and other points in Southeastern Asia.

Before our morning tour group is ushered along the sidewalk-lined streets of the 27-block district for two hours of exploring, Motosue invites us to return to the Heritage Center later to peruse its gallery of artifact exhibits, photos and various news clippings. The center is a resource offering many stories of Chinatown’s multicultural immigrant population as well as the histories of Hawaii laborers from locales as far flung as Puerto Rico and Scotland to Greece, who settled elsewhere in the Islands.

For me, the Chinatown Historical & Cultural Walking Tour is an almost instant feast for the senses.

Within the first few blocks, we see buildings boasting modern and vintage architectural styles, hear snippets of curbside conversations spoken in Mandarin and Tagalog, savor the scent of awapuhi (ginger), pikake (jasmine) and plumeria flowers radiating from area lei stands, and taste sweet, chewy peanut-sesame candy from a Chinese bakery. 

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
Chinese New Year celebrations slated for Honolulu’s Chinatown Cultural & Arts District
It’s the Year of the Ox: Chinese New Year celebrations in Hawaii
Chinese New Year celebrations get under way in Honolulu’s Chinatown district this week

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