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Defining Chinatown: Touring Honolulu's storied downtown district



Our guide, Bertrand “Bert” Kobayashi relays a steady flow of intriguing facts and figures as we amble along and drop by various busy shops.

A longtime Hawaii politician currently serving in the State House, Kobayashi grew up on Oahu. Here and there on our walk, wafting aromas of fresh-baked pastries and still-steaming char siu-stuffed dumplings prompt Kobayashi to buy bags of goodies, which he shares with us.

“Chinatown is not a place for people on a diet. Chinatown is a place for hungry people,” he quips.

By the tour’s midway point, Kobayashi has already led us through several long-established area businesses.

Among them is an acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine shop, Fook Sau Tong, where scores of apothecary drawers lining a wall behind the counter hold various Chinese herbs, and the faint scent of some unknown fragrant plant swirls in the air like incense. Its proprietor, Dr. Suen Hang Yee, has been serving residents for half a century.

defining_Chinatown_Honolulu
Tour guide Bertrand "Bert" Kobayashi relays Chinatown history.

We also duck into bustling, century-old Oahu Market, a covered, open-air patchwork of stalls where customers shop for everything from pigs’ heads and just-caught fish to crispy roast pork, various types of poke, and fruits and vegetables both familiar and exotic.

Exiting the market’s lively clamor of blades striking butcher blocks and customers chatting with vendors, our tour group treks to a nearby Shinto shrine and an incense-infused Taoist temple. The tranquil sites are situated on either side of freshwater Nuuanu Stream, which empties into Honolulu Harbor from its namesake valley a few miles mauka (inland) and serves as a boundary separating Chinatown from the warehouses of Honolulu’s industrial Iwilei district.

In the late 1880s, Chinatown’s total acreage was nearly three times as large as it is today. As we stroll by Nuuanu Stream, Kobayashi explains that the boundary changes were linked, in part, to two devastating Chinatown fires.

The first of these was an accidentally set blaze, that destroyed eight blocks of mostly wood-constructed shops, restaurants, temples and more than 7,000 homes of Chinese and Native Hawaiians over three days in 1886. The second, 14 years later, was an attempted “controlled burn” of a building, ignited by Hawaii Board of Health officials to stop the spread of an out-of-control outbreak of bubonic plague.  

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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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