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Defining Chinatown: Touring Honolulu's storied downtown district



“The winds shifted,” Kobayashi explains. “Then the fire burned for more than two weeks, wiping out a great part of Chinatown.”

More than 4,000 homes, occupied mostly by Chinese and Japanese residents, in the still primarily wood-constructed district were destroyed.

The area’s core was again rebuilt in the early decades of the 20th century, albeit with fewer homes than businesses. Since then, Chinatown has pushed on through various challenges: prosperity, decline, neglect and, in recent decades, energetic waves of preservation, renovation and rejuvenation.

It’s clear there remains much history to hold onto in Chinatown. Winding back toward the Heritage Center, located in the hub of the district’s lively hustle and bustle, we learn that even the worn granite-block sidewalk under our feet owns some history.

defining_Chinatown_Honolulu
An incense-infused Taoist temple is one of the Chinatown tour's tranquil stops.

“You are standing on stone that’s probably 200 years old,” says Kobayahi. “It’s ballast stone—used to weigh down empty ships that sailed here from China to pick up sandalwood.”    

In the early 1800s, King Kamehameha the Great began exporting the aromatic wood, which grew wild and plentiful on Hawai‘i’s uplands, to Asian markets, where it was prized for its herbal and medicinal values.

About four decades after these first ships arrived from China, hulls filled with the stones we stand on, came the first tenacious immigrants who would establish and, to this day, define Honolulu’s Chinatown, as well as leave their mark on Hawai‘i history.

Quite a story. Quite a tour.


Chinatown Historical & Cultural Walking Tour
Hawaii Heritage Center •1040 Smith St., Downtown Honolulu • (808) 521-2749


Photos by Chuco Townsend


(This feature was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of HAWAII Magazine.)


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