America’s oldest Chinatown: A Renaissance story

How art keeps the beat going in Honolulu’s Chinatown

You could travel the world through visiting the series of Chinatowns that dot the globe.

 In any city worldwide, you are almost guaranteed to find an enduring Chinatown, each illustrative of its resident’s history and its adaptation to the present day. One of the most unique and oldest Chinatowns in America is nestled in Honolulu. The 36-acre neighborhood elucidates a history of the city’s amalgamation of cultures and integration of traditions through its eclectic architecture and diversity of stores and businesses. Businesses in the enclave range from a series of Lei, Chinese herbs, Japanese kitsch, antiques shops, and a cornucopia of gastronomic establishments that range from traditional dim sum, rice noodle rolls, to French, Cuban, and Vietnamese fusion. The community, surrounded contiguously by stretches of historic storefronts, is currently going through its own Renaissance, one that began in the 80s. At the heart of Chinatown’s revival is its strong art community.  

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The stalwart Pegge Hopper Gallery is a popular stop along the Chinatown Art Walk

Honolulu’s Chinatown has always been a bustling point in the downtown area; however, it hasn’t always been the approachable and convivial neighborhood that it is today. The long history of the area began in the 1850’s. Chinese laborers arrived at the Honolulu harbor to commence work contracts with sugar plantations on the island, settled in the neighborhood taking up residence and opening up shops. This was the crystallizing point of today’s Chinatown.  The neighborhood was afflicted with fires in 1886 and 1900, where much of the buildings were rebuilt. By the 1930s, Chinatown had reached its peak and the zeitgeist that shops now are trying to recreate and preserve. By this time the area was known as a social purlieu in the city; with its host of brothels, bars, tattoo shops-most notably that of Sailor Jerry’s, massage parlors and strip clubs, it catered to the large military population. The dawn of the Ala Moana shopping center in 1959 was the beginning of Chinatown’s decline. The neighborhood fell into a decline by the 1970’s and became a place of seedy tenement for drug dealers, prostitutes and the homeless.

The Hawaii Historic Places Review Board set the wheels in motion for Chinatown’s Renaissance in 1969 by nominating the district to be recognized on the National Register of Historical Places. The persevering district was listed on the register in 1973, and this was the point when its Renaissance began to unfold. The city of Honolulu began investing in efforts to reinvigorate the integrity of the district through preserving the historic buildings as well as encouraging small businesses to return to the shops within them. The affordable and sizeable suites that were available in the area began to draw a community of artists to Chinatown and art has been inextricably woven into the identity of the district ever since. What appears to follow the migration of an artist collective to an unwholesome, gritty, but very affordable area is the cultivation of an optimistic and engaging culture, eventually leading to gentrification.  This seems to repeat itself throughout urban centers everywhere, similar to the Upper West Side in New York City, SoMa in San Francisco in California, and Kensington Market in Toronto. Pioneering artists who set up shop in Chinatown at the onset of its Renaissance that remain standing today include The Pegge Hopper Gallery and The Louis Pohl Gallery, but many new contemporary galleries have opened since, and continue to keep the colorful culture alive.  Indisputably, progress and growth follow the heart of the art scene.  The harmonious coexistence of Honolulu’s art scene and Chinatown is what make is so idiosyncratically its own, a Chinatown unlike any other.  Today, the artist collective is widely visited through a series of stops along the Chinatown Art Walk, especially on the first Friday of every month.

Designating Honolulu’s Chinatown a National Historic Place enabled the district to revive itself, preserving a plethora of architectural styles that reflect the integrative culture of the city through its history.  The artist community became the beating heart that kept it going.  Even today, as you make your way through the maze of streets that make up Chinatown, you will find that the styles run the gamut; a harmonious collection of Gothic, Renaissance Revival, Romanesque, and Italianate- all which include a paraphrasing nod to Chinese temple motifs, making it uniquely incomparable to any other Chinatown in America or the world.

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