Looking forward to taking our high school’s Mandarin class on a tour of Chinatown in celebration of Chinese New Year. (I was able to take our @KSEdTech Team on a tour back in 2016.)
Background: I started exploring Chinatown after moving to Kakaʻako a few years ago. What started out as exercise (urban hiking) transformed into a deeper sense of “place.” It’s become my Saturday morning ritual. I believe that Chinatown has the best food in Hawaiʻi. Now I want to share my passion for the sights, sounds, (smells,) and energy of this vibrant community…
History 101: Chinese laborers arrive in the 1850s when sugar replaces whaling as the prominent industry.
Chinatown fires: In 1900, there was the bubonic plague. 7000 people were quarantined. 40 controlled fires were set by the Honolulu Fire Department. One got out of control and lasted 17 days. Only a few buildings escaped the fire and still exist today.
WWII: Chinatown becomes a red-light district… ahem.
Statehood: The tourism boom and the opening of Ala Moana Shopping Center lead to the decline of Chinatown.
Revitalization: Chinatown targeted for revitalization in the 70s by Mayor Frank Fasi.
Today: Modern Chinatown flourishes as a hub for art, cuisine, culture, and creativity.
Parking: People have the perception that Chinatown has no parking and that it is dirty. Let me dispel this by saying that there’s a whole lotta parking. In fact, street parking is free on Sundays (however, not all shops are open on Sundays.) The best parking lot is underground, beneath Smith-Beretania Park (next to the old Empress Theater.) As far as being dirty… hmm…
Currency: The best restaurants here are cash-only, have sticky menus, and no one speaks English (not even the customers.)
Public restroom: The only one is on the 2nd floor of Walmart in the Fort Street Mall.
Chinatown is bordered by Bethel & River Street, and by King & Beretania.
Let’s start the tour…
The Hawaiʻi Theatre was built in 1922 by Consolidated Amusement. It closed in the 80s, but was renovated and reopened in the 90s.
Bozo: The sign and marquee were created by sign artist “Bozo” Shigemura. He was the only one in Hawaiʻi at the time who could bend glass for the neon signs. He created the iconic signs for Wo Fat Chop Suey and Club Hubba Hubba.
The ARTS at Marks Garage is more than a parking lot. It is a gallery and creative space for local artists to collaborate.
Here is the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park at the entrance of Chinatown. Or at least this is what it used to look like before the water feature was filled in due to the homeless in the area. (Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, was educated here at Punahou and ʻIolani.)
Maunakea Marketplace is an awesome place to explore. There’s a huge food court, souvenir stands, and a great open market. You can even find old Kung Fu movies on VHS. Mickey Café has the best bubble tea drinks in Chinatown. Instead of powdered sugar, they grind fresh sugar cane.
After exiting Maunakea Marketplace, cross Hotel Street to Kekaulike Market. Here you can get a Hamachi Poke Bowl from Maguro Bros. Amazing stuff! Along Kekaulike Mall, you’ll find the Ying Leong Look Funn Factory.
Cross King Street to Oʻahu Market, the oldest market in Chinatown. You can find the freshest meats, produce, and unusual things there. I saw hanging char siu, roast duck, live crab, beef tongue, pig heads, dragon fruit, and unrecognizable organ meats. Fong’s Meat Market has the best roast pork in Chinatown.
Chinatown is a great place to try a new cuisine, buy produce, and take pics.
Chinatown has awesome sweets and desserts. The Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery on Maunakea is a landmark. I like the gin dui (black sugar) & mooncakes, and I always go home with a bag of something…
The Chinese Cultural Plaza, built in 1974, is where you’ll find all of the dim sum restaurants. Fook Lam is my favorite. (Locals tend to gravitate toward english names like Legend’s and Empress.) You’ll find the older men playing mahjong on the benches along the river.
Our tour ends here, but read on…
For noodles, my fave place is the Hong Kong Noodle House in the Chinese Cultural Plaza. I usually get the Tossed (stewed) noodle. I ordered this one with pig’s feet. Another great place is Papa’s Café on Hotel, behind the bus stop.
Chinatown has the best pizza in Hawaiʻi. Yes, pizza. Only thing, they’re all in bars. JJ Dolan’s and Bar 35 are renown for their pies.
Chinatown absolutely has the best phở in Hawai’i. No need to go to “Phở Row” on River Street. My fave shops are Saigon Vietnamese Cuisine on King Street and Huang Lan in the Chinese Cultural Plaza. Pictured above is Pho My Lan (Rice Paper) which recently closed.
Desserts! Wing’s Ice Cream has homemade flavors. This one is Raspberry with dark chocolate chip. Of course, Lee’s Bakery has the most amazing custard pies.
It’s comforting to know that there are still places that I remember from my childhood. Char Hung Sut still has my favorite manapua & pork hash. Their best item is their pepeiao.
I especially appreciate the traditional ethnic foods in Chinatown. This is the Bún bò Huế from Kim An Vietnamese Restaurant. It comes with blood cake and pig’s trotters. This is my fave bowl of soup noodle in all of Chinatown.
This is dim sum from Happy Garden (made famous by Andrew Zimmern.) The chicken feet are on the way….
Mei Sum is another good place for dim sum. A good “contemporary Chinese” restaurant is Little Village Noodle House on Smith Street.
Chinatown also has the coolest, trendiest places. The Pig & the Lady is one of my fave restaurants. I also believe that it is the “most important” restaurant in Chinatown. Love the Bánh mì sandwiches with the incredible, crunchy bread. Try the watermelon soda.
Lucky Belly is another fave. I enjoy the Bao sandwiches (pork buns) and ramen here. The co-owner is a KS graduate. They also opened Livestock Tavern across the street.
Chinatown also has a great skateboard park, antique shops, boutiques, tattoo parlors, and tons of lei stands. Chinatown is where the creatives & makers set up shop.
Festivals: The Chinese New Year Street Festival & Parade is THE event of the year. Thousands gather for this amazing celebration. Chinese New Year will be on February 16, 2018. (This year’s festival, scheduled for Saturday, February 10th has been canceled.) Chinatown also hosts First Fridays, art events, and other block parties.
Definitely my kinda place. Find me in Chinatown.
Had a blast giving our Mandarin class a tour of Chinatown. Chinese Opera, dim sum, and a whole lotta fun…