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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 01, 2001

Wheel of change keeps Chinatown alive

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Recently in Chinatown, Wong-N-Wong Chinese Restaurant, a fixture on Maunakea Street, quietly went out of business. Down the block, at the corner of Maunakea and Hotel, Wo Fat, "The Oldest Restaurant in Hawai'i," dating back to 1882, reopened with equally little fanfare after several years of darkness.

Wing Lee lights up his incense for the Quan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) statue at the Chinese Cultural Plaza.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Even as Wo Fat was coming back to life, the China Sea Tattoo Co. on Smith, "The Oldest Tattoo Shop in Hawai'i," joined The Pantheon Tavern on Nu'uanu, "The Oldest Bar in Hawai'i," on Chinatown's extinction list.

Where Wong-N-Wong had been, there is now the Glowing Dragon Seafood Restaurant. Next door, the Chinese Cake Shop hasn't changed in four decades.

Like the aromas that waft through its narrow streets, scents that run from pungent to rank, fragrant to nostalgic, Chinatown is a blend of then and now and what will be, all working together at once.

Community in flux

Part of the appeal of Chinatown, with its quaint two-story Victorian structures built before 1930, is that it seems locked in another era. But Chinatown is a community in perpetual flux.

According to the latest U.S. Census data, the population of Chinatown has grown 23 percent in the past decade.

But it is too soon to know precisely what that means — who actually lives there — because the ethnic breakdown of the census figures won't be available until after June.

In 1990, the last time census-takers did an ethnic head count, the district's Chinese population was slightly larger than its Filipino population, which was followed by

Korean, Hawaiian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Samoan and other Asian and non-Asian inhabitants.

But that has changed. Southeast Asian merchants have established a visible presence since then, although it's not clear how many actually reside within the confines of Chinatown: the 15 blocks south of Beretania between Nu'uanu Avenue and Nu'uanu Stream.

"There used to be more Chinese businesses and people here," said Gilbert Nguyen, 54, whose family operates Cuu Long II Vietnamese restaurant at the corner of Hotel and River streets, which specializes in ph™, the classic beef noodle soup of Vietnam.

"Now, there are lots of Vietnamese businesses, but most (business owners and workers) don't actually live here, I don't think. I live up the road about a mile in Kalihi."

Ethnic diversity

There is a perception that once Chinatown consisted almost entirely of Chinese residents and businesses. Today, say some, the Chinese population of Chinatown has dwindled so much that the term "Chinatown" is a misnomer.

Neither perception is correct, contends Sun Hung Wong, 82, whose business card reads "Honorary Mayor of Chinatown," a title he has held for years.

"There was never a time when it was exclusively Chinese," said Wong, a retired accountant who has spent his life in Chinatown. "There have always been Japanese and Filipinos and Hawaiians."

Once, he said, sailors practically qualified as a category of Chinatown residents, as swabbies spent the bulk of their liberty hours in the area's bars and restaurants.

Betsy Au Lum, who operates the World Wide Tours and Travel Service on Nu'uanu, remembers those days with affection.

"I go back to horse and buggy days in Chinatown," said Au Lum, 85, who was born and raised in Chinatown. "I'm talking around 1920. But during World War II Chinatown was a fun. Everybody was busy and making money. And we had all those sailors. It's rougher here now than it was then. The sailors were rowdy, but they weren't mean."

One of the favorite hangouts for sailors during and before the war years was Smith's Union Bar, which is still going strong on Hotel Street, although the clientele has shifted to an eclectic assortment of everyday drinkers.

The bar stands between two open-air, hole-in-the-wall diners that have been around for decades in one form or another: Tug's, open 24 hours a day and recently under new management, and Benny's, which shuts down "When Ma gets tired."

Ma is Anna Asuncion, 77, a long-time Chinatown resident who, along with Benny, her son Alvin, daughter "Aunty Lyn" and granddaughter Christy operates Benny's, about as unpretentious as an eatery could get.

The pork chop, fried chicken and cheeseburger deluxe menu is as basic as the narrow, 12-seat diner. But Benny's boasts a clientele that ranges from wayfaring stragglers to Burton White, manager of the Hawai'i Theatre. Entertainer Robert Cazimero lunches at Benny's almost daily.

"Chinatown has changed a lot since the sailors used to grab you on the street," Asuncion said. "But, I was young. I didn't mind it."

Chinatown's heyday lasted until the end of WWII, say those who are old enough to remember.

"After that, you couldn't give Chinatown away," Wong said. "It practically became a ghost town."

Hardships in Chinatown

There was renewed interest during the late 1970s. Buildings were renovated and more merchants arrived. But, as the years passed, and modern life became more complicated, drugs, crime, homelessness and prostitution arrived. By the mid-1980s, Chinatown had established a dark and dangerous reputation.

Chinatown's beginnings were no more inviting. Dating back to the arrival of immigrant Chinese in the 1850s, what was known as the "Chinese Quarter" grew up around the poorest, most undesirable land in Honolulu.

That Chinatown burned to the ground in 1886, and was replaced with wooden structures and shanties that by the 1890s had become rat-infested and disease-ridden. When bubonic plague began killing residents in 1899, the Republic of Hawai'i's first order of business was to burn Chinatown to the ground for a second time.

The government claimed the total destruction of some 40 acres of Chinatown was an accident, a limited, planned fire that got out of control when the wind shifted. Most Chinese at the time didn't believe it. Many still don't.

James Ho, historian at the Hawaiian Chinese Museum on King, thinks the spreading fire was deliberately caused.

"Chinatown looks like Hiroshima," said Ho, standing beside a series of 1900 photos on his museum wall that show a charred and barren Chinatown landscape marked only by the remnants of two gutted churches.

Starting over

Ho says Chinatown as we know it today didn't really begin until well after the start of the 20th century, from between 1910 and 1920.

And although crime and drugs are still part of the fabric of Chinatown, the Honolulu Police Department says both are considerably less of a problem, largely because of the city's concerted effort to make Chinatown safer and more appealing.

That effort, which began in the early 1990s, includes improvement projects, better night lighting, on-street cameras that are monitored around the clock and police bike patrols.

Even as the city has scrubbed up Chinatown's streets, many of the seedier establishments have disappeared. In their place are an infusion of fashionable restaurants, art galleries and lounges.

Still, the neighborhood is dogged by its past.

"We're trying to fight the negative image," said Brian Uy, owner of the Havana Cabana Cigar Bar and Lounge next to Indigo Restaurant. "You know, 'There's not enough parking, it isn't safe at night,' all that. But, it really is getting better. We're about a half-step away."

Kaipo Kenney, 23, a bartender at Indigo and one of the younger crowd that is discovering the neighborhood, said, "Chinatown has changed for the better in just the four years I've been working here. I remember seeing crackheads, drug dealers and drunks walking around, and guys fighting right on the corner. Now, I don't have any worries walking down to my car when I get off work at 4 in the morning."

Chinatown has a Special District status, which means planners are obligated to keep the district's low-rise historic character in mind when making improvements or changes. That character is most noticeable in the central historic core.

But many of Chinatown's 3,056 residents live in high-rise apartment buildings just outside the core. Much of that housing is government subsidized, with rents based on how much a tenant earns. That makes living affordable for people such as Anna Asuncion, who these days lives in a small apartment at Maunakea Towers.

"It's nice," said Asuncion's daughter, Lyn, who remembers when living in Chinatown wasn't so nice.

"We've stayed in everything you can imagine in Chinatown," she said. "But, now, if you've got an income, you can afford to live in Chinatown. If you don't have an income, you're on the street."

One person who knows all about that gives his name as Jessy Lynn.

"Chinatown isn't a bad place to be homeless," said Lynn, 46, who has slept on the streets here for the past six years. "I've been arrested for vagrancy. But, nothing violent has ever happened to me. There really aren't that many of us. There are a lot more who sleep at Ala Moana Park."

But for those in a marginally higher income bracket, Chinatown's central core still has rooming houses. Those have also improved, according to Chris Larson, who has lived in more than one neighborhood rooming house during the past decade.

Larson, 46, is the resident manager at City Villa on Kekaulike, a 60-unit building that may be spartan, but it's downright spiffy compared to what it was when she arrived three years ago.

"I had to have a whip and chair," Larson said. "There were hookers and drug dealers on every floor. The plumbing was shot, the hallways were flooded and the electricity was out. It was a total dump.

"Now the place is clean and safe. And I have to give credit to Mayor Jeremy Harris. For some reason, he's adopted this part of town. We get a respectable underclass: intellectuals, misfits, retired professors and people who talk to imaginary companions. But we don't have much trouble. For $300 a month, you couldn't do better in Hawai'i."

Salvatore Lanzilotti of the Honolulu Emergency Services Department says Chinatown will continue to improve because the mayor is committed to making Chinatown an alternative to Waikiki — a second destination for residents and visitors.

'Biggest social club'

The city's role is not to dictate what the neighborhood should be, but to facilitate those things necessary to make it a better place. Lanzilotti envisions the Chinatown of the future as a place that is attractive, safe and economically vibrant at the same time that it retains its cultural identity.

The irony of Chinatown is that one of its most striking constants is change. Now history is repeating itself, says Chinatown's honorary mayor.

"In the beginning, people in Chinatown were immigrants from China who came to increase their standard of living and raise a family," Wong said. "These were people who weren't afraid of hard work.

"Then, as time passed, they raised families, bettered themselves and moved on. Now, you have new immigrants coming in from Southeast Asia who want to increase their standard of living and raise families. And they are not afraid of hard work, either. Chinatown runs in cycles."

The cycles have been about socializing, he said. Chinatown has forever been a place where friends, acquaintances and strangers of numerous races have converged daily to gossip, argue, laugh, do business, offer support, seek assistance, compare lives and stay in touch.

That's how Chinatown began. That's the way it still is. And, if the future is true to Chinatown's culture, that's the way it will be.

"Chinatown is one big social club, really," Wong said. "It's the biggest social club in Hawai'i. And, membership is free."

Will Hoover can be reached by phone at 525-8038, or by e-mail at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com