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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 19, 2001

Chinatown's many faces

 •  Chinatown still a hub of culture
 •  Southeast Asians bring increased influence
 •  Previous story: Wheel of change keeps Chinatown alive

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Chinatown is a kaleidoscope of residents, merchants, visitors and stragglers of varying races, backgrounds and dispositions going elbow to elbow within a 15-block area of downtown Honolulu.

Its traditional name, implying that only Chinese Americans live there, hardly represents its current reality: newer Southeast Asians immigrants are a significant force now, and Filipinos and Pacific islanders play a role as well. Nor is this a town in a true sense, but rather an urban shopping district where more people work than live.

Those who spend their days and nights along these narrow, gritty streets each have devised their own ways of relating to and coping with the hubbub of human activity. The five people featured here represent a general cross section of this community. What they have in common is that they are not occasional participants. Whether they work or live here — or both — each flows with the neighborhood's unique daily rhythm. Together, they provide a snapshot of Chinatown as it is today.

Zong Chen Liu

Zong Chen Liu spends his days at his Chinatown shop carving traditional Chinese characters into shafts of ivory, jade or soapstone.

Photos by Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

In the lobby of the once-bustling but now defunct Sea Fortune Restaurant on King Street, Zong Chen Liu is a Chinatown constant. Each day, he sits quietly in his corner nook creating chops, Chinese signature seals. Every chop is unique, rather like a fingerprint. A chop becomes the personal signature of its owner. Liu's customers use their individual chops to mark their names in bright red ink.

Liu pays $300 a month for the small space where he delicately carves traditional Chinese characters into shafts of ivory, jade or soapstone. He charges $10 a character (plus the price of the shafts, from around $30 to $90 each).

Liu says $10 was the most he ever earned in an entire month as an art teacher in China. Emigrating to Chinatown has meant a better life for him and his family.

"Zong is one of the few people who can do chops," said Hin Chiu Lau, who frequents Liu's tiny emporium. "He is a living treasure of Chinatown."

It's easy to see why Lau is impressed.

At 59, Liu is an expert in an astonishing number of Chinese art forms, including calligraphy, watercolor, painting, sculpting, framing and the nearly lost art of paper cutting.

Liu came to Honolulu from Shan Wei in 1987 with his wife, two young daughters, $40 in Chinese money and meager possessions that included a six-pound Chinese dictionary. In 1993, he became an American citizen. Both his daughters have since graduated from prestigious Mainland universities (MIT and Georgetown).

Although his material worth has increased, Liu's dictionary remains one of his cherished possessions.

"People here are forgetting the Chinese characters," he said, shaking his head as he thumbed through the pages. Sometimes customers bring him chops with incorrect characters, he says. If they aren't badly botched, he can usually fix them.

Liu also is accomplished on the erhu, or Chinese violin, a two-stringed instrument played with a horsehair bow. He keeps his instrument nearby. If he's not busy, Liu is happy to give a free performance.

Sabrina Pham

Sabrina Pham enjoys a laugh with a customer as she sells Asian artwork, jewelry and gifts at Kimi's in Maunakea Market Place, Chinatown.
Sabrina Pham belongs to Chinatown's fastest-growing segment: the Vietnamese merchant population.

"We've pretty much taken over," said Pham, who lives in Makiki. "Ten years ago, there were only a few Vietnamese restaurants. Now, there are five or six on this street alone. Ten years from now, Chinatown could be a mini-Saigon."

For three years, Pham has sold Asian artworks, jewelry and gifts at Kimi's in Maunakea Market Place, between Hotel and North Pauahi streets.

Although she was born near Saigon in 1959, she considers herself less Southeast Asian than American.

The transition to being an American woman hasn't been easy.

She was 15 when she said goodbye to her mother, friends and cousins in Vietnam and traveled to Hawai'i with her Aunty Kim Le Richardson and Richardson's two small sons. She settled into life in the Islands, graduated from Mililani High, married, became a U.S. citizen, briefly lived in Texas and gave birth to a daughter, Tina.

In Texas, she says, she was shunned by some who still had strong feelings about the Vietnam War. Her marriage to a Southeast Asian failed. A second marriage to an American also ended in divorce.

Back in Hawai'i, she moved from job to job; sold T-shirts in Waikiki, worked as a cocktail waitress at the old Sea Fortune Restaurant. For awhile, she lived in Chinatown.

"I couldn't stand it," she said. "Too noisy. You hear ambulances and trash cans and people yelling at each other."

Now she spends only her days there, running her small business. Chinatown is extremely competitive. If you fail, no one much cares, she says.

In spite of past unhappiness, Pham is a contented woman. She appreciates Hawai'i and considers herself fortunate to have a six-day-a-week Chinatown job. It beats working three different jobs seven days a week, which is how it was for her in the past.

She enjoys spending time with her 6-year-old grandson, Jaime. She has a collection of pigs (but not real ones), loves watching old movies and hasn't given up on the future.

And marriage?

"I'm not sure about that one," she said with a laugh and a shrug.

George Kurisu

George Kurisu of Aloha Antiques Row has just about any curio a person may desire, such as this unusually large 18-inch koa bowl. First-time customers are often overwhelmed at the number of items to be found.
George Kurisu is a provider of things big and small. He has just about any curio anybody might desire. If Kurisu doesn't have it, there's a chance that it never actually existed.

The number of curios Kurisu has at his place is so vast that first-time customers are often overwhelmed.

"He has everything," swears customer Patty Dilks, who said the incredible thing is that Kurisu's inventory seems to change every time she returns.

"No idea how much we have," said Kurisu, who speaks in the second person plural (ask him where he lives or his age and he'll say, "We live in 'Aina Haina," or "We're in our 50s").

"We have people get lost here."

Kurisu manages Aloha Antiques Row and the New Mahalo Mall, a consortium of shops that consume virtually the entire 'ewa side of the block between King and Nimitz on Maunakea. For 25 years, Kurisu has been a fixture on the street.

"Chinatown has changed physically," said Kurisu, 58. "They've cleaned it up. But, frankly, the homelessness here is as bad today as it has ever been."

As keeper of this maze of rooms on three levels, Kurisu puts in seven days a week (half days on Monday) sifting though an endless menagerie of items old, odd, collectible, pricey and otherwise.

He has 15-foot dragons and 300-year-old Samurai saddles; he has ancient Egyptian bowls and 1940 radios; he has vintage canes, ukuleles, fountain pens, lamps, paintings, pianos, toys and trinkets, ranging from $5 to $20,000.

"We had a human skeleton here once," he said. "It was medical. We sold it a piece at a time — the hands, the skull, the feet."

Growing up in Kaimuki, Kurisu says he never possessed a stamp, coin or butterfly collection. Hanging onto to things has no particular appeal to him. It's getting rid of stuff that intrigues him most.

"We sell anything," said Kurisu, who gets his items from other dealers, estate sales and folks who walk through the door.

If his shops have a specialty, it's Hawaiiana. That's what he sells most, he says, to residents, tourists and online customers around the world.

"Everybody likes Hawaiiana," he said, as a satisfied customer walked out the door with a vintage hula doll. "There are no negatives associated with Hawai'i. There are only positives. ... Except the bombing of Pearl Harbor."

Kristina Larssen

Kristina Larssen is something of an authority on the parade of transient figures who occupy the shadows and fringes of Chinatown's streets and who occasionally converse with invisible companions.

"My threshold for tolerating street people could not be lower," Larssen said. "They're loud, they're angry and they're on drugs. I call the police a lot."

As resident manager of City Villa rooming house on Kekaulike, Larssen runs a tight ship. She not only tends to the ever-changing flock of City Villa's lodgers, she's one herself (albeit City Villa's only long-term lodger).

For Larssen, Chinatown's most appealing characteristic is its diversity. "Within this so-called Asian community there is such a cross-section," she said. "It's a unique island experience."

Larssen's L-shaped, 200-square-foot room also is a unique experience. She has filled it with bric-a-brac, from lava lamps to crystal balls to kitty candle holders with fiery glass eyes.

"My mom was a minimalist, so I was denied," said Larssen, 46, who came to Hawai'i in the early 1980s and has lived in Chinatown for eight years. "I'm not living large."

Living diminished has its rewards. The commute from Larssen's apartment to the door of her office cage off the building's lobby is a distance of two steps.

Larssen, who quips that she forgot to get married and have kids, takes life on the edge with a dose of hard reality and a wry sense of humor. While dealing with Honolulu's wandering element can be vexing, she says she prefers it to the middle-class suburbs of Boston, where she grew up.

Her father, a drafting engineer, was the picture of moderation. Her mother sang in the kitchen and planted flowers around the house.

"Somehow, all this sickened me," she said. "I must have been a bad seed."

Larssen is more comfortable living a solitary existence and pursuing her hobbies: creating animated dancing salt shaker videos, caring for a dozen neutered Chinatown cats and investigating the occult.

When in doubt, Larssen looks to her trusty Tyco Magic 8 Ball to chart her course.

"Magic 8 Ball, is this interview a good idea?" she asked the black orb of wisdom. "It says, 'Signs point to yes.' So it ought to be OK."

Jean Angrand

Jean Angrand is not your typical Chinatown pawnbroker. By his account he's the only one who comes from Bora Bora, speaks fluent French, Spanish, English, Tahitian and Japanese, and has a master's degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University.

"It comes in handy with the social interaction," said Angrand, 40, who lives in Makiki and, when he isn't working or playing tennis, he shuns the Internet ("a waste of time"), studies Baruch Spinoza, reads Feodor Dostoyevsky and waxes philosophical: "It doesn't matter how smart or educated you are, it's what you do with the knowledge that makes the difference."

Angrand arrived in Hawai'i in 1986 and gets plenty of social interaction at his DnD Pawn shop on River Street. He watches life's parade from the ground level. In 15 years at the same location, every sort of human has stepped through his doors to part with, at least temporarily, their worldly treasures.

"You have a lot of human drama," he said. "All kinds of people come in — doctors, police officers, bums. But it's not my place to ask questions."

Back in 1989, when he headed up the Downtown River Pauahi Streets Merchants Association, Angrand described his end of Chinatown as "a war zone." Since then matters have improved greatly, he says. He credits the police department's effort to clean up the neighborhood.

"Chinatown is getting better," he said. "There's always room for improvement. There's still a lot of homelessness, but at least it's more scattered."

Angrand, a divorced father, keeps a poster behind his pawn shop that says: "The things that will destroy us are: Business without morality, politics without principle, knowledge without character, science without humanity and pleasure without conscience."

These are the words by which the pawnbroker tries to live.

"As much as I can," he said. "None of us can be perfect."

• • •

Southeast Asians bring increased influence

Contrary to what some folks may think, Honolulu's Chinatown remains very much Chinese. What's true, though, is that the Southeast Asian influence in Chinatown is fast becoming its most visible face.

Just about anyone familiar with Chinatown these days will tell you the fastest growing ethnic group there is Vietnamese.

However, knowing that and proving it are two different matters, even though that's what a comparison between the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census data seems to indicate.

In 1990, Chinatown's ethnic breakdown had Chinese as the prevalent group in the community. People who identified themselves as Vietnamese ranked sixth. The 2000 Census still shows Chinese first, but Vietnamese had surged ahead to second place. In a decade, Chinatown's Vietnamese population had tripled.

In the 2000 Census, of the neighborhood's slightly more than 3,000 residents, roughly two thirds identified themselves as Asian. That population (alone, or in combination with one or more other ethnicities) breaks down to the following: Chinese, 1,056; Vietnamese, 438; Filipino, 385; Korean, 329; Japanese, 205; and all other Asians, 95.

The head counters urge caution in making broad comparisons between the 1990 and 2000 figures, however.

The problem, according to state economist Pearl Imada Iboshi, is that in 1990 residents weren't given the option of listing themselves as multi-ethnic. That option was made available in 2000, so that comparisons between the 2000 Census figures and any previous figures have to take into account that some people who might have identified themselves as of a single ethnicity in the past now can choose to acknowledge their mixture of ethnicities.

"The change is so dramatic that it makes it very difficult to say anything specifically regarding race," said Iboshi. Iboshi says a truly accurate ethnic comparison won't be available until the 2010 Census figures are released.

Until then, the value of the 2000 Census figures is limited to providing a better indication of the multi-ethnic make-up of Chinatown.