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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 23, 2001

Hawai'i Ways, Hawai'i Days
War years in 'Hell's Half Acre'

By Albert Onishi
Special to The Advertiser

Hell's Half Acre," a movie made here a long time ago, portrayed a somewhat seamy area of Honolulu. But this was the part of the city in which I grew up in the memorable and changing period just before, during and after World War II.

Our first home in that area was on College Walk, a street alongside Nu'uanu Stream near A'ala Park. We lived next to a vast empty lot on which remained the skeleton of a building that was formerly Saint Louis College, which explains the name. The street is no longer there; it's a large pedestrian mall today.

Eventually, the exotic and beautiful Toyo Theatre was build on the empty lot and although we suffered through the muck and grime of the long construction period, it was worth it in the end. ...

After a few years, we moved a few blocks away to Hall Street, which will not be found on any map today (it ran from Beretania to Kukui Street) ...

When the war with Japan broke out on Dec. 7, 1941, we were first made aware of the surprise attack by the distant sound of many explosions, followed by machine-gun fire from a Japanese warplane flying overhead. Although it was only a brief and fleeting encounter with the enemy, this was a most unusual spectacle for me to watch as a youngster and has never left my memory. ...

Although no further attacks came about, much thought and effort were spent in preparation for impending attacks. All homes were required to black out windows, and curfew was enforced with only authorized personnel allowed out at night. Gas masks were issued to everyone and evacuations to air raid shelters were practiced often. Food and other necessary items were rationed, and everyone was required to carry identification. These and other restrictions were a way of life during the war years.

It was also during the war years that many businesses flourished in Honolulu, especially ones that catered to the military that passed through or were stationed here. It was this period of time that perhaps best described the living conditions that were depicted in "Hell's Half Acre," although the area was much larger in size and the movie was made much later.

Because there was no law against prostitution at that time, there were many houses of ill repute in the A'ala, Hotel Street and Chinatown areas. The sale of illegal black-market liquor to servicemen also flourished, with some of them also beaten and robbed in back alleys. The substandard living conditions that were particular to these areas of the city also were portrayed in the movie, with some of the scenes actually filmed on location in the A'ala Street area.

The end of the war also brought an unparalleled boom to the A'ala district as elsewhere, with the night life especially enjoyed by many. Huge crowds attended Japanese movies, several dance halls sprouted and other night businesses in the area flourished.

Our family had a profitable business block-printing Hawaiian souvenirs, with all of the production done in our home on Hall Street and the souvenirs sold to servicemen from a curio store on Hotel Street. Probably no one imagined at that time that the boom and prosperity that was being enjoyed would end someday.

After a few years, however, the military gradually curtailed their activities in the Pacific and the Far East, which caused a general recession in the area and also closed down our souvenir business. ... And the city's master plan for major improvements of the A'ala district signified the end of most businesses and substandard tenement housing there.

We eventually moved away from Hall Street, and in later years, the beloved A'ala district where I lived and played finally demolished for modern housing and development. Only fond memories remain today of what was once a busy and bustling area of the city.

Albert Onishi lives in 'Aiea; a version of this essay was published in a special "Favorite Stories" edition of Reader's Digest.