Chinatown preserves immigrant lifeline
By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hin Chiu Lau left Buck Toy village in China's Zhong Shan district in 1938 seeking a better life in Hawai'i. Lau was 16 years old and alone in a foreign land when he arrived here but knew where to go for help.
"In Chinatown, they always give you a job," said Lau, a real estate broker who celebrates his 80th birthday in August. "The store fed me, gave me a room for free and paid me $20 a month for delivering groceries. In those days, you buy one-quarter pound crack seed and they delivered to your door.
"You didn't have to be Chinese, they helped anybody. Chinatown is where you start."
Lau worked his way out of Chinatown, went into the real estate business, got married and raised a family.
His story is typical for Chinatown, the Hawai'i historic area of 34 acres extending from Nu'uanu Avenue to River Street and North Kukui Street to Nimitz Highway.
As it was in the late 19th century and still is today, Chinatown is a stepping stone for Asian immigrants. People of Chinese descent have lived and worked in the area the longest. And although the nationality of the population has changed, Chinatown today is still very much Chinese.
Immigrants from Zhong Shan were among the first arrivals here from China in 1789. They were followed by contract laborers in 1852. By the 1880s, 75 percent of 5,000 Chinese on O'ahu were living and doing business in Chinatown.
But by 1900, the Chinese maintained businesses in Chinatown but were moving their residences toward Nu'uanu, Manoa, Diamond Head and Wai'alae-Kahala. The first-generation goal was achieved when the second generation attained "the better life."
"I've seen the cycle repeated over and over," said Bob Gerell, a real estate investor and property manager in Chinatown since 1976. "In the old days, the owner of a building was also a shopkeeper. His family took in new immigrants, housed them on the second floor and took care of them. But once his children finished school and became doctors or lawyers, the family moved out (of Chinatown)."
Chinatown became a cultural lifeline where the old ways are preserved by new immigrants.
"The immigrants work hard to better themselves and move out," said Sun Hung "Sunny" Wong, an 82-year-old Palama native who helped organize the Chinatown Merchants Association in 1977 after his retirement from the Pearl Harbor Supply Center. "New immigrants come in and Chinatown history repeats itself."
Today, there are over 200 businesses in Chinatown, according to the Chinese Merchants Association.
There's no data to determine the actual number of Chinese in Chinatown, but there may be more ethnic Chinese than people think, according to Wong.
For example, at Nhung's Market, Sang Nguyen answered an elderly Chinese woman's question about vegetables in her native tongue. A Vietnamese speaking Cantonese is not unusual in Chinatown.
"We have two kinds of people in Chinatown now," Wong noted. "Some, like the Vietnamese, are Chinese in origin but come from a country that's not China. They speak the same language. They are Chinese Vietnamese. It is like saying Japanese American or Chinese American."
But Chinatown is home to other ethnic immigrants, such as Filipinos, Wong said.
"Chinatown has always been the only place in Hawai'i that welcomes anyone," he said. "We even accept the homeless. In 10-15 years, all the immigrants here now will have moved out."
Chinatown street-front space rents for between $2.50 and $4 per square foot, said Gerell.
"Chinatown is the greatest microcosm of entrepreneurship in the state of Hawai'i," Gerell said. "We try to make it easy for a small business person to open a business."
Still, Wong and others want to keep alive the Chinese heritage.
Hanging on to heritage
"Chinatown is not the buildings, it's what people are doing inside the buildings," Wong said. "If we don't expose the Chinese way of life, it will be harder for the next generation to remember things Chinese. We not trying to hang on to tradition, we are hanging on to heritage.
"Tradition can change, heritage cannot because it has to come from inside."
Ching Ming, the annual April Chinese celebration to honor dead ancestors, is considered heritage, while not marrying someone of a different race is an example of a family's tradition that has changed, observed Wong.
"Heritage is the value of how you do things," said Danny Wong, 74, who is not related to Sunny Wong but is also a member of the Chinatown Merchants Association. "If your heart is not in it, it's not the same."
Lau, the immigrant who first came here at age 16, said his heritage has been absorbed into a mixed cultural bag that reflects American and local ways.
"I try to preserve what is Chinese in my family but I'm fighting a losing battle," said Lau, the father of three adult daughters. "For Chinese New Year, I go down to Chinatown and buy the narcissus flower and calligraphy for my daughters because they won't do it. The minute I die, it's finished.
"Part of it is because I married a local girl, fourth generation from Kohala, who doesn't speak Chinese. We speak English at home. Without language, it's difficult to inject culture because language is what perfects culture."
But Sunny Wong feels confident that Chinatown will retain its cultural Chinese heritage, despite the changes.
"After World War II and into the '50s and '60s, Chinatown was dying," he said. "Business was bad, the buildings were dilapidated and there was crime.
"After the Korean War, we saw an influx of Korean immigrants. It got better. After the Vietnam War, we started seeing Vietnamese immigrants.
"Now, we starting to see more Chinese. That's good, too."
Reach Rod Ohira at 535-8181 or email@example.com.