Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2003

'A'ala: Gone, but not forgotten

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Asahi Furniture store was among the block of shops in 'A'ala known as 'A'ala Rengo, which means "alliance, union or organization." The shops ran along North King Street and Iwilei Road; this photo was shot from the Oahu Railway and Land Co. depot.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii

Jane Komeiji can appreciate hearing the history of life on the plantation, like anyone else. It's just that in a whole year of celebrating the Japanese immigration centennial in 1985, she just didn't hear a peep about the merchants of 'A'ala.

It bothered her, and not just a little.

"Personally, I felt left out, deprived," Komeiji said. "I didn't have any of those experiences some of my plantation friends had. I felt, 'I guess my life wasn't important.' "

It doesn't help that the bustling 'A'ala of her youth, before World War II, no longer exists; there are few physical reminders. Instead, the place name suggests drug busts and homelessness: The Institute for Human Services is nearby, and street people gather in 'A'ala Park, one pale remnant of the old neighborhood.

But what a neighborhood it once was. For the Japanese community here especially, it was a gateway into the Islands, a gathering place on all-too-brief weekends, and home to a thriving shopping center, the biggest one until Ala Moana drew away the crowds.

"It was a bouncing place," said Komeiji, whose mother managed Hawaii Importing Co., a dry-goods store her uncle once owned at 215 N. King St. "Now there's nothing that reminds you of the importance of the area to the early people."

Exhibit, book to debut

At a glance

• What: "A'ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawai'i," an exhibit of photos and artifacts

• When: Wednesday through Feb. 14

• Where: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i

• Cost: Free

• Information: 945-7633

Komeiji's hometown nostalgia finally has given birth to a free exhibit and a companion book (at $24.99, a benefit for the center), both making their debut Wednesday (see box).

"A'ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawai'i" is presented by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i in its gallery, where it will remain on display through Valentine's Day.

Komeiji figures the germ of the idea for an 'A'ala tribute came from the disappointment over its absence from centennial celebrations, but the planning really began in earnest about three years ago. The project is primarily her brainchild, but for research help she contacted a friend, Mike Okihiro, who is a Kane'ohe denizen but already had a book, about Japanese-American ballplayers, under his belt.

Okihiro, listed as the new book's principal author, said 'A'ala grew up around a transportation hub. Plantation laborers arrived by ship and stayed first in one of several hotels that served as way stations, offering help and stowing important papers for new arrivals, he said.

"Beretania Street had three of the larger Japanese hotels," Okihiro said. "And people from the outer islands who were going back to Japan would stay over there."

There were tenements scattered around and apartments above the stores. Some families, and many of those passing through, would use communal bathhouses, reminiscent of those in Japan, Komeiji said.

"My family had our own bathtub, but I had friends whose families used them," she said. "The men on one side, the women in the other. There would be a little hole where they could peep." Komeiji laughed. "The kids used to do that, through little knotholes."

War brings upheaval

The Aala Market, a large covered open market, was on the same block as the 'A'ala Rengo shops, but fronted Queen Street, between Iwilei Road and Nu'uanu Stream.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii

The Oahu Railway and Land Co. train depot, one of the few remaining landmarks of the area, brought in some sojourners. But most of them came by jitney or taxi, said Brian Suzuki, another of many who helped with the 'A'ala project. Taxi stands lined 'A'ala Street in those days.

"My wife remembers taking a taxi in when she was a child in those days," he said. "And later, when I got involved in this project, I found out my grandfather had a store, Moriyama Shoten, which he closed in 1921 when my mother was born."

But Suzuki's expertise with the district comes not from family ties but from his years as a film historian. 'A'ala had four theaters specializing in Japanese movies, a wildly popular diversion, he said, until Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to such imports. The community character started to change, with Japanese merchandise becoming harder to find and 'A'ala taking on the look of a garrison town.

The war brought upheaval into many lives, including Komeiji, who remembers government agents pulling out drawers in the family apartment above the store, searching for evidence of espionage for Japan.

Suspicion had been drawn down on the family for a reason that now seems bizarre: The import store had taken out a newspaper ad on Dec. 5, two days before the Japanese attack.

"The design had a cloud, and it said 'Fashions on Parade,'" she said. "They thought parade was code for 'air raid.'"

The store was part of a North King Street block of shops known as 'A'ala Rengo.

Only memories remain

The beginning of the end for 'A'ala, she said, was automobile ownership. Nobody needed a parking place when they would arrive by cab, she said, but when families started driving into town, the lack of parking deflected the shopping to Chinatown and to newly developed merchant meccas such as Ala Moana.

It's all gone now, all but the memories. Komeiji wants to see them preserved. She has noted plans for a development in the area, and heard talk about a sign going up that she takes as a slap at 'A'ala pride.

"They want to call it "the gateway to Chinatown," she said. "If they do that, I'm going to fight it. We had a unique community ... I want to interest people in the past that is no more."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.