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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Chinatown cultivates an art chic

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Thousands of people converge in Chinatown on the first Friday of every month to be part of what has become a sort of renaissance for the downtown district.

First Friday ramblers have been good for business at The ARTS at Marks Garage, and for other Chinatown galleries and restaurants. "It's like our own Mardi Gras night every month," said one café owner.

Advertiser library photo

Evening of arts

First Friday: Honolulu's Downtown Gallery Walk

5-9 p.m. this Friday

Various galleries

Information: 521-2903,


Launched more than a year ago, First Friday is a monthly self-guided walking tour of downtown art galleries that has fueled an economic resurgence in a once-neglected neighborhood.

A slew of galleries, restaurants and boutiques have opened since the monthly tours started, hopeful for the reinvigoration of an area plagued with drugs and crime.

And the businesses that have survived the economic downturn are optimistic that the newly defined Chinatown district is bringing a much-needed change to the area.

"It's improved the whole area," said Hank Taufaasau, an artist and owner of Hank's Cafe Honolulu on Nu'uanu Avenue, where it's standing room only every First Friday. "It's like our own Mardi Gras night every month."

The event brings together dozens of galleries and other businesses in downtown Honolulu for a common cause: to rejuvenate the neighborhood while promoting art in the community.

"Activities like this draw crowds and tend to bring life back into an area that in the past may have seemed an undesirable place to go," said Judy Drosd, chief officer of arts, film and entertainment for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. "Just by looking at the numbers that are showing up every First Friday, that in itself has a rejuvenating effect on a neighborhood. Whether it's people buying art or buying dinner, that's still economic activity."

More than 548,000 businesses nationwide are involved in the production and delivery of America's creative industries, according to the Hawai'i Consortium for the Arts, a private, nonprofit arts service and advocacy organization. Last year, the industry employed 2.99 million people.

In Hawai'i, there are more than 1,000 arts-related businesses, employing more than 7,000 people.

Since First Friday started, sales have been up at The ARTS at Mark's Garage, the community art space on Nu'uanu Avenue that spearheaded the monthly art walk.

"We went from having 200 people show up when it began to more than 1,000 people on a regular basis," said assistant director Rich Richardson. "We sell a lot of artwork on those nights. Economically, it's the best night we have all month."

The event has had more of an emotional effect on artist Pegge Hopper, whose gallery opened on Nu'uanu Avenue in 1984.

"It's not so much financial as it's been emotional," Hopper said. "I've been in Chinatown for more than 20 years and it's been very depressing to say the least ... I've always felt Chinatown had so much potential and I wondered if I was ever going to live to see it. Now maybe I'll live to see at least the beginning of it. And for me, that's wonderful."

Chinatown redux

Downtown businesses and residents have been battling to get drugs and crime out of their neighborhood, forming the Nu'uanu Merchants Association, holding sign-waving demonstrations and lobbying for law enforcement to make the area safer.

Its reputation for crime, they say, has kept people out of Chinatown, especially at night. Events like First Friday, however, are changing the unsavory perception of downtown, luring more — and different — people to its galleries, restaurants and shops.

"It's been our hope for years that we could get this area into a vibrant, 24-hour community," said Lynne B. Matusow, Downtown Neighborhood Board chairwoman who lives just outside Chinatown. "And for the first time we're seeing steps forward."

New streetlights have been installed, trees planted and parks built. Last August the city approved a bill to amend Chinatown's Special District requirements to allow lofts that would provide space for artists to work.

Cleaning up downtown's image carries significant economic benefit, business and community leaders say.

"We are getting people in (to the area) and they're spending money," Matusow said. "We just have to keep this going."

The art of commerce

Fueling the art industry may have larger economic implications as well, according to Drosd. The state is currently gathering data on what it calls the creative economy in Hawai'i to assess its economic impact.

"People who never thought about it before will realize the vital importance of the creative economy in Hawai'i," she said.

And it's not just the art community that's benefiting from events such as First Friday. Neighboring restaurants, bars and boutiques have all seen a healthy economic impact from the monthly art tours.

"It's helping us a lot," said Paul Florendo, general manager of Indigo Eurasian Cuisine restaurant on Nu'uanu Avenue. "It's one of our busiest nights."

The restaurant has to increase its staff to service the crowds of patrons it receives every First Friday.

Business is up around 30 percent on those nights.

"The sidewalks are really crowded," he said. "It's nice. We love it. For me, I hope we see more of this in the future."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at 535-8103 or ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.