Becoming the 'it' destination
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
CHINATOWN — Eric Walden reclined in a wooden chair and took a deep breath.
It was the first time in weeks he could actually look around the surf boutique and gallery he now owns with his wife, Jackie.
"Man, if I could shape (surfboards) and do this full time," said Eric Walden, 32, who works for legendary surfer and shaper Ben Aipa, "that would be awesome."
The couple spent months renovating the 600-square-foot space on Nu'uanu Avenue into Chinatown Boardroom, the latest addition to the artsy Chinatown landscape. It's part surf shop, part art gallery, a harmonious mix of custom longboards with urban artwork and Scott Hawaii slippers.
And Chinatown, they said, was the perfect spot.
"I think this totally fits into the area," said Jackie Walden, 33, who works full time as an archaeologist with Pacific Consulting Services Inc. "The neighborhood is so cool and eclectic. We're trying to have that same feel here."
Chinatown has long been a cultural center in urban Honolulu. But before the May 2003 launch of First Friday, a monthly self-guided walking tour of downtown art galleries, the neighborhood wasn't widely considered an art haven.
Now, thousands of people converge in Chinatown on the first Friday of every month, wandering through art galleries and dining at neighborhood restaurants.
A slew of new eateries, galleries, wine bars and coffee shops have opened, fueling an economic resurgence.
First Friday has become so popular that it has spawned two other monthly gallery tours: Second Saturday and Third Thursday.
"This has definitely changed the face of downtown, Chinatown especially," said Michael W.H. Pili Pang, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Culture & the Arts. "But it's not just the arts community that's growing and expanding. The perception of the area has changed; the (number of) people who visit the community has grown. ... It's really a great synergy."
Last week Nu'uanu Gallery at Marks Garage, directly across the street from Chinatown Boardroom, held its grand opening, featuring an exhibit of figurative works by John Young and Nathan Oliveira. More than 200 curious art aficionados and supporters toured the 500-square-foot gallery during the Thursday reception.
Despite being surrounded by galleries, Mariko Merritt, manager of Nu'uanu Gallery at Marks Garage, couldn't imagine being anywhere else.
"It's natural for (our gallery) to be here," Merritt said. "If one gallery is doing well, that will feed into the others because we're all so close."
Merritt loves the community feel of Chinatown, where galleries are more friendly neighbors than competitors.
At the opening last week, the Waldens wandered over from their gallery across the street to congratulate Merritt and check out the art.
"Everyone's coming by, asking how we're doing, giving me helpful hints," said Merritt, 24, who graduated with a bachelor of fine arts last year from the Rhode Island School of Design. "Everyone is so nice."
CREATIVITY ON THE RISE
The resurgence in Chinatown is part of a statewide growth in the creative sector, said Steven Lee, acting administrator for the state's Creative Industries Division.
According to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, there are about 28,500 people employed in creative industries such as film production, performing arts, galleries and museums.
The growth of this sector, Lee said, benefits more than just the artists it employs.
"It's actually very good for the local economy and for this district (Chinatown)," Lee said.
Events such as First Friday, he said, help expose and educate people to the arts and talents in the community.
Melanie Yang, manager of the Pegge Hopper Gallery on Nu'uanu Avenue, has noticed the changes over the past five years. With the addition of new businesses in the area, Yang finds that she spends more time in the neighborhood. She gets her morning coffee, takes yoga classes and eats dinner within blocks of the gallery.
"I think we are making tremendous progress," Yang said. "As for the art scene, I think there is a great dynamic occurring at Pegge's gallery and other venues."
The new energy has led to artistic collaborations, Yang said.
In May, for example, the gallery featured a surfboard show with work by various artists, including some who work in Chinatown. In March, it held a collaborative poster show featuring 34 graphic designers from all over the world.
"As the area has been re-energized, we have increased our programming," Yang said. "One of the exciting consequences is (this collaboration)."
But it's not just art galleries that are popping up in Chinatown. A wine and tapas bar, Brasserie Du Vin, opened on Bethel Street in October. Bad Sushi!, a boutique on River Street, opened in June. Earlier this year, rRed Elephant, a coffee-house gallery, set up shop on Bethel Street.
Even hipster designer Fighting Eel moved into an office space on Hotel Street in March. "We chose Chinatown because ... we were thinking this place was going to be happening, with all the arts and restaurants and bars," said Lan Chung, co-owner of Fighting Eel. "It's centralized."
Chung feels her company will benefit from the entrepreneurial energy in Chinatown. And, she said, it's really the place to be.
"The people here think Chinatown will be the next big thing," she said. "And we're all here because we know it's gonna change and happen within the next few years."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at email@example.com.