Revitalize Chinatown for families, culture, commerce
By Wing Tek Lum
Chinatown in Honolulu, as with other Chinatowns around the world, has developed and maintained its unique character because of the determination of its citizens to celebrate distinct ethnic values and lifestyles.
The appreciation and preservation of these differences should be a guiding principle in the physical revitalization of our Chinatown. Only if our community, largely immigrant-based, is allowed to create its own way of life in the authentic manner will Chinatown survive and prosper.
Only then will others (residents and tourists) be interested in visiting and learning from our Chinatown.
For instance, our community's emphasis on family, where even grandparents or uncles and aunties live with a nuclear family, should be encouraged by the development of more residential units with multiple bedrooms.
Housing stock that has maintained the bachelor society of previous generations with rooming houses and studio apartments can be converted. Additionally, new residential projects, medium- or high-rise, should be created, especially along the periphery of Chinatown, on both sides of Nimitz Highway and across Nu'uanu Stream (e.g., the three parking lots on the mauka side of Nimitz between River and Nu'uanu streets, and piers 13 and 14).
The new population living in these modern, market-priced homes will undoubtedly join the advocates calling for even further improvements to the health and safety in Chinatown.
To support the return of families back to Chinatown, agencies assisting the homeless should be replaced by new family-centered institutions such as daycare centers, language schools, senior-citizen clubs and teen-centered athletic programs.
And there is a special need for larger multipurpose meeting or activity spaces, larger upstairs rooms with little intervening improvements, which can be made available for public functions at different times of the day or week — for example, a folk-dance rehearsal space, citizenship tutorial class or church services.
Nu'uanu Stream and its banks can be transformed into a major recreational asset, especially as a unifying feature running the length of Chinatown from the Kwan Yin Temple to the harbor. A tree-lined promenade or a festival market with kiosks have been earlier suggestions.
Historically, Chinatown also has been an incubator for immigrant businesses with limited startup capital. We should continue to nurture these enterprises by making available smaller spaces, both storefronts and upstairs offices, as opposed to larger consolidated spaces more suitable for big-box retail.
Although small, these businesses collectively will create an invigorating critical mass. Emphasis should be on businesses that cater to the special ethnic needs of Chinatown's residents, who in turn, should provide for much of the workforce.
These new residential projects will also increase the number of patrons for Chinatown's shops, in the same way that the Ward Estate has added residential developments to stimulate its businesses.
Another feature to be preserved is the hustle and bustle of the street. Chinatown continues to be a 24-hour community, with a wide range of uses. This hodgepodge is part of its unique flavor, which most immigrant residents are quite familiar with from their home countries.
Zoning that would homogenize uses in distinct areas — as in suburban parts of Ho-nolulu — should be discouraged. As a corollary, parking along streets should be preserved to add to this lively streetscape.
And to make up for the lost parking due to the conversion of private parking lots to high-rise residential projects, a major underground parking garage with a park on top, similar to the Smith Beretania parking lot/park, should be created at 'A'ala Park abutting the river. Although psychologically this location may seem far because it is across Nu'uanu Stream, it is in fact the same distance to O'ahu Market as Smith Beretania.
Wing Tek Lum is a poet and Chinatown businessman.