Pranksters want debate on Hawaii's Chinatown
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Coming soon to Chinatown: a Starbucks, TGI Friday's, American Apparel and luxury lofts priced at $2.5 million each?
No, but that's what several signs announced earlier this month in what turned out to be a controversial campaign by two University of Hawai'i doctoral students to get Chinatown residents talking about their community's future.
The campaign comes as many are worried about what Chinatown — a historically significant community covering 15 square city blocks — will become over the next decade, as rents steadily increase amid the success of the arts district.
The ongoing city revitalization of the community and an emphasis on cultural tourism and creating a playground for local residents has brought more and more people into Chinatown, and kept them coming back, store owners say.
So far, there are no national franchises in the area. But with the increased foot traffic and the rising rents many worry they will eventually move in, chipping away at Chinatown's unique character and feel.
"A lot of people are emotional about the character of Chinatown," said Rich Richardson, creative director at Arts at Marks Garage. "They don't want to see it gentrified beyond recognition into a generic, Disney downtown. They want to retain its authenticity."
In addition to the bogus posters, the campaign brought in actors to stage a mock rally warning against a Middle East consortium vying to gentrify Chinatown and shut down small businesses.
The students behind the campaign, Jake Dunagan and Stuart Candy, are planning to continue their efforts this week, including a mock campaign imagining the aftermath of a pandemic flu in Chinatown. Posters telling people where to go if they have symptoms of the flu and other "artifacts from the future," including a memorial to victims, will be put up as early as tomorrow.
NOT ALL AMUSED
For some, the first phase of the project fell flat.
Instead of talking about the future, several Chinatown business owners were complaining about the students' campaign.
"This was put out there as fact," said Jo Dee Hunt, owner of the Mendonca Building, where the luxury lofts were advertised. Hunt said she didn't know what the students were going to put up, and was shocked when she saw the result.
At least one shop owner, who asked not to be identified, has withdrawn support for the project and asked the students not to put anything on her storefront.
Dunagan and Candy put up the first posters and held the rally Oct. 5.
Even the head of the Department of Planning and Permitting was fooled; he called the owner of the building where the luxury lofts were advertised to complain.
For their part, Dunagan and Candy say they didn't intend to get anyone distressed or angry over the project. They just wanted it to seem as real as possible.
"Over and over again, we hear this fear about Chinatown becoming Waikiki," Dunagan said. "We're trying to get people to look ahead more effectively."
Richardson, of the Arts at Marks Garage, said the first phase of the project played with that fear — and left some people feeling duped and angry.
"Unless you know it's a joke, it leads to despair," said Richardson, who helped facilitate the project, but was not privy to its content.
"Some of the people in the arts community were expressing this feeling of betrayal," he added. "I think that's damaging. It's such a small community."
But Richardson also said the project has already spurred some discussion about the potential loss of small businesses and Chinatown's character, and will likely generate more interest as people get past their anger.
"Like a good provocative hoax, it gets people talking. It's a stimulus for communication," he said.
In retrospect, Dunagan and Candy said the posters and two fictitious Web sites should have had disclaimers. Disclaimers have been added to the Web sites.
"We were not just trying to press buttons," Candy said. "The intention was not to sucker people and embarrass them. We were trying to bring it (the prospect of gentrification) out of the realm of the hypothetical."
The pair say they have never undertaken a similar project before, but have presented different futures — with props and posters — for attendees of the Hawai'i 2050 Summit. They said there is a growing movement among futures scholars to use different media to allow people to imagine possible futures better.
The two are covering the costs of the Chinatown project. They have also received grants from the Arts at Marks Garage and the city Bright Ideas program for other projects they are working on in Chinatown.
THE FOUR FUTURES
The futures project has four phases — four futures.
The first phase of the project, called "McChinatown," kicked off with the posters and mock rally, in which about a dozen people posing as protesters passed out fliers for a fake group called "Save Chinatown."
The second phase, which started over the weekend, imagines a Chinatown in which China has become a superpower. The centerpiece of the project is a depiction of a "gift" to Hawai'i of a huge memorial for Honolulu Harbor of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and Queen Lili'uokalani holding hands.
In addition to the pandemic future, the third phase, the campaign will also roll out a fourth future called "Dig Deeper." Dunagan and Candy declined to give details on the final phase.
The project will culminate next month with a workshop on the possible directions of Chinatown. Components of the project will also be displayed at an exhibit at Arts at Marks Garage on Oct. 23.
GAMUT OF RESPONSES
Response to the prospect of franchises in Chinatown — and a wholesale takeover by a Middle Eastern consortium — ranged from outrage to apathy, Dunagan and Candy said. They also pointed out some were pleased at the prospect of a Starbucks in Chinatown, and some were relieved to see retail spaces long empty might finally be filled.
Henry Eng, director of the city Department of Planning and Permitting, said he believed the signs advertising luxury loft space at the Mendonca Building on Smith Street.
"I was concerned," said Eng, who called Hunt to ask why she was advertising luxury lofts for the space without permits. "It's a little bit troubling," Eng said of the campaign.
Ted Li, president-elect of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said he hadn't seen the posters, and also doesn't see all the fuss about gentrification. He said the small open markets, shops and restaurants that make Chinatown unique aren't likely to go anywhere soon. And he doesn't fear the introduction of a Starbucks.
"This is a free market," Li said. "Chinatown is just like any other neighborhood. It's gradually transforming."
But throughout the week, Honolulu Arts District Executive Director Ed Korybski has gotten calls from concerned business owners who saw the posters and thought they were real. "Most want Chinatown to remain unique, urban, edgy and local," Korybski said. "Local is a big theme. I'm sure there are valid fears" of what the future holds.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.