Internet video of rats in Hawaii’s Chinatown prompts inspections
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
An appetite-killing video spreading around the Internet of rats leaping and scurrying over produce at an indoor Chinatown food stall prompted the state Health Department yesterday to issue a citation to the business — while highlighting Chinatown's perennial problem with rats and other potentially disease-carrying vermin.
Larry Geller, an Internet blogger and political watchdog, shot the video at night outside Kekaulike Marketplace on the eve of Thanksgiving. It shows several rats crawling out from under blue tarps that cover bananas and other produce at Pacing's Market, one of a couple of dozen open-air food vendors that operate nearly side by side in Kekaulike Marketplace.
The video also shows rats leaping into and out of food storage baskets and crawling inside bunches of bananas and along a sink belonging to Pacing's Market.
People familiar with Chinatown's persistent rat problem weren't surprised to hear about the rodents at the market, although some were shocked at how active the rats were at night.
"It was startling and appalling," said state Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, D-12th (Waikíkí, Ala Moana, Downtown). "Gee whiz, I was dumbfounded. We are aware of these things, but to see it was nasty."
Still, politicians and community members said they weren't concerned about the negative publicity for Chinatown.
But they do worry about cutbacks to the Health Department's vector control unit. The entire unit, which helps homeowners and businesses eradicate rodent, mosquito, fly and other pest problems, will be eliminated next month as a result of budget cuts.
It's all happening as more and more of Chinatown's rats are moving inside to escape winter rains, as typically occurs every year.
The old buildings in Chinatown, their proximity to the river and the ready availability of restaurants and produce stands combine for an environment conducive to rats and other pests.
And that can leave merchants feeling helpless.
Charlito and Pacencia Edrada, who own Pacing's Market, which was cited by the Health Department yesterday, told The Advertiser that they scrub down their produce stall every morning and every afternoon to keep the rat problem at bay.
"But it seems to be getting worse," Charlito Edrada said.
An inspector from the Health Department's Sanitation Branch also warned the couple that they have to stop spraying cockroaches with insecticide around all of the food sold inside the market.
Inspectors plan to return tomorrow to follow up. Continued violations could result in penalties of up to $1,000 per day per violation, according to the Health Department.
Galuteria was among those yesterday acknowledging the health implications for those who frequent Chinatown.
"The bad publicity will come," Galuteria said. "Obviously it ain't going to be good for our reputation. But more importantly, we have to worry about the health concerns."
In response to Geller's video, Galuteria yesterday was drafting a letter to state Health Director Dr. Chiyome Fukino asking about the Health Department's response to "feces and urine all over those fruits."
As Geller wrote in a blog accompanying the video on his Web site, www.disappearednews.com:
"Keep in mind that every banana you see in the video, and whatever is under the blue tarps, will likely have been sold to someone the next day," Geller wrote. "Some kids are eating them now, somewhere. The same bananas that the rats sampled first."
Geller said he hoped his video prompts action to clean up the problem.
"I bought bananas there once," said Geller, who lives in the area. "I'm not going in there again. Folks who were on the sidewalk when I shot the video said it happens every night."
In response to a request for comment from The Advertiser about the video, a Health Department Sanitation Branch inspector yesterday morning visited Pacing's Market and cited the owners for four violations, including rat droppings and bags of food that had been gnawed open.
The inspector said she was only authorized to respond to Pacing's Market because of the video, and not to the adjacent vendors.
But several vendors inside Kekaulike Marketplace who operate just a couple of feet from Pacing's Market said they, too, have come to work and found rats scurrying for cover and leaving behind feces.
"Plenty rat over here," Alnor Carnate said as he displayed half a dozen bags of noodles that had been chewed open at Rose's Meat Market, which Carnate runs with his wife, Rose.
Yesterday, cockroaches scurried between several of the open-air food stalls, which sell everything from raw beef, pork and chicken to crabs, lobster, fish and fruits and vegetables.
Health officials prefer to keep businesses operating while educating owners about how to safely control rodents and insects, said Rex Mitsunaga, program manager of the Health Department's Sanitation Branch.
"When it comes to food safety, we explain to the establishments that they have to protect their food items," Mitsunaga said. "They don't want to lose money due to losses from rodents. For consumers, we recommend that when you take home any raw food — bananas, apples, lettuce, tomatoes — thoroughly wash the produce prior to consumption. Even if you buy your produce from a regular supermarket, these are raw agricultural products that came from fields and trees."
With winter and the rainy season, Chinatown's rat problem is always exacerbated this time of year, Mitsunaga said.
"Chinatown's an older district with older buildings that are close to a waterway, the Nu'uanu River," Mitsunaga said. "Rats burrow from their source of water into buildings that offer good shelter to hide in and breed in — and many of the buildings are food establishments. During the wet time of year, like now, there seems to be an increase in complaints. "
It's the job of Mitsunaga's sanitation branch to inspect restaurants and food establishments while the vector control unit helps homeowners and businesses tackle rodent and other pest problems.
"The public has to understand that with budget cuts, services won't be the same as before," Mitsunaga said.
State Rep. Karl Rhoads, D-28th (Kaka'ako, Iwilei), represents Chinatown and believes cuts to the Health Department "have gone too far."
"We're getting rid of things that we really need and vector control is one of the things that we need," Rhoads said. "We've cut to the bone. We're losing stuff we need, like vector control, ag inspectors and public school teachers."
Rhoads said he isn't worried about potential negative publicity from Geller's video.
"I'm worried about me," he said, only half-jokingly. "I eat food in Chinatown all the time. I would prefer not to get some disease."
The Health Department's Web site offers a history of Chinatown's most famous rat problem.
The Chinatown fire of 1900 was triggered by efforts to control the spread of bubonic plague by burning the homes of plague victims. But a controlled burn of wooden buildings raced out of control and burned nearly the entire 38-acre Chinatown, leaving more than 4,000 residents homeless.
Wen Lin, executive vice president of The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, insisted that he has never heard of a rat problem in Chinatown.
"Nobody complain," Lin said. "I don't hear anything from the merchants in Chinatown or the shoppers."
Despite Lin's comments, the more recent history of Chinatown's relationship with rats was mentioned yesterday in a press release sent out by various organizations — including The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii that Lin represents — to advertise a free "Christmas in Chinatown Party" for children on Saturday.
The press release from The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, The Honolulu Chinese Jaycees, Honolulu Culture & Arts District, The Arts District Merchants Association, The Chinatown Historical Society and Chinatown Business and Merchants Association discusses recent efforts to clean up Chinatown and reduce the rat population.
"Now with a new burst of pride the residents of Kekaulike Courtyards and the Kekaulike Merchants have formed a common bond and with the (cooperation) of numerous other Chinatown organizations have cleaned up the Mall," according to the release. The "merchants removed the tasty morsels that the Rats love; and with the aid of the countless Chinatown organizations hung Christmas lights and are inviting everyone to come for the Christmas Party."
Johnny Ng, one of the organizers of the party , said yesterday that the clean-up efforts have hardly wiped out Chinatown's rats.
"No, no, no, no, no," Ng said. "It has improved substantially, but there's definitely rats. Absolutely, we know it's a big problem."