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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Posted on: Monday, October 19, 2009

Plaza's trees part of Isle lore

 • Honolulu strip mall loses stores
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Christine Cao was relieved to learn that Walgreens has promised not to harm the historic lychee tree at Nuuanu Shopping Plaza.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The L-shaped Nuuanu Shopping Plaza consists of two buildings: One built in 1947 on the mauka side of the property, and the other built in 1960 on the diamondhead side.

The newer building was altered in 1983, the year the Hungry Lion restaurant opened. That business was literally built around a large, old banyan tree that extends upward through the dining area, continues out the roof and towers over the building below.

While the Hungry Lion banyan tree is the restaurant's famous icon, less well known is a tall and aged lychee tree that graces the plaza's parking lot.

That tree was brought from China and planted at its present location by Chun Afong around 1870, according to Hawaii author and historian, Bob Dye, whose book, "Hawaii's Merchant Prince," chronicles the life of Afong, the first Chinese millionaire and a noble of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Afong and his wife, Julia, lived in a fabulous mansion built on the ground that now houses the shopping plaza, as well as the tree that grows in the midst of concrete paving.

"It is the first lychee ever planted in Hawaii," Dye said. "It's a very historic tree."

Tropical fruit tree specialist Frank Sekiya said it's possible for such a tree to live for 140 years, or even longer. Sekiya, who owns Frankie's Nursery in Waimänalo, said he is familiar with the shopping plaza lychee.

"That's the original tree, from what I know," Sekiya said.

Chun Afong died in 1906 at the age of 81. When his granddaughter, Kay Kramer, who lives in Ho-nolulu, recently heard that Walgreens is planning to redevelop the property, she became concerned about the lychee and the banyan.

"I was worried that they might destroy those trees," said Kramer, who will celebrate her 95th birthday on Nov. 21.

Kramer wasn't the only one who fretted. Christine Cao, who works behind the counter at the shopping center's Chinese Kitchen, threw her arms about the tree in the parking lot, as if to shelter it from danger.

"I love this lychee tree," said Cao. "Don't let anything happen to it. It's very old."

Cao should not worry. Bob Loy, director for environmental programs for the Outdoor Circle, met with Walgreens representatives when they visited the Nuuanu Plaza site on June 17, 2008.

Walgreens officials assured Loy then that the company had no intention of removing either tree.

And Walgreens' spokesman, Michael Polzin, told The Advertiser last week that the company has no plans to disturb or harm either historic Nuuanu tree.

"We have made that commitment," Polzin said.

Kramer was overjoyed when she learned of Polzin's promise. "I'm happy," she said, laughing. "I appreciate this very much."