Honolulu unveils Chinatown revitalization plan

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The City and County of Honolulu has rolled out a program to improve Chinatown, including increased safety and cleaning measures and a new "open streets" event.
The City and County of Honolulu has rolled out a program to improve Chinatown, including increased safety and cleaning measures and a new "open streets" event. Photo Credit: HTA/Blake Bronstad

Honolulu's Chinatown has been through ups and downs in the last decade, emerging from an era when it was seen as a neighborhood rife with illicit activity to become a trendy nightlife hotspot, only to see some old problems creep up again.

With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic to the Aloha State, and subsequent economic shutdown, the businesses in the area are limping into summer on wobbly financial legs. Bringing together numerous government agencies and a handful of community organizations, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced a multi-faceted plan to rejuvenate the neighborhood adjacent to the downtown financial district, including a new open-street event designed to attract more people to the area's collection of restaurants, bars, markets and shops. The plan, revealed in a June 30 press conference, will also augment resources for safety measures, street cleaning and public art.

"I believe that the beat of this island, its heart, is in Chinatown," Caldwell said at the news conference. "[Chinatown is] a historic place, a beautiful place, but with a lot of challenges, and it's had these challenges for a long time, for decades."

Honolulu officials signed a $200,000 contract to power-wash and disinfect sidewalks, which is already underway and will last into December. Additionally, the city is stepping up efforts to remove graffiti, enforce proper trash disposal and collaborate with the historic district's arts community on beautification. Police patrols of the neighborhood will also be increased.

The city and county are committed "to do more things to have it, particularly in this time of pandemic, be clean, be neat, be beautiful and a welcoming place for everybody," Caldwell said.

A Chinatown Ambassadors program using private security teams to walk the streets started earlier this year has been extended through Dec 20, Caldwell said, with patrols from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. serving as "eyes and ears for the Honolulu Police Department."

The new open street event will kick off July 11, and is modeled after similar events along Waikiki's Kalakaua Avenue. Hotel Street will be closed to all vehicles between River and Richards streets from 5 to 9 p.m., creating a pedestrian and bike corridor in hopes of attracting more people to the shops and restaurants. For now the event is a pilot project, but it could stick around if it proves as successful as the Open Street Sundays on Kalakaua Avenue, Caldwell said, adding that he hopes Chinatown restaurants will set up outdoor seating for summer dining. 

"If it works, we'll try it again on another Saturday," he said. "We hope restaurants will step up, and we're going to be asking them to participate."

The city is also exploring opportunities to commission street art telling the stories of Chinatown and is planning to have artists paint the city electrical boxes in the neighborhood.

Honolulu's Chinatown, established in the 1800s when Chinese laborers were brought to the Islands to toil on the sugar plantations, is the oldest Chinatown in the United States. During the 1980s and '90s, the neighborhood suffered economically and reputationally when it became a red-light district and harbored clandestine gambling halls. In the mid-1990s, the Hawaii Theatre was renovated and restored and a new wave of hip restaurants, bars and shops followed.

Chinatown also developed as one of the centers for Oahu's art community, with several popular galleries and a First Friday art walk event. Despite the progress, issues such as litter-strewn streets and crime have persisted.

Elvira Lo, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, said ever since the late January celebration for Lunar New Year, Chinatown has felt like a ghost town.

"Everything looks very dead and it's very sad to see that," Lo said, adding that the open-streets event is an "exciting idea" and she is pushing the chamber's members to join the initiative.

At Kekaulike Mall, which is known for its produce stands, the city is stepping up safety patrols and adding new plantings around the perimeter. Additionally, the city plans to install LED lighting around Kekaulike Mall by November for improved evening ambience, and a group led by entrepreneur Eddie Flores is spearheading efforts to raise funds and construct a gateway arch by the mall on King Street.

"Chinatown is like a second home to me," said Flores, who expects to unveil the arch design in a few weeks. "I'm very excited because it will beautify Chinatown. ... it will be exciting for local people and tourists alike."

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