Exploring Honolulu's reinvigorated Chinatown

The Pegge Hopper Gallery is one of the popular stops along the Chinatown Art Walk.
The Pegge Hopper Gallery is one of the popular stops along the Chinatown Art Walk. Photo Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Honolulu's Chinatown, on the western edge of the city's financial district, has undergone a renaissance in recent years. New, buzzed-about restaurants are opening in the area, and its popularity as a hub for dining, shopping and nightlife continues to grow.

This comes after a downtrodden period when Chinatown gained a reputation for crime. The restoration of the Hawaii Theatre in 1996 and the influx of stores and restaurants, in part thanks to below-average rents for Honolulu, helped revitalize the area and bring people back to the neighborhood.

"Chinatown was not historically known as a place to go for tourists," said Joelle Arriola, the director of product for Hawaii at travel wholesaler Classic Vacations. "That has really changed, and the neighborhood has become a great place to visit. There are all types of restaurants, shops and activity going on."

In the 1800s, Chinese laborers were brought to the Islands to work the sugar plantations. By the mid-19th century, when their contracts expired, many moved to this area of Honolulu and became merchants. By 1900, the neighborhood's population was 56% Chinese.

Two fires, one in 1886 and another in 1900, devastated the area and destroyed most of the buildings in the neighborhood. Much of the architecture in Chinatown today dates back to the rebuild after the 1900 fire.

The neighborhood has developed since then, and its maze of alleys and streets is now home to an array of shops, herbalists, antique stores, temples, lei makers, bars, restaurants and clubs. The Maunakea Marketplace and Oahu Market are great daytime stops, where you can sample and purchase fresh fruits, seafood and other goods. Religious centers like the Kuan Yin Temple and Izumo Taishakyo Mission Shrine offer a glimpse of Chinese and Japanese religious culture and architecture.

Once you've worked up an appetite, there is a cornucopia of dining options to please every palate, from traditional Chinese dim sum to Vietnamese, Malaysian, French and Cuban fare. After dinner, the Hawaii Theater often hosts live music and other performances, and there are plenty of bars and nightclubs to keep the fun going past midnight.

Chinatown also serves as the home base for the art community on Oahu. There are many galleries and dealers in the neighborhood, and perusing the various storefronts can be an activity in and of itself. Here are some stops to get you started in Chinatown:

Hawaiian Chinese Multicultural Museum: Start your visit to Chinatown at the Maunakea Marketplace, which houses this small museum. Photographs and artifacts depicting the history and development of Chinatown are on display. Learn about the Chinatown fire of 1900 (the fire department was responsible) and other key events in the neighborhood's history before heading out to explore on your own.

Chinatown Art Walk: Take the stroll down Nuuanu Avenue and Bethel Street to check out the wide variety of galleries. The Ramsay Museum, located in the historical Tam Sing building, is home to a collection of fine pen and India ink works, and the Pegge Hopper Gallery specializes in original paintings and prints.

First Friday: While you can do the art walk anytime, if you happen to be in Honolulu on the first Friday of the month the experience gets an injection of energy and action. Many of the artists host open houses and are on hand to discuss the work, galleries stay open later and there are plenty of exhibitions and live music.

Cutting-edge cuisine: Chinatown boasts an eclectic collection of restaurants. Many are known for offering creative, quality meals, and a few are at the forefront of a Hawaiian fusion cuisine movement garnering a lot of attention. Vietnamese restaurant The Pig and the Lady from Andrew Le won Honolulu Magazine's best new restaurant award for 2014. Newcomer Senia has only been open for a few months, but its brand of Hawaiian fusion has already garnered a nomination for a prestigious James Beard Foundation award.

Foster Botanical Garden
: On the National Register of Historic Places, this oasis amid the bustle of downtown is the oldest of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens. The gardens are home to a broad collection of tropical plants, and some of the trees on the grounds date back to the 1850s. The gardens include a conservatory, an outdoor butterfly garden, a palm garden and a gift shop.
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