What to see and do in Honolulu's flourishing Chinatown

Chinatown offers a bustling nightlife scene, including a First Friday art event and several popular bars and nightclubs.
Chinatown offers a bustling nightlife scene, including a First Friday art event and several popular bars and nightclubs. Photo Credit: Blake Bronstad/HTA
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Honolulu's Chinatown, adjacent to downtown, has a long and storied history and, after recovering from a downturn, has re-emerged as a vibrant neighborhood with buzzing bars, acclaimed restaurants and boutique shops.

Chinatown was established in the 1800s, when Chinese laborers were brought to the Islands to toil on the sugar plantations. By the mid-19th century, many of their contracts had expired, and the laborers settled in the neighborhood; by the turn of the century, it had become majority Chinese. Devastating fires in 1886 and 1900 destroyed many of the older structures, and most of the buildings today date back to the restoration after the 1900 fire.

The neighborhood went through an economic downturn and was not seen as a tourist attraction through the 1980s and much of the '90s, when it became a red-light district and was home to clandestine gambling halls. But in 1996, the Hawaii Theatre was renovated and restored, and a fresh injection of restaurants and other business followed.

Today, Chinatown's 15 blocks hold many surprising finds, and it's a great spot for lunch and afternoon shopping or happy hour cocktails followed by dinner at a buzzworthy restaurant. During its renaissance, Chinatown has also become one of the centers for Oahu's art community, with several popular galleries. While the neighborhood has developed into more of an attraction in the past decade, it still is an important hub for many Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese residents.

What to Do

First Friday: Launched 17 years ago, the inception of this monthly event coincided with the rejuvenation of Chinatown. On the first Friday of each month, many of the artists who work in the neighborhood host open houses, and the galleries stay open later with special exhibitions and live music.

Ong King Arts Center: Located on the ground level of the historical Fort Street Mall, the nonprofit arts center has been in the neighborhood for more than a decade, serving as an incubator for a variety of artists and exhibitions, from music and dance to visual arts. One of the most popular events is the Ong King Open Mic held every Sunday night.

Walking Tour: To take a deeper dive into the history, culture and food of the neighborhood, join the walking tour offered by the Hawaii Heritage Center (1040 Smith St.). Guides take visitors to the Oahu Market, Honolulu's oldest outdoor market that bustles in the morning with vendors selling a variety of fresh produce, meat and seafood; Fook Sau Tong Chinese Herbs; and many more businesses, buildings and restaurants. Tours are offered every Wednesday and Friday at 9:30 a.m. for $30 per person.

Where to Shop

Maunakea Marketplace: The two-story shopping center offers an array of Asian and Hawaiian foods and goods. There are stalls selling clothing, jewelry and trinkets as well vendors for meat, seafood, produce, tea and other items. The market also houses the Hawaiian Chinese Multicultural Museum with photographs and artifacts depicting the history and development of Chinatown. Learn about the Chinatown fire of 1900 (the fire department was to blame) and other key events.

Wander the streets: Chinatown is an easy neighborhood for walking, and the plethora of small shops are full of art, jewelry and apparel that make for great souvenirs or gifts. Sig on Smith is an outpost of Hawaiian clothing desiner Sig Zane selling men's attire, and Fighting Eel is another popular boutique clothing shop. King Street between River and Smith Streets is lined with jewelry purveyors, and Chinatown is also a good place to pick up a lei with several retailers in the area including Lin's Lei Shop and Cindy's Lei and Flower Shoppe.

Where to Eat and Drink

Senia: This restaurant from James Beard Award semifinalists Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush has garnered accolades since it opened in late 2016. The main dining room offers an a la carte menu, but for an up close look at the techniques behind the taste, book the Chef's Counter where six to 12 people are hosted for a multicourse tasting menu.

The Pig and the Lady:  The Vietnamese restaurant from Andrew Le won Honolulu Magazine's best new restaurant award in 2014 and is still a popular Chinatown destination. Try the Pho French Dip Banh Mi, a sandwich with 12-hour roasted brisket, spicy hoisin BBQ sauce, Thai basil chimichurri and a bowl of classic pho broth for dipping.

Madre Chocolate: Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that is within the latitudes where cacao can be grown, and the state has a burgeoning gourmet chocolate industry. Madre's co-founder, Nat Bletter, works with Hawaiian farmers to source locally for their fine chocolates, and they also offer bean-to-bar and truffle-making classes.

Manifest: Visitors looking for a place to relax and have a beverage can count on this Hotel Street venue almost any time of day or night. In the mornings it serves as a cafe, before coverting into a lively bar and nightclub in the evening.

Bar 35: Hops hounds should look no further. Bar 35 has roughly 200 different canned, bottled and draft beers available. They also serve up handmade thin-crust pizzas, are a popular hangout on First Fridays and often feature live music and other entertainment.

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