Hawaii, although it is disconnected from the rest of the United States, represents the melting pot of cultures on which our country was founded. One such influence in Honolulu comes from a history of Chinese laborers coming to the islands for work. Because of this extended presence, Honolulu has one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States. Long known for being the stomping grounds of boozy sailors, prostitutes, gamblers, and home to other vices, Honolulu’s Chinatown has recently experienced a renaissance becoming an area for creative expression and indulging in foodie delights. Below we present our guide for experiencing one of Hawaii’s most historic neighborhoods.
Hawaii Theatre Center
Originally opened in 1922, this theatre was praised as “The Pride of the Pacific.” The Hawaii Theatre was built to rival every opulent movie palace from cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. It continues to hold true to its history as it presents silent films, vaudeville performances, and concerts. Blocks away on Hotel and Bethel Street is the Chinatown Gateway Park, established in honor of Sun Yat-Sen, the strategic mind behind the Chinese Revolution of 1911.
Get a Tattoo
With native tribal artists and a strong tradition of body art throughout the Pacific, combined with its sailor background, Hawaii is a convergence of important tattoo cultures. Chinatown represents this mixture and was also the home of Sailor Jerry, a tattoo artist who brought Japanese traditions to Hawaii and the US. Those who are passionate about this art form should consider indulging while in Chinatown; even those who aren’t can be amazed by the artistry in the many parlors.
Experience the Marketplaces
Chinatown Honolulu has a number of different markets. Fans of Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Filipino cuisine should get excited. The most important market in the area is Maunakea Marketplace, an open-air space that sells a number of local ingredients as well as fine examples of traditional dishes from around the islands and Asia. There are a number of oddities for adventurous appetites also, such as a dish of a live bullfrog. Or for people with an active sweet tooth find some of the locally sourced chocolate.
Yat Tung Chow Noodle Factory
Those needing to add a base to the ingredients just purchased at the market should check out the noodle making experts on King Street. Offering noodles of nine different sizes, from udon to egg, everyone’s needs will be met with delicious noodley goodness.
Take a Tour
Sponsored by the Hawaii Heritage Center, the walking tour of Honolulu’s Chinatown is informative, detailed, and includes interviews with locals and picture presentations of the area from the past. With interesting facts about the sugar cane production that originally attracted Chinese workers, as well as visits to 100-year-old buildings, tourists will definitely leave knowing a little more about Hawaii and Honolulu.
Foster Botanical Gardens
Opened in 1931, the gardens have tropical trees and foliage that date backs around 200 years. Originally this land was used by Hawaiian Royalty but is now a thirteen and a half acre sanctuary for plant life. The gardens have free-guided tours daily.
Chinatown Cultural Plaza
The Chinese Cultural Plaza of Beretania Street is the hub of the action in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Surrounded by bookstores, retail space, restaurants and bakeries, the cultural plaza is a great place to catch glimpses of local life and tourist traffic intermingling. During Chinese New Year the area becomes engulfed in celebrations. Those lucky enough to be in the area during the holiday will be treated to kung fu demonstrations and lion dances.
Try Non-Asian Ethnic Food
Visiting any Chinatown usually comes with the assumption that food options will be limited to Asian flavors. While Honolulu’s Chinatown has scrumptious traditional dishes it has also become a hotbed for international cuisine. The lineup includes restaurants specializing in Ethiopian, Ecuadorian, Latin, Moroccan, and Lebanese gastronomy. A couple of our favorites include Kan Zaman and Ethiopian Love.
Experience a First Friday
Like many “up and coming” or trendy places across the United States, Chinatown in Honolulu hosts festive First Fridays. For those unfamiliar, First Fridays occur every month on the initial Friday and have a street fair, or block party, type atmosphere. Honolulu’s iteration includes live music, food vendors, and family-friendly activities. Overall it is a night of community bonding where the area is buzzing with good feelings, sounds, and tastes.
Kuan Yin Temple
The Hawaiian Island’s oldest Buddhist temple, Kuan Yin Temple, welcomes daily worshippers and admirers to its halls. Kuan Yin is a character of the Buddhist religion that chose to stay Earthbound to help others even after achieving enlightenment. Many statues of her are found around Hawaii including in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza.
Chinatown Honolulu’s rejuvenation has been a welcome undertaking for the artistic community on Oahu. The area now has a number of excellent exhibits, collectives, and galleries. The Ong King Art Center often hosts live performances of comedy and dance. Local painters Louis Pohl and Pegge Hopper have their galleries there. Meanwhile, the Ravizza Brownfield gallery explores the Aloha State’s intersection of East and West.