Honolulu’s Chinatown is more than a wondrous maze of shops, galleries, and eateries. It’s also a cultural treasure that overcame numerous obstacles—including two devastating fires—to enjoy a renaissance of sorts in recent years. Above all, Chinatown represents a colorful and unique slice of local history that makes a tour of its surroundings worthwhile.
Note: Chinatown is part of our self guided Honolulu walking tour
Historians trace the arrival of the first Chinese in Hawaii to 1789. It wasn’t until the 1850s, however, when the Chinese began arriving in large numbers to work on the sugar plantations. In time, they formed a community of family-run shops where they could sell their wares. The name “Chinatown” was first used around 1870.
In 1886, disaster struck. A fire raged out of control for three days and destroyed most of Chinatown—eight blocks in all. An estimated 7,000 Chinese lost their homes. Just 13 years later, the Board of Health announced the presence of the Bubonic Plague in the city, following an autopsy of the first victim. Chinatown, with its 7,000 residents, was placed under quarantine. However, by the end of 1899, more people had died from the disease, and the Board decided to use fire as a way to control the health hazard. The goal was to burn to the ground any building in which someone contracted the plague.
On January 20, 1900, the Honolulu Fire Department started a fire, intending to burn the wooden buildings on the mauka (inland) side of Beretania Street between Nuuanu Avenue and Smith Street. All went while for the first hour, but the wind suddenly shifted, and the fire began leaping from building to building, eventually devouring 38 acres—nearly all of Chinatown. Four thousand residents were left homeless.
Again, Chinatown was rebuilt. But much of the area eventually fell into a state of neglect and disrepair. Crime became a serious problem. (Even today, certain areas of Chinatown aren’t considered safe at night.) It wasn’t until local merchants injected new life into the area that Chinatown was revitalized. The recent restoration of the historic Hawaii Theatre was a tremendous help in bringing life back to the area.
Today, several walking tours of Chinatown are offered, including a two-and-a-half-hour stroll presented by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii. Offered every Tuesday, the CCCH tour includes stops at numerous eateries, gift shops, temples and more.