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Some time back we wrote about Downtown Honolulu’s emerging Arts District, an area where art galleries, theaters and urbane restaurants now are attracting sophisticated residents and vacationers. This is a relatively new phenomenon occurring in a place that has a history of … well, squalor.
Adjacent to the Arts District lies the far more traditional yet unique Chinatown, which has shed its own sordid history and become one of the city’s proudest attractions.
Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean and Caucasian merchants work with a common fervor as if somehow driven by the same master. They’re at it from long before dawn until far into the night — families, most of whom live right there above their shops and restaurants — preparing their wares for the onslaught of shoppers they face every day of the year. We residents go to Chinatown to buy fresh produce, fish, meat, pastries, candied fruits and vegetables, noodles, tea, duck eggs, char siu and other Asian delicacies. At noon, people in the Downtown business community flock to the nearby area for dim sum, or lunch at one of the delicious and inexpensive specialty restaurants.
Vacationers have even more fun. “Varied” best describes the visitor’s Chinatown experience. All within a fifteen-block area, one may consult an herbalist, view an art exhibit, see a dragon procession, make an offering at a Buddhist temple, and buy precious jade and a cheong sam gown. Prices for the same items in Waikiki, if they can be found in Waikiki, are twice as high.
Most of the stores in Maunakea Mall are just 400-square-feet stalls, so a whole lot of different vendors have learned to practice their daily choreography under one roof. Every morning at dawn, recently-slaughtered half-hogs are hand carried into the pedestrian-only mall. On a daily basis, freshly harvested fish is available for all budgets, from fish heads to top-of-the-line $60-a-pound Bluefin Belly Sashimi. Part of the fun of walking through Chinatown is to discover the amazing traditional techniques used to prepare food for flame, oven or packaging. To see an inscrutable culinary master flash his cleaver with unerring accuracy through slabs of pork, poultry or fish is to genuinely fear for the safety of his limbs. To sample foodstuffs you’ve never heard of is surprisingly rewarding, and lots of vacationers end the day back in their hotel rooms with bags and bags of things they’ve sampled and couldn’t resist taking back to share.
Today, Chinatown is a much different place from what it was not so long ago — a red-light district primarily known for its high crime rate, drug dealers and deteriorating buildings that was shunned by tourists and locals alike, especially after dark. Now, the historic district has been cleaned up and is luring a new generation of diners, clubgoers and shoppers.
While it’s pretty easy to wander through the area on your own, what you learn will be limited to the depth of your curiosity and your ability to comprehend a wide range of heavily-accented dialects. There’s a wide variety of tours you can take, depending on the nature of your interests.