It’s likely you’ll find a “Chinatown” in almost any major city across the United States, with smaller establishments throughout parts of Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Initially an ethnic enclave of Chinese immigrants, Chinatowns of today are now considered to be centers of commerce and tourism, which is often how their history may become lost or forgotten.
Built in 1903, the McClean Block on Nuuanu Avenue once housed a garment factory, embroidery shop and Korean and Filipino restaurants.
In an effort to preserve the rich heritage of Honolulu’s Chinatown, the city just recently completed a history project that takes the traditional visitor center to a new level. Visitors and residents alike can learn about the neighborhood in multiple formats, which include the installation of bronze plaques on 16 historic Chinatown buildings, the creation of colorful brochures for walking tours and the development of four interactive informational kiosks. The kiosk exhibits can be found at several locations, one of them being the Hawaii Theatre Center, and showcase different Chinatown eras with videos, photos and maps.
The kiosk exhibits look similar to this and are located throughout Chinatown at the Hawaii Theatre Center, Arts at Mark’s Garage, Hawaii Heritage Center and Louis Pohl Gallery.
I’d suggest visiting the project’s website beforehand, if possible, to familiarize yourself with its history and any key points of interest. Then do the walking tours, which takes you through 100-year-old buildings and feature multimedia exhibits. I found the website itself to be impressively detailed. Despite my growing up in Hawaii and frequent visits to this cultural district, I still learned a lot about Chinatown’s rich history and how the port of Honolulu played a huge role in the development of this district. It’s more than just a place to buy fresh lei or manapua; it’s a place with a history and heritage integral to the island culture.
I’m hoping the project will extend its reach to include a database of the Chinese who immigrated to our islands from as early as the 1800s. It could be similar to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York, which allows visitors to track down ancestors who arrived to America via this port. Like many immigrants, my great-great-grandfather came to Hawaii by boat from China to work in the rice plantations. I’d be interested in learning more about what their early arrival was like and possibly about any distant relatives I may have.
In 2006, the White House designated Honolulu’s Chinatown as a Preserve America Community Neighborhood.
In either case, I applaud the city for its efforts in developing such a thorough heritage program. It has been a long-awaited piece to our island’s historic puzzle that will not only benefit our local community but our visitors as well. It’s an easy and convenient way for everybody to better understand Hawaii’s culture, starting with some of its earliest settlers.
CHINATOWN HISTORY PROJECT • Preserving Chinatown’s history through a walking tour, bronze plaques and multimedia kiosk exhibits • www.chinatownhonolulu.orgPhoto Credit: City & County of Honolulu (first and second); Katherine Finch (third)