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  • Aloha Kakahiaka Chinatown - Honolulu Hawaii Art Collection

Chinatown Honolulu Hawaii Art Collection By Hawaii Artist Hank Taufaasau Back to the top

Aloha Kakahiaka Chinatown, a new series of paintings by Hank Taufaasau, examines the realities of daily life in Honolulu's Chinatown. Through a mix of eccentric characters and a backdrop f historical building and modern skyscrapers, Taufaasau captures the unique resiliency and underlying strife that continuously propels this community forward.
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  • Chinatown Honolulu Hawaii Art Collection
Chinatown from Aloha Tower
Inspiration: To appreciate the beauty of Honolulu Harbor is to realize that behind this picturesque scene lays a vibrant community with a rich Chinese immigrant history dating back to the 1850s. More...
Chinatown from Punchbowl
Inspiration: Looking down from the crater, one gets a wonderful view of the urban sprawl. From the business community to the mundane affordable residences toward the right. Talk about the wrong side of the tracks represented by Nuuanu Avenue More...
Everyday River Street
Inspiration: Professor Peter Kun Frary called it, "The Venice of Honolulu" ... in jest? The best hidden jewels of local eateries ... places where only locals are welcome. More...
From Central Middle Playground
Inspiration: Every morning, on my way to work in Chinatown, I view this glimpse of Chinatown through the playground of Central Middle School. More...
Hank's Cafe Honolulu
Inspiration: Original home to visiting Chinese Seamen who were able to leave their belongings while they cavorted in Honolulu. Now the business of the artist; it serves as a watering hole as well as a gallery for his works. More...
Hawaii Theater
Inspiration: The anchor of the new Chinatown, refurbished to the tune of 21 million dollars. A typical mid-morning when school children are attending a special affair. More...
Historic Wo Fat
Inspiration: The centerpiece of the real Chinatown. The oldest restaurant in Honolulu's Chinatown, unfortunately, now shuttered. In its former glory, one could hear the clack-clacking of mah-jongg tiles daily at lunchtime emanating from the second floor. More...
Maunakea Market
Inspiration: Behind this facade, one can find nearly everything needed for sustenance .... including the best local grinds in Hawaii. More...
Inspiration: The makai/ewa corner of Nuuanu Avenue with Marin Tower in the background. One anonymous guote, "...I also remember during my high school days driving by Hotel Street to spahk da hookahs trying to pick up servicemen." More...
Smith and Pauahi:Triptych
Inspiration: The center of Chinatown's chaos. More...
Smith Union
Inspiration: The oldest active bar in Honolulu next to the infamous Club Hubba Hubba, once the center of Honolulu's burlesque scene, as well as the scene of World War II's R and R businesses where for 3 dollars, a guy could find guick ...uh...relaxation. More...

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Aloha Kakahiaka

Chinatown, Hawaii USA.

Original oil paintings by Hawaii artist Hank Taufaasau ( a morning in 2016 in Honolulu's Chinatown.

Historians trace the arrival of the first Chinese in Hawaii to 1798. It wasn't until 1850, however, that they began arriving in large numbers to work the sugar plantations. Many became merchants after their contracts expired and settled in the area.

The name Chinatown was first used in 1870. The area has withstood the bubonic plague, two major fires, opium dens in underground caves and World War II's influx of our fighting men. After the war, the area fell into general disrepair and degraded into a red-light district. The term, organized gambling became synonymous with Chinatown.

Recently, the administrations of Mayors Frank F. Fasi and Jeremy Harris targeted the area for revitalization. Restrictions were lifted or relaxed to promote new businesses and nightlife. That effort reveals itself diamond head of Smith Street, though the truer version of old Chinatown remains between Maunakea and River Streets .

In 1966, the Hawaii Theater's restoration was completed and reopened amid luxurious fanfare. The area surrounding the theater, called the Arts District, some call it SOBE® (south of Beretania), now houses a myriad of tony shops, bars and fine restaurants.

Central Middle School. A large palace for Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani was built on the site mauka of Chinatown in 1878. After her death, the estate, known as Keoua Hale, passed to the territorial government for educational purposes and eventually named Central Grammar School. One can still see Ke'elikolani School engraved over the first story windows on the makai wing. For 20 years, I've looked through its playground on my way to work in through to the landmarks of Chinatown.

Aloha Tower, a lighthouse, which along with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, is perhaps the most visible landmark in Honolulu. Located at Pier 9 at Honolulu Harbor, it opened on September 11, 1926, completed at the astronomical cost of $160,000. Nestled behind this stunning harbor scene, sits bewitching Chinatown.

The Center of the New Chinatown. Intersection of Hotel and Nuuanu

"It's true what they say about things looking bigger when you were a kid. The place, at times, still smells interesting, but now I don't mind so much.... there are a lot of great places to shop or dine."

"Food here is pretty awesome. To get pho, bun bo, hue and dimsum …a hidden spot where you can get fresh poke, sashimi … actually, anykine food you like."

"If you come by Sunday, street parking is free. But still hard to find, especially in the morning. Locals know when the best time to come."

"Still the best place to buy lei and flowers. And you can bargain with them. Try that in Waikiki!"

Amazing places selling manapua, roast duck char siu and pork. Come early and you get to pick fresh fish."

"…also remember during my high school days driving by Hotel Street to spahk da hookahs trying to pick up servicemen."

"It wasn't the cleanest place, but, trust me, it's one of the better Chinatowns I've seen. The people were nice and not as pushy as San Fran or New York."

"Visiting this downtown area during the day is one thing, but I recommend jumping into the lively action at night … old school flavor and a sense of mystery. Good spot to catch live entertainment."

There isn't a distinct smell to describe Chinatown. It depends on which alleyway or storefront you're in."

"…can get anything here. Even some things you wouldn't think you'd like. Some girl came up to me and asked if I wanted a good time. I said no. She said, ‘How bout some weed?' Whoa!"

"Not the best memories, but it wasn't until I experienced Chinatown in other cities that I began to appreciate my own back home. Things have definitely cleaned up here."

Chinatown's Oldest Watering Holes

Smith Union's 75 year history recalls the halcyon day of Mme. Mamie Stover … in these buildings on Hotel St., thousands of our fighting men found … uh … relaxation. At any given time, over 200 women from the mainland were working the brothels, and earning $40,000 annually; $150,000 for madams. And paid taxes! Government saw to that. Making huge sums of money and realizing the continuing demand, they decided to raise their prices a dollar … from three bucks!

Chief of Police Frank Steer stepped in and stopped the increase. "The price of meat is still $3!"

On August 28, 1942, the girls went on strike for 22 days. As a result, however, they won the right to live and roam wherever they pleased, having been restricted to the area previously. Alas, two years later, Territorial Governor Ingram Steinbeck, with the constant urging of his wife, enforced the closing of the bordellos.

Around the corner on Nuuanu Ave., Hanks Café Honolulu (19 yrs), Dougs Place (11yrs), and 27 years of other bar tenents. After the fire of 1900, the property served as a haven for Chinese seamen. Able to store their personables and valuables while cavorting in Honolulu, the property eventually chartered as the First Security Bank of Honolulu, which became American Security Bank (then, the 3rd largest bank in Hawaii), which itself was bought up by First Hawaiian Bank, making it, at the time, Hawaii's largest financial institution. The property is owned by Chup Ying Tong, comprised of 36 local Chinese families, many of whose ancestors are the original Chinese immigrants and earliest founders of commerce in Hawaii.

Since 2008, Hanks Café Honolulu has been rated the top dive bar in Honolulu by YELP. On its second floor, the jazz club, The Dragon Upstairs (google New York Times & The Dragon Upstairs), a former tattoo parlor in which their artists painted a mammoth dragon up the stairwell, giving the club its name.

Maunakea Street

Maunakea Street, the heart of Honolulu's Chinatown. By the 1870's, Honolulu's well-heeled local families were leaving their homes in the downtown and harbor areas to relocate to the city outskirts. The depressed blocks in this area were left to Chinese laborers wanting to exchange plantation work for urban living. Never planned or laid in an orderly way, it consisted of a dense matrix of wooden buildings, narrow dirt streets and hidden alleyways. In 1886, a fire began in a restaurant and quickly burned out of control, spreading to nearby buildings. One rumor claims that a lottery was being conducted, and one of the gamblers, claiming he was cheated, snatched the raffle tickets and threw them into the fire. In the scramble that ensued, the wallpaper ignited. Soon the flimsy buildings were on fire; the flames burned for three days, and many in the community, including King Kalakaua, fought the blaze. Eight blocks, 7000 residents displaced and 350 homes destroyed. Though Chinatown quickly rebuilt itself, much of the recovery ignored new regulations designed to prevent future fires and the area remained cramped and congested.

In 1900, in an effort to eradicate the bubonic plague, a series of 41 planned fire cleansings were conducted. Unfortunately, high winds caused a fire around Kaumakapili Church, in the Nuuanu and Beretania Streets area to burn so out of control that it reached Honolulu Harbor. Seventeen days later, 38 acres destroyed, 4000 homes gone and Honolulu was deemed plague-free by the Board of Health …. but not after the conducted 14 additional carefully controlled burns.

Wo Fat Restaurant. The name aptly means ‘Peace and Prosperity'. Honolulu' oldest eatery, rebuilt after the ‘86 fire by owner Wat Ging, only to have it burn again in the later fire. Rebuilt and remained until 1937, when the present structure was erected, which now dominates the corner of Hotel and Maunakea Streets. During World War II, it was noted for issuing free food coupons to servicemen, a practice that continued for decades. The click-clacking of mah-jongg tiles during extended lunchtimes is now merely a fond memory. In the 80's and 90's, several unsuccessful ventures were attempted. Unfortunately, it was shuttered in 2010 and remains today a ghost of its once glorious history.

Historic District

Hawaii Theater, located on Bethel St., between Hotel and Pauahi Sts., opened in 1920 to vaudeville, plays, musicals, and the new medium, the silents. With the introduction of sound, it became a deluxe movie theater through the 1960s, gradually declining in the 70's and falling into disrepair in the 80s, until it finally closed in 1984. Concerned citizens, initially led by artist Ramsey and business executive, Sarah Richards, united to save and restore it eventually to the tune of 21 million dollars. The theater reopened in 1996 while exterior renovations continued through 2005. Among the most modern theaters in the world in 1920, it received the Outstanding Historic Award by the League of Historic Theaters in 2005. With 1400 seats, admission in 1920 was $1.50, and you could stand in the back for 50 cents. Honolulu architects, Walter Emory and Marshall Webb employed elements of neo-classical architecture for the exterior, and a rich panoply of beaux arts design for the interior, including a Lionel Walden mural for the proscenium. The Robert Warner Unified Theater Pipe Organ, one of two brought in by Consolidated Amusement (the other, at the now demolished Waikiki Theater) remains in excellent condition largely through the aegis of the Hawaii Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society which nurtured the buildings through the difficult 1970s and 80s.

The Ewa (western) boundary of Chinatown, on a typical morning on River Street near the Chinese Cultural Plaza. The essential nature of Chinatown is busy and cluttered, overflowing with the asian gamblers and the ubiquitous homeless.

Professor Peter Kun Frary, called it: The Venice of Honolulu … in jest? The area is littered with subsidized government housing as well as the best hidden jewels of local eateries … places where only the locals are welcome. On any given day at lunchtime, one can see the establishment and the crooks enjoying the local grindz in harmony.

Pauahi and Smith/A'ala Park

Pauahi and Smith Streets. Named for Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who with her husband, Charles Red Bishop, controlled a majority of private lands in Hawaii; and, one of her appointed trustees of her will, William Owen Smith, descendant of the Smith missionary family, originally from Stamford, Connecticut, who then settled in Koloa, Kauai.

The missionaries came to Hawaii to do good and ended doing very well.

In the 1940s, the area was home to great entertainment. Louis Armstrong played at the Brown Derby, which was located at the corner of Smith and Beretania. A myriad of music joints, catering to our servicemen enjoying R & R during World War II, eventually gave way to today's highly sophisticated restaurant and lounge scene. Anchored by old-timers Char Hung Sut and Mei Sum, choices now include classic cantonese of Little Village and Good Fortune and sechuan of Hunan Cuisine, now located where the Brown Derby once stood. The addition of recently opened eateries, Lucky Belly, Livestock Tavern, Ethiopean Love, HASR and Scratch, to name a few. All great food …. But bring a heavy wallet.

A'ala Park. Just ewa of Chinatown, a swampy area bordered by Nuuanu Stream which needed development to stem flooding. By 1889, masonry work to contain the stream was completed. Bounded on one side by Chinatown -- with its laundries, slaughterhouses, rail yards, piers and tenements -- on the other side A'ala Park was born. The park featured a bandstand and two baseball fields. Baseball became its defining image. Fans came out to cheer their local favorites. In 1902 the top five teams were the Honoluluans, the Kamehamehas, the Punahous, the Athletics and the Maile Ilimas. Ruled as a public park in 1925(the start of the Parks Dept.) the park was a popular gathering place for political rallies across decades. Its central location coincided with the city's main train station; parts of its tracks remain -- located makai of King Street and utilized currently as a social services outreach center.

Commuter Jay Landis remembers, "Every day the train would leave here, go down to Ka'ena Point, go to Kahuku, go load up the sugar and pineapple in Waialua, come around and stop in Makua to pick up cattle, and go back to town."

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