Honolulu’s Chinatown After Quarantine

It’s been more than two weeks since my second Pfizer vaccine, and I figured my immunity was finally strong enough to survive a full day out in Honolulu’s Chinatown neighborhood. In some ways, nothing much has changed. The vegetable stands are as abundant as they ever were, offering local produce sold at reasonable prices (if you don’t want to spend $10 on a Whole Foods mango, Chinatown is the place to be). I don’t think you can get a better deal on a pineapple in all of O’ahu. Pass the open vegetable stands of the Kekaulike Market, and the air smells sweet of fruit, decomposition, and urine. The hot Honolulu sun wilts the kale even as you buy it. I don’t know how the Chinatown vegetable ladies keep the flies away.

There aren’t many places in Honolulu where you can be a real flaneur, but Chinatown is one of them. Of course, the flaneur is always male, maleness being something of an invisibility cloak. (My experience has been this: within a half hour of walking alone down Chinatown’s streets as a solitary female, a strange man in an SUV drove slowly by, cat calling, or worse.) To be a flaneur is to observe city life from a perspective of relative invisibility, and from this perch of invisibility to have the capacity to comment on capitalism, commerce, and modernity. To be a woman in Honolulu’s Chinatown is to be hardly invisible at all.

At least in contemporary literature, we don’t need to look far to find the male flaneur (I can’t think of any women flaneurs, right off the top of my head, though perhaps Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway comes close). Take the Paris Review’s comment on Teju Cole’s Open City as the modern flaneur novel, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. Lacking maleness myself, I strolled beside my boyfriend for the day, and felt invisible enough. Being a relatively recent transplant to Hawai’i also helps (by recent, I mean I’ve lived here close to three years, but in Hawai’i, where everything is so far away, time is measured in decades).

Walk through Chinatown long enough and you’ll pass the best lei shops in the city smelling of plumeria and tuberose, but you’ll still need to keep your eyes on the sidewalk lest you step on the smeared human feces and occasional drug paraphernalia. The good news is that most business owners will hose down the sidewalk regularly, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your feet. The city and some local businesses like to blame the River of Life Mission that feeds the homeless in the heart of Chinatown, but the real problem is the lack of meaningful mental health and addiction services, and the lack of affordable housing. It’s easy to spend $200,000 to power wash and disinfect the sidewalks, and plant new trees, and call that a “makeover,” as was Kirk Caldwell’s plan reported by the Star Advertiser in July. It’s much harder to actually implement a progressive tax system that will support the homeless, provide them with needed housing, medical care, and mental health services, and to properly regulate property speculators who profit more from keeping buildings empty rather than occupied. It’s easy to blame the River of Life by shutting it down, hoping the homeless will just go away with a little “compassionate disruption.” But without permanent beds or mental health services, the police sweeps are just disruption; compassionate they are not.

Walk along River Street and you’ll pass those barefoot souls who will not be disrupted, sleeping on the sidewalk, or loitering outside the consignment shop. Walk further along into the heart of Chinatown, past the fenced in Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, and you’ll find those who have made a set of interlocking umbrellas their tents.

The city likes to focus on aesthetic solutions, but the real problems derive from a legacy of colonialism and war. Since the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, locals have suffered from a range of issues including a silent epidemic of mental health and substance abuse, homelessness, and domestic violence. The veterans of America’s great industrialized wars still struggle to adjust to everyday life with PTSD when they come home. And the children and women refugees of domestic violence still have no place to go. When all seems lost, Chinatown is an option.

The dialogue about broken windows in abandoned buildings continues, while people sleep on the streets.

Mary Magdalene of Chinatown. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Mary Magdalene of Chinatown. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

For a part of town that bills itself as Honolulu’s “Arts District” there’s shockingly little art, unless you count the many pieces of graffiti on the boarded-up businesses. The ARTS at Mark’s Garage, the Manifest, Downtown Art Center, and Arts & Letters Nu’uanu, offer rotating shows featuring local artists, but I don’t expect Artforum to publish reviews anytime soon. Honolulu isn’t even on Artforum’s drop down list of art cities in its directory of “must see” shows. No one flies to Hawai’i for the art, anyway, but people might come for a tattoo or two. Chinatown is the neighborhood where Sailor Jerry, one of the “old school” tattoo masters tatted the sailors and soldiers passing through Honolulu during World War II. He launched a whole new genre of art. Fortunately, the historic tattoo shops are open for business. I passed the Black Cat Tattoo and glimpsed Sue Kidder at work on her latest human canvas. Kidder works in a wide range of tattoo styles and if I was going to get a tattoo from anyone here it would be her. I’m not planning on getting a new tattoo, though. The vaccines were enough needles for this year, at least.

As I walked, I tried to make sense of what remained, what is gone, and what the future might bring. The Star Advertiser reports that 30% of Chinatown businesses shut down because of the pandemic. Some of the strongest cultural mainstays have remained, some have closed, and others have just moved shop. Roberta Oaks Hawai’i sells her vibrant locally-sewn Hawaiian shirts on a sunny corner store located at the intersection of Pauahi Street and Nu’uanu Avenue; the store no longer tucked away on Pauahi. If you’re a local, her shop is the place to get your Aloha Shirt. The Pegge Hopper Gallery is gone, closed during the pandemic, and replaced by Arts & Letters Nu’uanu which features a small bookstore specializing in native Hawaiian books, and rotating art shows. The space offers promise, and it’s thrilling to see books in Chinatown. During the deep days of the pandemic, I visited the shop for its grand opening and the curators had on display a fascinating show featuring vintage Hawaiian photos. The images were haunting, and familiar at the same time. I hope the curators keep making these kinds of discoveries. 

Hound & Quail next door is a cabinet of curiosities. I’d never bothered entering the store before the pandemic, but on this particular Saturday, I felt life stirring within the previously-quiet shop. Hipsters loitered about, hovering over the tables of leather goods. I studied the preserved insects, the titles of the antique books (nothing to write home about), the taxidermized deer head, and rummaged through the vintage photographs. I imagine Joseph Cornell might have loved a store like this, but in New York City, such stores were once a dime a dozen, and you didn’t pay the hipster tax on purchases.

Down the street, at ARTS at Mark’s Garage, a new coffee shop, Cool Beans, has opened its doors. I wish there were couches, but the baristas are nice, and the smell of the used books in the small Friends of the Library bookstore is comforting. Most of the shows at Mark’s Garage have the feel of a youth fair art show and I approach the shows at Mark’s Garage like a thrift store shopper. If you look closely, with an open eye, you’ll find treasures, every now and then. I wasn’t disappointed.

For lunch, we had burgers at The Other Side, the diner formerly known as Downbeat. The diner has been lightly redecorated. Gone are the booths featuring cartoon sketches of local heroes. I remember the vegetarian wings being a transcendent experience, something I wish I could give to my formerly vegan self. But that was before the pandemic. These days I eat burgers for strength.

During the height of quarantine, my boyfriend shared an art space with a friend. Driving through the neighborhood in those days was eerie, all boarded up windows and the desire to hold one’s breath while walking. Friends warned me against walking around alone even by day because people were being bludgeoned in the street in broad daylight. I don’t imagine much has changed, though everything has changed. I still half expect to be bludgeoned when walking alone.

We returned to the studio after our walk, a walk-up art space tucked away behind a blue door advertising tax services. You wouldn’t know that several artists work upstairs. Though several female artists work in the space, the woman’s bathroom was locked mid-pandemic and I couldn’t find the right key. The struggle is real. (Since writing this, the key has mysteriously materialized.)

After a day of work (I spent the day reading the books I’d picked up at Arts & Letters Nu’uanu, I like the idea of having a book about foraging for mushrooms, but in practice, it’s all pretty useless), we had drinks at the Manifest, the best bar in Chinatown by far (coffee shop by morning), where you’ll be most likely to meet the city’s artists and writers; sometimes they’re behind the bar, sometimes they’re drinking at it. For dinner, we picked up a pizza at J. Dolan’s (a little soggy, but as close as you’ll get to a Brooklyn slice in the Pacific). On the way back to the studio from our pizza run, we passed the Hawai’i Theatre, the walls of its gallery, white and bare—the promise of things to come, but what? The marquee promises a grand opening, but when?

Chinatown is a strange neighborhood. It’s so gritty, you’d think the rent would be affordable, but it’s not. Landlords seem happy to keep buildings empty for the purpose of speculation rather than rent the space to tenants and businesses at an affordable price. This is not just a problem in Honolulu’s Chinatown. It’s a problem everywhere. If rent goes down, the property value of a building goes down, and there’s no tax penalty for leaving a space vacant, or for owning a property in one city and living somewhere else.

In Hawai’i gentrification doesn’t happen slowly. It superpositions itself over the creative spaces, supplanting them before they even have a chance to grow, flourish. What will come of all the boarded up spaces of Chinatown? Will they open new vibrant possibilities or remain vacant? My guess is the latter unless progressive policy makes it more costly to leave a building empty than occupied. But this isn’t a problem specific to Hawai’i.

As the sun set, the party busses from Waikiki rolled in, bringing tourists ready to get drunk at the bars. Barbaric yawls filled the streets, and my boyfriend and I decided it was time to head home.

I want to be a part of the idea of Chinatown—the idea of a vibrant arts district, a fertile ground for the exchange of ideas, a crossroads of people where the ladies buying fish heads and celery for their fish head soup can rub shoulders with the tattoo kids and writers nursing their Ernest Hemingway dreams of the ocean. Werner Herzog once said that money was “stupid and cowardly, slow and unimaginative…” but “if your project has real substance ultimately money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs.” I believe the stupid and cowardly part about money. It’s going to take a lot more substance than washing the streets to revitalize Chinatown.

There was something honest and tomb-like about Honolulu’s Chinatown during quarantine. It was quiet. The homeless, for once, were just trying to survive and not get sick like the rest of us. Now, there are places to go, windows to look into, and shoeless and shirtless men to look away from. People dress up to go out to eat, while people sleep on cardboard boxes just feet away. The same was true when I lived in Brooklyn, but in O’ahu, an island just 44 miles long, where everyone and everything is truly connected, there is a special kind of obscenity to the scene, at least to me.

Do I want to be a part of Honolulu’s Chinatown? Maybe it’s more a question of whether I’m in a Dostoevsky or Wordsworth kind of mood. Do I want a coffee-intoxicated ramble over shit-smeared sidewalks in search of the idea of other people (because in these days of Instagram-ready socialization, it’s the idea of other people I see everywhere, and not the people themselves), or do I want to wander lonely as a cloud into the Pacific in search of swells?

Chinatown these days makes for great Instagram posts, if you have the right angle and cropping. I didn’t take any photos, though. 

We returned home to our parking garage at our place in Waikiki—which has the same issues as Chinatown, just one glossed over for the tourists (in just the last week there have been two stabbings). Our neighbor was there—filming herself rolling skating. Her skate wheels lit up blue like firecrackers. She had matching shoulder and knee pads. She was Instagram-ready. It was the first time I’ve ever seen her smile.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.