Let your taste buds lead the way. Experience Honolulu’s eclectic Chinese-inspired culinary scene and open-air markets that define this culturally diverse neighborhood.
One of the more ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods in cosmopolitan Honolulu is Chinatown, a microcosm of today’s Honolulu. It provides a real cross-cultural experience with influences from its Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese and Hawaiian residents.
Next to central downtown Honolulu on Oahu, Chinatown is a 15-square block area bound by Nu`uanu Stream and River Street on the north, Bethel Street south, and by Beretania and King Streets east and west. It’s a compact area filled with much to explore and discover on your Honolulu vacation.
In 1852, the Chinese were the first immigrant laborers to arrive in Hawaii to work on the growing sugar cane plantations. Completing their labor contracts, many relocated to the Chinatown area of Honolulu to enter the business world. With its exotic mix of cultures and peoples, Chinatown gained a disreputable name over time as an undesirable slum area known for its saloons, debauchery, drugs and dens of ill repute.
Disaster struck Chinatown on January 20, 1900. In an effort to control an outbreak of the bubonic plague, the Board of Health and Fire Department attempted to do a controlled burn of rat-infested buildings. However, the fires quickly got out of control and many buildings were soon engulfed by flames. The Great Chinatown Fire burned for 17 days, destroying 38 acres of property and leaving 4,000 residents homeless. Somewhat ironically, the Board of Health declared the area plague-free four months later.
Today, Chinatown’s former reputation for debauchery and worse has been toned down considerably. While there are still a couple of seedy taverns and bars along Hotel Street that are probably best avoided, Chinatown is a lively and colorful community to explore.
In recent years, Chinatown has initiated a community makeover. Buildings have been renovated to meet historical codes in structure and appearance, giving Chinatown an old-yet-new look. Now much cleaner and more appealing, Chinatown retains its cultural essence with its Chinese herbal medicine shops, dim sum and noodle restaurants, manapua (meat-filled steamed dumplings) shops, art galleries, and the hustle and bustle of its open-air markets and vendor stalls.
Today’s Chinatown is a fun place to stroll through, where you can enjoy a market visit, eat some great dim sum and noodles, or just take in the cross-cultural diversity of Honolulu’s most colorful and historic neighborhood.
For Chinatown Honolulu shopping, colorful open-air markets include the Oahu Market (established in 1904) at the corner of King and Kekaulike Street, the Kekaulike Market on the Kekaulike Street Mall between King and Hotel streets and Mauna Kea Marketplace on Mauna Kea Street between Hotel and Pauahi streets.
At the markets, you’ll find fresh fish and seafood shops, butcher shops with racks of roast char siu pork, chicken and duck, plus produce tables piled high with colorful fresh exotic vegetables, fruits and produce of all kinds. The markets make for an interesting shopping adventure!
Be sure to visit one of Chinatown’s cultural icons—the Chinese herbal medicine shops. Among the colorful and somewhat mysterious shops are Tak Wah Tong (100 N. Beretania) in the Chinese Cultural Plaza, Fook Sau Tong (112 N. King St.) and Chee Wo Tong (1033 Maunakea St.). Many of these shops have more than 1,000 kinds of dried plants, bark, roots, leaves, twigs, flowers, mushrooms and fungi, and other mysterious plant and animal products on its shelves, all used to treat various ailments and illnesses.
Small Chinese bakeries, food stores, general stores, Asian import stores, flower and lei shops, art and antique galleries and more round out Chinatown. It all makes for an exciting and colorful self-guided exploration of this cosmopolitan neighborhood of Honolulu.
You say you’re hungry after all that walking and exploring of Chinatown? From anywhere in Chinatown, you’re just steps away from a number of food stalls, diners, cafés, and restaurants, with everything from Thai to Vietnamese, Korean to Japanese, Filipino to Hawaiian and, of course, Chinese cuisine.
A few of the better-known Chinatown Honolulu restaurants are Indigo (1121 Nu`uanu Ave.), an upscale restaurant offering a creative menu of Euro-Asian fusion cuisine. The inconspicuous Mei Sum Dim Sum (65 North Pauahi St.), features a wide selection of Hong Kong-style dim sum. Adventurous diners will appreciate Little Village Noodle House (1113 Smith St.) a small restaurant with a big menu of creative Northern Chinese and Szechuan cuisine. The Empress Restaurant (100 N. Beretania St.), in the Chinese Cultural Plaza, offers a menu of Hong Kong-style dim sum and varied Chinese cuisine.
Or follow the locals and head for Ruby Bakery & Coffee Shop (119 N. Hotel St.) which has a reasonably priced menu of traditional and local Chinese favorites. Char Hung Sut Manapua (64 N. Pauahi St.) is a Chinatown institution best noted for its boxes of take-out manapua, char siu, noodles, pork hash balls and more.
Exploring and discovering Honolulu Chinatown attractions, like so much else in Honolulu, is always an adventure. It’s an opportunity to immerse oneself in the diversity and cross-cultural experience that is the heart and soul of one of the Pacific Rim’s most cosmopolitan cities.