An authentic taste of Asia lies in the downtown Honolulu Chinatown, where great food, attractions, and people come together in a patchwork of East-meets-West. The labyrinth of galleries, eateries, and shops, all boasting strong cultural elements true to China, offer tourists an excellent place to explore by foot. Walking tours of Honolulu Chinatown are the best way to discover the ins and outs of this culturally rich island area.
After surviving not one, but two disastrous area fires, Oahu Chinatown is now enjoying a revival of sorts and offering up a wealth of local history to thousands of annual visitors. Unique, vibrant, and curious, Chinatown is a must-see during Oahu vacations. The mesh of Asian cultures includes Chinese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Hawaiian, and Japanese influences, offering a colorful community to discover.
One of the richest elements of the Chinatown in Honolulu is the longstanding history behind the Asian settlement. Historians have tracked the ingress of the first Chinese people in Hawaii back to 1789. It wasn't until the mid 1800s that large clusters of Chinese immigrants began arriving for work on the island's sugar plantations. As with most culturally assimilated settlements around the world, eventually a tight-knit community sprang up, brimming with family-run businesses where goods and services were sold and traded. The Honolulu Chinatown assumed the name around 1870 when the Chinese population reached substantial numbers in the area.
Narrowly avoiding complete destruction, the Chinatown in Honolulu has contended with a few harrowing setbacks. Raging fires tore through the area in 1886, burning for three days and destroying almost everything in the eight full blocks. The next setback came with the announcement of the bubonic plague outbreak, beginning in 1899, which saw the Oahu Chinatown placed under strict quarantine. Plans to eradicate the spreading disease were put in place in 1900, and fires were set to burn down contaminated buildings. Originally meant as a controlled fire, unforeseen winds blew the flames out of control and devastated nearly the entire area once more.
Recovery was one strength the Chinese people of Oahu kept a strong grip on. Though the area has had its ups and downs and has been affected by crime, neglect, and disrepair, locals have banded together over the years and infused new life into the area. One of the most significant efforts has been the restoration of the celebrated Hawaii Theatre, an important attraction to see during Honolulu vacations. Walking tours of Oahu Chinatown can be taken each Tuesday through the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii. Visitors can explore numerous beautiful area temples, taste an array of delicacies at top food stalls, and enjoy great shopping.
Self-guided tours of the Honolulu Chinatown are entirely possible if you miss the Tuesday tours. Maps are available at various locations through numerous Oahu resorts and hotels. Locals do warn tourists not to wander in Chinatown at night as a precaution, so stick to daytime or early evening trips in well-frequented areas. In January, there are abundant Chinese festivals and special events happening. Although it is incredibly busy, it's also an exciting time to visit. Chinese New Year is a cause for major celebration, and Chinatown is full of all kinds of things to do in Honolulu. Plan well ahead for accommodation in any Honolulu hotels at this time.
Eclectic, mysterious, and locally significant, Chinatown in Honolulu is just one piece of the puzzle comprising Oahu's history. Three major markets are one of the biggest highlights of Chinatown, and they offer some of the freshest produce, seafood, and other foods on the island. A bite to eat at one of the market food stalls is a great way to try some Asian favorites. Nearby flower and lei shops permeate the air with sweet scents, adding yet another distinct layer of intrigue to this unique island district.
Image: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) - Tor Johnson