Rejuvenated Chinatown is hub for arts and culture
The area once known as a red-light district now houses three dozen art venues
Just a few years ago, Chinatown held the dubious distinction of being Honolulu's best-known red-light district. Seedy bars, strip joints, pool halls and pornographic theaters and bookstores had settled within its 36 acres bordered by King, Smith, Beretania and River streets. Prostitution and drug dealing were rampant, and most upstanding citizens went there only during the day to shop for fresh fish and produce or to eat a dim-sum lunch.
For more information about Chinatown, visit www.chinatownhi.com.
Chinese Chamber of Commerce: 9:30 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; costs $10 per person. Recommended for 12 and older. Call 533-3181.
Hawaii Heritage Center: 9:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. Costs $10 per person, $3 for ages 3 to 17. Call 521-2749.
Calendar of Events
Here are highlights of Chinatown happenings over the next few weeks. Call for details:
The ARTS at Marks Garage, 521-2903
Jan. 31: reVERSES: poetry readings and jazz music
Feb. 2-25: Hygienic Dress League exhibit, a funny and slightly disturbing commentary on the world of fashion
Feb. 4: On the Spot, improvisational comedy
Feb. 10-12 and 17-20: Femme Capulet, a controversial adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet"
Hawaii Theatre, 528-0506
January 26, 28, 29: Three Phantoms in Concert
Feb. 3-5: Jack Cione's "Mardi Gras Follies"
Feb. 10: Na Palapalai
Louis Pohl Gallery, 521-1812
Jan. 27-Feb. 25: "Unleashed! A Celebration of the Year of the Dog" exhibit
1132 Bishop St., 599-5009
Jan. 30-March 2: 43rd annual Hawaii Region of the Scholastic Art Awards 2006 recognizing creative excellence among seventh- through 12th-graders
Chinatown Open House, 533-3181
Jan. 27-28: Ethnic dance troupes; martial arts and weapons demonstrations; appearances by the newly crowned Narcissus Queen and her court; and vendors selling jai (vegetarian monk's food), gin doi (Chinese doughnut), gau (pudding), narcissus plants and good-luck calligraphy messages; at Chinatown Cultural Plaza
First Friday, 521-2903
Feb. 3: Features the opening reception for Marks' Hygienic Dress League exhibit; the grand opening of On King (184 N. King St.), Chinatown's newest art gallery and live-music venue; and Tea at 1024's 10th-anniversary party with music by classical guitarist Winston Tam and the Angel Harp Ensemble, a father-and-daughter art exhibit by Danton and Nicole Naone, and free samplings of tea sandwiches from 5 to 6 p.m.
Nuuanu Mardi Gras Celebration, 550-8457
Feb. 28: Takes place on Nuuanu Avenue, between Pauahi and King streets, with costume contest, live bands, food and roaming jugglers, clowns and palm readers.
Over the past five years, city officials, community leaders and entrepreneurs have banded together to spruce up Chinatown's appearance and reputation. As a result, the once sleazy district is becoming known as a vibrant hub for culture, entertainment and the arts.
The artist Ramsay pioneered Chinatown's current art movement by purchasing the Tan Sing Building (circa 1926) in 1982 as the home for her Ramsay Museum. For 20-plus years she has sponsored more than 200 shows spotlighting works by fellow local artists as well as the finely detailed quill-and-ink drawings of Hawaii's historic buildings that have won her international acclaim.
In 1984, when the Hawaii Theatre (circa 1922) was threatened with demolition, Ramsay secured the option to purchase it, using funds from an art commission she received. A nonprofit corporation, the Hawaii Theatre Center, subsequently was founded to save and restore the grand downtown landmark that now hosts a wide variety of presentations, from plays to concerts to dance performances.
"In the mid-1970s, Wing Tek Lum, a poet, introduced me to the neighborhood," Ramsay recalls. "I was immediately struck by its historic importance and authenticity. Yes, it was rough, but so is a gem before it is polished!
"With its close proximity to the financial district and Honolulu Harbor, I could see the potential for artists, with vision and sensitivity, to enhance rather than change the innate charm of the place. By the mid-'80s there were six artist-operated galleries in Chinatown. Through the years, interest has grown, and it is gratifying to see it happen."
Today, Chinatown is home to some three dozen venues for artistic expression, including the rRed Elephant (1144 Bethel St.), a cozy coffeehouse that features a small stage for acoustic entertainment and contemporary art exhibits that change monthly (Pearl Ling's petroglyphs and J. Bennett's American Indian sculptures will be on view through the end of the month).
Finishing touches are being put on the rRed Elephant's adjacent Live Venue, a 2,600-square-foot performance space equipped with a 24-by-17-foot stage, theatrical stage lighting, concert sound system, 130-seat theater and state-of-the-art recording and video production studios. Its grand opening will be on March 3.
At thirtyninehotel (39 N. Hotel St.), eclectic works by local, mainland and international artists dress up the second floor of a renovated century-old building with 13-foot ceilings and big white walls. Customers in their mid-20s through 60s spill onto the gallery's 1,100-square-foot patio Tuesday nights when there's live jazz and on Saturday nights when modern dance music is spun by deejays.
Downstairs, crowds pack Bar 35 (35 N. Hotel St., a slick New York-style watering hole that offers '60s-through-'80s rock 'n' roll background music, 120 specialty beers, a full-service alfresco garden bar and an intriguing menu of gourmet pizzas. Think Cantonese Kiss (slow-cooked crispy pork, sweet plum sauce and crispy won tons), Smoky Heaven (smoked salmon and cream cheese) and La Dolce Vita (semisweet chocolate, bananas and marshmallows).
STAR-BULLETIN / 2005
Bar 35 offers rock 'n' roll music and intriguing gourmet pizzas.
Literally next door, ultra-hip Next Door (43 N. Hotel St.) celebrates contemporary music and innovative independent films from around the world in a 3,500-square-foot multimedia venue that's part concert hall, part cinema lounge. A decade ago this was the address of a store selling porn books and videos. Fashionably dressed yuppies now flock to Next Door on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for hip-hop, soul, reggae, funk, jazz and contemporary Hawaiian music (usually live) and dance music played by celebrity deejays from London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, New York, San Francisco and other entertainment hot spots.
Starting Feb. 5, Next Door will screen groundbreaking indie flicks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Its "cinema lounge" format will allow customers to enjoy wine or beer with the movie, and plans are in the works for food service, as well. The fifth annual Cinema Paradise Independent Film Festival will run May 12-19 at Next Door and other Chinatown venues.
STAR-BULLETIN / 2001
The ARTS at Marks Garage has 11 businesses and organizations sharing office, gallery and performing space in an old parking garage.
The ARTS at Marks Garage, which many patrons simply call "Marks," is another leader in the campaign to rejuvenate Chinatown. It was founded in July 2001 as a result of a city resolution that provided seed money to establish an incubator arts enterprise program.
Eleven small businesses and arts organizations serve as Marks' partners: Hawaii Watercolor Society, Hawaii Craftsmen, PHG Foundation, Lizard Loft, Hawaii Academy of the Performing Arts, Hawaii Shakespeare Festival, Meader Arts, Orig Media, Smashbox Productions, Tim Bostock Productions and the Upside-Down Dance Co. They share 4,200 square feet of office, gallery and performance space in an old parking garage and present about 60 exhibits, performances, workshops and other events annually.
Launched in May 2003, First Friday is the most visible of Marks programs.
On the first Friday every month, this self-guided evening gallery walk draws some 2,000 people to two dozen downtown art spots including museums, galleries and cafes, welcoming visitors to artists' receptions, demonstrations, lectures and special sales.
Marks' managing director Kim Coffee-Isaak said, "Arts programs such as First Friday celebrate our cultural traditions and bring people together for fun, mental stimulation and positive reinforcement about their own creative endeavors."
STAR-BULLETIN / 1996
The Hawaii Theatre was restored after being threatened with demolition in 1984.
When she and her colleagues began considering Chinatown for the ARTS at Marks project in 2000, many people thought they were crazy.
"The drug dealing, the derelict and empty buildings, and the lack of a vibrant business community did not bode well for a successful nonprofit arts enterprise project," she said. "Many art galleries had opened and closed in Chinatown. But Hawaii Theatre was coming to life, the nonprofit Honolulu Culture and Arts District was founded to stimulate the economic and cultural renaissance of the area, and our landlord shared the vision we had of using the arts as a catalyst to revitalize the neighborhood."
They decided to take a chance with Chinatown. Since the ARTS at Marks Garage was launched 4 1/2 years ago, crime in the area has been reduced, several historic buildings have been renovated and a clean, pedestrian-friendly arts district has emerged. Fifteen galleries, 10 retail shops and at least six great restaurants have opened and are thriving.
Every chance she gets, Coffee-Isaak touts the pluses of Chinatown: "Come here and buy your food, most of which comes from local farmers and fishermen. Breathe in the exotic smells. Stroll among a rainbow of races and eat their wonderful cuisine -- Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and more. Admire the unique architecture. Support our arts community by viewing and buying their incredible creations. One of my goals is to get people out of the malls and into 'real' places like Chinatown."
STAR-BULLETIN / 2005
Eclectic works can be seen at thirtyninehotel.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Artist Ramsay pioneered Chinatown's current art movement by purchasing the Tan Sing Building in 1982 as the home for her museum.
COURTESY CINEMA PARADISE
The Cinema Paradise Independent Film Festival is held annually at the multimedia venue Next Door.
STAR-BULLETIN / 2006
The arts district in Chinatown on a First Friday night.
THE ARTS AT MARKS GARAGE
First Friday at the ARTS at Marks Garage.
COURTESY RRED ELEPHANT
rRed Elephant Espresso/Tea House, Gallery and Live Venue.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.