Under the Sun
Closings of businesses dull the color of Hawaii
OOO, peanut candy," my sister called out as we drove through Kaimuki town early Saturday morning.
Spying a rare on-street parking slot, I pulled over quickly. She and my mom slid from the car, heading for Kwong On for a supply of the chewy sweet to take back with her to Pennsylvania.
Kwong On is one of the few stores open that time of day, and long-time customers know to get there near sunrise, before the good stuff sells out.
Besides bags of omiyage candy and manapua, my sister and mother carried sad news -- a staple of the neighborhood will be closing by month's end. It will join a long list of venerable retailers, restaurants and businesses that have flipped over "Yes, We're Open" signs to the other side.
"Closed" seems to be the applicable posting for 2007, appearing on scores of shuttered doors across the island.
Some fronted outfits with weak, if any, links to Hawaii, like Jackie's Kitchen at Ala Moana Center, or were early chain entries, like TGI Fridays.
Others, like H. Hamada Store, Kam Bowl and Garden House, were landmarks. Still others, like the Kaimuki Columbia Inn and the Windward Flamingo, were de-lustered versions of past-favored establishments that still boasted loyal patrons.
But most branded Honolulu with character, that hard-to-define quality of individuality that taken as a whole created a distinctive city. They were treasured partly because the people who ran them were identifiable faces, lots of them owners with clear stakes in the operation.
In many cases, that became the reason for closing a business. Owners retired, younger generations with different goals had no appetite for carrying on, understandable given the heavy workloads and skimpy profit returns usually involved.
An old-fashioned purveyor of Chinese goods and foods, Kwong On is remarkably charming in no-frills presentation. Along one wall of the narrow store are shelves holding gilded trinkets, ceremonial objects and supplies and cloudy plastic bags of dried fruit, mushrooms and mystery merchandise. On the other side, a pastry case displays jin doi and confections. Bustling clerks shuttle between a steam table with chow fun, chow mein and sweet-sour spare ribs and a back bar of pork hash, char sui bao and rice cakes.
Customers pinch take-a-number tabs and rubber-neck to see what other people are buying, hoping their favorites aren't in short supply. Regulars are quickly served; one man needed only to hold up a finger to get his order going.
Personal connections make the passing of places like Varsity Theater and Arts Hawaii discomforting. It's hard to let go of the vast, musty auditorium where a charismatic professor folded contemporary events and rock-music lyrics into ancient history to concoct eloquent lessons. It's hard to see an old friend withdraw from providing high-quality, etched-glass pieces, shut down and bid so long to the islands.
Altering tastes, cultural shifts and a marketplace tuned to masses rather than individuals relentlessly wear away Hawaii's complexion. Aggressiveness has supplanted attentiveness, formulaic monotony has usurped assortment. But, I'm told, that's what people want or at least what most do.
For those of us who aren't counted among "most," the loss of an old-style, long-time business or two or three or 20 tones down the color and vigor of the islands. The mutation forfeits diversity.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org