Tour tells of vibrant downtown history


POSTED: Sunday, December 20, 2009

The history of downtown Honolulu is as rich with intrigue, adventure and drama as a Tom Clancy novel.

Few people know, for example, that:

» Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the CIA's Hawaii offices were on a hidden fifth floor of the Dillingham Transportation Building on Bishop Street. The floor remained a secret until 1987, when the building's new owner conducted a detailed survey of the site.

» Earl Derr Biggers based Charlie Chan, the shrewd hero of his famous mystery series, on Chang Apana, a real-life Chinese detective who worked at the Honolulu Police Department's downtown station in the 1920s. Chan carried a gun, but Apana's weapon of choice was a braided leather bullwhip, which he had learned to use with great skill during his earlier days as a Big Island cowboy.

» In the southeast sector of Iolani Palace's grounds, in an area known long ago as Pohukaina, is a ti leaf-covered plot ringed by red bricks and a wrought-iron fence. It marks the site of a tomb built of coral blocks in 1825 to hold the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu, who had both died of measles in London the year before.





        Meet at: Aliiolani Hale, 417 S. King St. (the building behind the King Kamehameha statue)

Offered: Saturdays and Sundays, rain or shine


Time: 9 a.m.


Cost: Cash only. $15 for adults, $10 for military personnel, seniors age 60 and older, and students with current school identification. Ask about rates for groups and private tours.


Phone: (866) 204-7331. Reservations are requested but walk-ins are welcome.


E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


Web site: www.ohanatours.org


Notes: The 3-mile route is paved and level, so participants in wheelchairs can be accommodated. The closest parking structure is a few blocks from the meeting spot at Alii Place, 1099 Alakea St.




This was the final resting place for the alii (royalty) until October 1865, when Mauna Ala, a new mausoleum in Nuuanu, was completed. On the night of Oct. 30, 1865, King Kamehameha V led a torch-lit procession that carried 21 coffins, including those of Kamehameha II and his queen, from Pohukaina to Mauna Ala. The reinterment was done at night because, according to ancient Hawaiian belief, that is when the gods are present.

Although the original tomb was razed, its location is fenced out of respect for the alii who are still buried there, including Kalaniopuu, who was king of the Big Island when Capt. James Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778.

Kailua resident Richard Wong shares many such fascinating tidbits during the twice-weekly stroll through downtown Honolulu that he leads for Ohana Walking Tours.

“;I've always been a history buff,”; said Wong, a retired Honolulu police officer. “;I got interested in the downtown area because of my hobby collecting old bottles. I spent a lot of time going through the photo records at the State Archives and Bishop Museum to see where houses and businesses were in the 1800s. I figured I'd have the best chance finding bottles in those places.”;

According to Wong, Honolulu didn't have an organized refuse service back then. “;People threw their trash in a pit or an outhouse in their back yard,”; he said. “;I knew if I could find those pits and outhouses, there would be all kinds of neat stuff in them.”;

In 1979, Wong found a 6-pound cannonball in an open lot near the YWCA on Richards Street. Because of its proximity to Iolani Palace, he believes it came from one of the cannons that King Kalakaua bought in the late 1800s for the Royal Guard, the monarchy's private military force.

“;There are interesting things to talk about in every block of downtown Honolulu,”; Wong said. “;Most people walk by them without noticing them or knowing what they are.”;

A good example of this relates to a blockhouse that Russian sailors built in 1814 at the corner of what is now Nimitz Highway and Fort Street Mall. King Kamehameha expelled them, commandeered the building and directed John Young, his British military adviser, to erect a fort there. Young supervised the construction of walls around the blockhouse and a two-story fort armed with 60 cannons. That, incidentally, is how Fort Street got its name.




There are interesting things to talk about in every block of downtown Honolulu.”;
        —Richard Wong / Speaking of the Ohana Walking Tour.



In 1850 the fort was demolished, and the coral blocks used to build it were crushed and scattered on the peninsula where Aloha Tower Marketplace now stands. The cannons were sold for $5 apiece. Ships' captains bought most of them to use as anchors. One cannon rests on a small lawn at the foot of Fort Street Mall—probably on the very site of Kamehameha's fort. Two cannons became hitching posts at the Kamehameha V Post Office, built in 1871 at the intersection of Bethel and Merchant streets.

Ohana Walking Tours is the brainchild of Casey Hewes, a nurse at Castle Medical Center. While visiting New York in 2007, he and a friend enjoyed a walking tour of downtown Manhattan. Inspiration struck. “;I love museums and history, and I thought, 'Why not start a walking tour on Oahu?'”; Hewes said. “;The ideas for Ohana Walking Tours fell into place quickly, but the right guide did not. I interviewed at least seven people before I met Richard.”;

Hewes launched Ohana Walking Tours in October 2008. The response has been an enthusiastic thumbs-up, thanks to Wong's passion and knowledge about the subject matter.

“;Richard does an amazing job,”; Hewes said. “;A history professor from Vancouver did quite a bit of research on Hawaiian history before coming here on vacation. He took the tour, and his comment afterward was, 'Richard is a wealth of knowledge. He really filled in the blanks for me.'”;

Wong's anecdotes run the gamut, from the monarchy, missionary and plantation eras to notable entrepreneurs, events and buildings. A highlight is Our Lady of Peace cathedral, where Father Damien de Veuster, who was canonized as a saint two months ago, was ordained on May 24, 1864.

The tour is supposed to be two hours, but plan on it being closer to three. Wong, the consummate storyteller, inevitably runs out of time before he runs out of tales.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.