The rich history of Chinatown has its roots in the area once known as the village of Kou, which consisted of mud flats and raised coral that allowed vegetation to thrive with various indigenous plants. At the end of the Nuuanu Stream, Mamala Bay provided Hawaiians with the perfect conditions to build a fishpond, which archaeologists date back to 890 A.D. Near the village was Pukaka heiau, a temple dedicated to the god of agriculture, Lono. Today, Aloha Tower stands in its place.
The first Chinese arrived in the islands in the late 1700s on their fur trading voyage, but the first Chinese to take residence in Hawaii did not occur until the early 1800s. With many plantation owners recruiting laborers to work on their sugar fields, the number of foreigners skyrocketed. Over time, the waterfront of Kou turned into what we now know as Honolulu Harbor. Chinatown took shape in the 1840s and 1850s, as the area developed in response to the whaling trade. In the 1860s, the area continued to transform – this time for business and residential use.
Chinatown has proven its resilience by rebuilding after not one but two devastating fires. In 1886, a fire began in a restaurant and raged for three days, setting fire to much of Chinatown due to its dense wooden buildings and narrow streets. The second incident occurred due to a plague outbreak in Chinatown in 1900. The Department of Health issued a controlled fire cleansing, but high winds caused the blaze to spread, and it ended up lasting 17 days. Despite these devastating fires, Chinatown remained a vibrant business district through the 1920s. Starting in the 1930s, many Chinese moved away from Chinatown as people began to settle into the suburbs. Chinatown therefore saw itself become less of a village substitute for foreign arrivals and more of a business district. Today, Chinatown continues to maintain its vibrancy and authenticity for culture.
Despite all of its changes and adaptations in alignment with Hawaii’s rich history, Chinatown has managed to maintain its authenticity. Stepping into Chinatown, you can feel the historical presence in the people, the buildings, and the atmosphere. Chinatown continues to be a representative place for Hawaii’s diverse culture.
Take a look at this video to see how Chinatown has changed to allow local tastes and culture to flourish while still maintaining its unique historical character.