Chinatown Historic District (Honolulu)

Wo Fat Building with large windows and green tiled roof.
Wo Fat Building in the heart of the Chinatown Historic District.

Photo by Joel Bradshaw, CC0

Quick Facts

Location:
Honolulu, Hawaii
Designation:
National Register of Historic Places
OPEN TO PUBLIC:
Yes

Chinatown Historic District is a commercial and residential district in the heart of downtown Honolulu, on the Island of Oahu. With a few exceptions, the majority of the buildings in Chinatown date from after 1900, when a large fire destroyed most of the district. The Chinatown Historic District is the largest area in the city that still recalls a historic sense of time and place. The neighborhood has retained its historic buildings and its identity as a community over the years while the population has evolved to reflect a colorful blend of cultures.
 

Chinatown was established during the 1840s and 1850s, in an area along Honolulu Harbor southwest of the freshwater Nu'uanu Stream. Whaling ships arrived in Honolulu every Spring and Fall and the harbor was one of the busiest areas of the growing city. As whaling began to decline, the sugar plantations became the main industry in the islands recruiting Chinese laborers in large numbers starting in the early 1850s and signing them to 5-year contracts. After their work contracts expired, many Chinese immigrants moved to Honolulu's Chinatown to work for existing businesses or open ones of their own. As Honolulu grew, Ancient Hawaiian fishponds along the harbor area were filled in and Nu'uanu Stream was channeled at its mouth, allowing the harbor area to expand and with it Chinatown, which eventually covered 35 acres.

 

By 1882, Chinatown was a thriving commercial district serving its own population as well as the larger Honolulu community. Because Chinatown was close to the harbor, many newly arriving immigrants used the stores and restaurants in the district as gathering places to find friends and relatives, establish contacts, and learn where to find jobs. The businesses in Chinatown eventually became the second-largest employer of Chinese immigrants after the sugar plantations. In 1886, a fire began at a restaurant in the district and quickly spread. The fire burned for three days and by the time it was put out it had destroyed eight building blocks. Chinatown was quickly rebuilt, but the new construction ignored regulations designed to prevent future fires.
 

By the late 1890s, many of the buildings in Chinatown were crowded wooden commercial, residential, and mixed use structures with little sanitation and rat infestations from the nearby harbor. In early December of 1899, an outbreak of bubonic plague in the district was exacerbated by the close living conditions. Schools were closed and Chinatown's 7000 residents were placed under quarantine. On December 31st, after 13 people had died of the plague, the Honolulu Board of Health ordered the destruction of any building in which a person had contracted the disease. Residents were evacuated and the Honolulu Fire Department began a series of controlled fires. Starting on January 1, 1900, 41 fires were set, each one successfully destroying infected buildings. On January 20th, however, the winds shifted during one of the controlled burns and burning embers were carried onto the Kaumakapili Church steeple, setting the wooden building on fire. The pumps that the fire fighters used at the time were unable to spray water as high as the steeple, and the flames quickly spread, moving from building to building and overwhelming the district. The fire burned for 17 days, destroying 38 acres of Honolulu including almost all of Chinatown. No lives were lost, however over 4,000 people were left homeless. The refugees were housed in emergency camps set up in the city, including the grounds of Kawaiaha'o Church and the area behind 'Iolani Palace. 

 

After the fire, Chinatown was encircled by a high wooden fence and access into the district was restricted. The Fire Department continued to set controlled burns, all without incident. The area was resurveyed and new building permits were issued after May 17, 1900. By June, Honolulu was declared plague-free. Today, most of the oldest buildings in Chinatown date to the early 1900s, with a few notable 19th century buildings that survived the fire.
 

By the 1920s, Chinatown was again a thriving commercial district. While the district was growing, however, the Chinese population had been shrinking. In the mid-1880s, a majority of Chinese living in the Hawaiian Islands resided in Honolulu's Chinatown. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 slowed immigration from China, sugar plantations turned to Japanese immigrants as a source of labor. Many of these Japanese laborers moved to Honolulu and Chinatown after their contracts were finished. Chinatown's Japanese residents opened theaters, hotels, cafes, and bars that served the Japanese population. Japanese immigrants were followed by Filipinos and Portuguese, making Chinatown one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Honolulu.
 

By the late 1930s, Chinatown had begun to decline as many of the Chinese residents moved to other areas of Honolulu to live while still keeping their businesses in the district. With America's entry into World War II, however, Chinatown enjoyed a new vitality when its nightclubs, restaurants, brothels along Hotel Street, and gambling parlors became a popular destination for the large military population on the islands. After the war, Chinatown fell into a long slow decline, becoming known as a hotspot for illegal activities.

 

During the 1950s and 1960s, the number of people living in Chinatown continued to drop and businesses began to suffer. The opening of the Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1959, located two miles to the southeast, meant that shoppers no longer frequented the stores in downtown Honolulu or Chinatown. Also that year, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state, setting off a tourism boom from the U.S. mainland. By 1960, tourism had overtaken sugar and pineapple as the main industry in the islands, and as areas such as Waikiki, three miles down the coast from Chinatown, became popular tourist destinations fewer and fewer people frequented Chinatown.
 

In 1973, Honolulu's Chinatown was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. As a result, the area began to revitalize and the city started to invest in Chinatown and its unique history. Government spending re-energized the local economy and encouraged private investors to return to the district. In the 1980s, Maunakea Marketplace, which incorporates the front of an older theater, and Kekaulike Mall were built to help bring commerce back to Chinatown. The residents and business owners of Chinatown were instrumental in the district's rebirth, setting up nonprofits and corporations, and working with the city to preserve and grow Chinatown. Today, Honolulu's Chinatown is once again a vibrant commercial district with smaller traditional businesses such as restaurants, shops, and bars existing alongside a growing number of art galleries and artists' studios.
 

Chinatown Historic District is the largest area in Honolulu that reflects an architectural and historic character with a distinctive sense of time and place. Most of the buildings in the district were built between 1900 and 1920, with only a very few predating the Chinatown fire of 1900.

 

The Royal Saloon Building, constructed in 1890, is one of a handful of buildings in Chinatown to have survived the 1900 fire. Located at 901 Nu'uanu Street at the corner of Nu'uanu and Merchant Streets, it was built by local barkeeper and investor Walter C. Peacock. The design of the one-story Royal Saloon Building is a blend of Florentine Gothic and Renaissance Revival Styles with cast iron decorations and white stucco pilasters, balustrade, and cornice.

Another survivor of the 1900 fire, the T. R. Foster Building, was constructed in 1891 by Thomas R. Foster, one of the founders of the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company which, in 1941, became Hawaiian Airlines. Located at 902 Nu'uanu Avenue, the Italianate-style building has white stucco pilasters, balustrade, and cornice that are similar to the Royal Saloon Building across the street.
 

The Irwin Block Building, at 928 Nu'uanu Avenue, dates from 1897. Owned by William G. Irwin, a sugarcane entrepreneur, the two-story building was designed by architects C. B. Ripley and Charles William Dickey in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and built out of rough-hewn volcanic stone and brick. In 1923, Nippu Jiji, a Japanese-language newspaper, purchased the building and added its name and the date "1895" to the top of the structure to mark the paper's founding.

 

Constructed in 1901, the Italianate-style brick and stucco Mendoca Block Building covers one entire block at North Hotel and Maunakea Streets. Architect Oliver Green Traphagen designed the building for businessman Joseph Mendoca, nephew of the Portuguese consul Jason Perry. Mendoca was a member of the Annexation Party's Committee on Public Safety, which helped to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and the Kingdom of Hawai'i in 1893, forming the Republic of Hawaii in 1894. The Mendoca Block Building was one of the first buildings constructed in Chinatown after the 1900 fire.
 

Built in 1904 by Anin Young, a Chinese businessman, the O'ahu Market is located at North King and Kekaulike Streets. Owned by the Young family for 80 years, it was sold in 1984 to the Oahu Market Corporation, founded by 24 of the market’s tenants with the support of the Historic Hawaii Foundation. The market still operates from its original building which is made of bricks and coral blocks, with a stone foundation and a wooden roof. The interior is divided into stalls that are open to the street, as they have been since 1904.
 

The Perry Block Building, on the corner of Nu'uanu Avenue and Hotel Street, dates from 1889 and is another of the several buildings in Chinatown that survived the 1900 fire. Anna Perry, the widow of the Portuguese consul Jason Perry, had the building designed and built in the Renaissance Revival and Neo-Greco styles. A design in the window keystones was taken from the Portuguese coat of arms. The sidewalk in front of the building is covered with stone pavers that came to Hawaii from China as ballast on ships.


Constructed in 1938, the Wo Fat Restaurant Building, at the corner of North Hotel and Maunakea Streets, was built in the Italianate style and features a windowed octagonal tower and architectural references to Chinese temple motifs. The original Wo Fat Restaurant opened in 1882, burned down in the fire of 1886, and was rebuilt and burned again in the fire of 1900. It was relocated in 1906 to North Hotel Street. The current building was constructed in 1938 specifically for the Wo Fat Restaurant which, until it closed in 2009, was the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Honolulu. Today the building houses the Hong Kong Supermarket, an Asian grocery store.
 

The simple Italianate-style Club Hubba Hubba building, at 25 North Hotel Street, dates from 1899 and a survivor of the Chinatown Fire of 1900. Developer Lincoln L. McCandless constructed the two-story commercial building, which has housed several businesses over the years including the popular World War II-era Aloha Cafe. Club Hubba Hubba opened in the building in 1947, becoming one of the most famous jazz and burlesque clubs in Chinatown before its closure in 1997.
 

Designed for retail with residences on the second floor, the Armstrong Building is located at 175 N King Street. Built in 1905, by James Armstrong, the building was sold to Lincoln L. McCandless in 1922 and is still owned by the McCandless family. The bluestone lava rock building housed the well-known Musashiya Fabric Store, one of the largest fabric stores in Honolulu. It was in this building that Koichiro Miyamoto, the son of Musashiya's founder, created the first Hawaiian "aloha" shirt.
 

Today, the Chinatown Historic District is a thriving area with an eclectic blend of Southeast Asian cultures including Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, and Korean peoples as well as Native Hawaiians and Caucasians. Visitors to the district can immerse themselves in the mix of various cultures and experiences while visiting the District's restaurants, stores, and Asian produce markets. In addition, part of the Honolulu Arts District, with its art galleries, performing arts spaces, and First Friday Art Walk, is in the Chinatown Historic District helping to make this area one of the most interesting and vibrant places to visit in Honolulu.

The Chinatown Historic District, located in Honolulu on the Island of Oahu, HI, is roughly bounded by Nu'uanu Stream, Beretania St., Nuuanu Ave., and the Honolulu Harbor.