Captain Cook’s voyage of exploration and ‘contact’ with the Islands in 1778 opened Hawai‘i to the world – it also showed the world the possibilities of the fur trade via the North American Northwest Coast. (Quimby)
The maritime fur trade focused on acquiring furs of sea otters, seals and other animals from the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska. The furs were mostly sold in China in exchange for tea, silks, porcelain and other Chinese goods, which were then sold in Europe and the US.
American and British trading ships began plying between the American Northwest and South China, stopping at various ports in the Hawaiian Islands to replenish their supplies of food and water.
“In the month of January 1788, in conjunction with several British merchants resident in India, I purchased and fitted out two vessels, named the Felice and the Iphigenia … (each) built with sufficient strength to resist the tempestuous weather so much to be apprehended in the Northern Pacific Ocean, during the winter season.”
“The crews of these ships consisted of Europeans and China-men, with a larger proportion of the former. The Chinese were, on this occasion, shipped as an experiment: – they have been generally esteemed an hardy, and industrious, as well as ingenious race of people …”
“… they live on fish and rice, and, requiring but low wages, it was a matter also of economical consideration to employ them; and during the whole of the voyage there was every reason to be satisfied with their services.-If hereafter trading posts should be established on the American coast, a colony of these men would be a very important acquisition.” (Mears, 1790)
Shortly thereafter, in 1790, the American schooner Eleanora, with Simon Metcalf as master, reached Maui from Macao using a crew of 10-Americans and 45-Chinese. (Nordyke & Lee)
Crewmen from China were employed as cooks, carpenters and artisans, and Chinese businessmen sailed as passengers to America. Some of these men disembarked in Hawai‘i and remained as new settlers.
Sandalwood was first recognized as a commercial product in Hawai‘i in 1791 by Captain Kendrick (mainland merchants brought cotton, cloth and other goods for trade with the Hawaiians for their sandalwood – who would then trade the sandalwood in China.) Additional Chinese may have left their ships during the sandalwood trading.
Near the mouth of Nuʻuanu Stream, makai of King Street, is called Kapuʻukolo, a place “where white men and such dwelt.” At a nearby coral point was “where the first custom house stood.”
“In the vicinity of the custom house at the beach was a house for the first Chinese ever seen here. There were two or three of them, and they prepared food for the captains of the ship which took sandalwood to China.” (‘I‘i, Barrere & Rockwood)
“Because the faces of these people were unusual and their speech – which is not commonly heard – strange, a great number of persons went to look at them.” (I‘i; Kai)
Robert C Wyllie noted that by 1844 some Chinese had opened shops near the waterfront: “There are three stores kept by Chinamen, viz: Samping & Co, Ahung & Co and Tyhune.” (Wyllie, The Friend August 1, 1844)
In the mid-1840s, following defeat by Britain in the first Opium War, a series of natural catastrophes occurred across China resulting in famine, peasant uprisings and rebellions; many Chinese seized the opportunity to go elsewhere. (PBS) Some came to the Islands.
The region now known as Chinatown was established during the 1840s and 1850s, in an area along Honolulu Harbor southwest of Nuʻuanu Stream. (NPS) It is reportedly the oldest Chinese quarter in the US. (SunSentinel)
Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages at Island sugar plantations were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America. The first to arrive were the Chinese (1852.)
The sugar industry grew, so did the Chinese population in Hawaiʻi. (Between 1852 and 1884, the population of Chinese in Hawai‘i increased from 364 to 18,254, to become almost a quarter of the population of the Kingdom (almost 30% of them were living in Honolulu.)) (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
By the early-1860s extensive tracts of irrigated taro land were being turned over to the cultivation of rice, and at various outlying locations, large sugar plantations were emerging on the island scene. As a result, programs of Chinese immigration for the workforce were implemented.
In 1862, the first rice mill in the Hawaiian Islands was constructed in Honolulu (prior to that it was sent unhulled and uncleaned to be milled in San Francisco.) (By 1887, over 13-million pounds of rice were exported. In 1899, Hawaiʻi’s rice production had expanded so that it placed third in production of rice behind Louisiana and South Carolina.)
By 1884 the area in the vicinity of Honolulu’s Mauna Kea, Nuʻuanu, King and Beretania Streets was heavily devoted to Chinese businesses and residences. The 1886 fire burned most of “Chinatown” to the ground. The Chinese residents quickly rebuilt, but by the early-1890s, sanitary conditions and a “slum-like” environment brought about renewed fears of cholera and other diseases.
In December 1899, the first case of bubonic plague was confirmed in Chinatown, and events following identification of the case, and subsequent deaths, led to relocating hundreds of people from Chinatown to Kaka‘ako on January 5, 1900.
Schools were closed, and Chinatown, with its 7,000 inhabitants, was placed under quarantine. In hopes of containing the plague only within Honolulu, the Board of Health closed the port of Honolulu to both incoming and outgoing vessels.
On January 6, 1900, “controlled fires” began to be set at buildings where victims had resided, and additional quarantine facilities capable of housing 2,000 people were being set up in Kalihi.
As cases of the plague continued to increase, “controlled burns,” were used in larger areas in an effort to remove the threat. On January 20, 1900, the fire between Beretania, Kukui, River and Nuʻuanu Streets went wild, and the entire area, including Kaumakapili Church, was destroyed.
From there, the flames spread, and a day later, on January 21, 1900 nearly all the buildings between Kukui, Queen, River and Nuʻuanu Streets were burned to the ground. (Kepa Maly)
Because the fire displaced the residential population of Chinatown, as the area was rebuilt, the Chinese only rebuilt their businesses in the neighborhood – not their homes.
Chinatown reached its peak in the 1930s. In the days before air travel, visitors arrived in the Islands by cruise ship; it was just a block up the street was the pier where they disembarked – and they often headed straight for the shops and restaurants of Chinatown, which visitors considered an exotic treat.
Today, Chinatown Historic District is the largest area in the city that still recalls a historic sense of time and place. (NPS) (SunSentinel)