We associate and call the approximate 36-acres on the Ewa side of Downtown Honolulu, “Chinatown.” But it wasn’t always called that; and, the Chinese were not the only group to occupy the place.
In ancient times, the area fronting Honolulu Harbor was said to be called “Kou.” Back then, the shoreline was along what is now Queen Street (in the 1850s-60s, the reef was filled over to make the Esplanade – where Aloha Tower now stands.)
Honolulu Harbor, also known as Kuloloia, was entered by the first foreigner, Captain William Brown of the English ship Butterworth, in 1794. He named the harbor “Fair Haven.” The name Honolulu (meaning “sheltered bay” – with numerous variations in spelling) soon came into use.
To the left of Kou was “Kapuʻukolo;” beginning near the mouth of Nuʻuanu Stream, makai of King Street was “where white men and such dwelt.” Of the approximate sixty white residents on O‘ahu in 1810, nearly all lived in the village, and many were in the service of the king.
Among them were Francisco de Paula Marin, the Spaniard who introduced and cultivated many of the plants commonly associated with the Islands, and Isaac Davis, friend and co-advisor with John Young to Kamehameha.
Marin arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1793 or 1794; Kamehameha granted Marin a couple acres of land Ewa of the King’s compound on the Honolulu waterfront (near Nuʻuanu Stream.)
He planted a wide range of fruits and vegetables, vine and orchards – his “New Vineyard” grapevines were located Waikīkī side of Nuʻuanu Stream and makai of Vineyard Street; when a road was cut through its mauka boundary, it became known as Vineyard Street
In 1809, Kamehameha I moved his compound here, to an area referred to as Pākākā fronting the harbor (this is the area, in 1810, where negotiations between King Kaumuali‘i of Kaua‘i and Kamehameha I took place – Kaumuali‘i ceded Kauaʻi and Ni‘ihau to Kamehameha.)
By the late-1830s, some 6,000 people lived in the town proper, with perhaps another 3,000 in the suburbs. Foreigners numbered 350-400 – about 200-250 were Americans, 75-100 English, 30-40 Chinese and the remainder, a thin sprinkling of French, Spanish, Portuguese and other nationalities.
Hawaiians’ houses, estimated to number 600, were chiefly of the traditional “grass shack” type, vulnerable to occasional high winds that scalped, twisted, or even demolished them. A few foreigners lived in wooden or coral “stone” homes; most, however, inhabited houses built of adobes.
At the end of 1837, the Gazette complained about the mud walls encroaching on streets. Thoroughfares were reduced to skinny, zigzag alleys, and squares to “pig-sty corners” where pedestrians inched sideways.
The newspaper, campaigning for a regular plan, warned that neglecting this matter would make it “… an expensive and difficult task for the future population to rectify the mistakes of their ancestors.” 1838 is remembered as the year Honolulu got real roads.
By 1848, the city was regularly laid out with principal streets crossing at right angles, cut up into regular squares – “making it easy to find the way from one part to another without difficulty.” The most of the streets are wide and pleasant (however, the white adobe walls fronting the streets “when the sun is bright the reflection of this light and heat is very unpleasant.”)
While the first Chinese arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1789, it wasn’t until 1852 that the Chinese became the first contract sugar plantation laborers to arrive in the islands.
With the growth of the sugar industry, the need for plantation laborers became imperative, and China was selected as the best source of immediate cheap labor due to proximity and the interest of the Chinese in coming to Hawaii to work.
Between 1852 and 1876, 3,908 Chinese were imported as contract laborers, compared with only 148 Japanese and 223 South Sea Islanders. Around 1882, the Chinese in Hawaii formed nearly 49% of the total plantation working force, and for a time outnumbered Caucasians in the islands.
It had been noted, according to one observer in 1882, for the fact that the great majority of its business establishments “watchmakers’ and jewelers’ shops, shoe-shops, tailor shops, saddle and harness shops, furniture-shops, tinshops, cabinet shops and bakeries, (were) all run by Chinamen with Chinese workmen.”
By 1884, the Chinese population in Honolulu reached 5,000, and the number of Chinese doing plantation work declined. As a group they became very important in business in Hawaii, and 75% of them were concentrated in the 25 acres of downtown called Chinatown where they built their clubhouses, herb shops, restaurants, temples and retail stores. In 1896, there were 153 Chinese stores in Honolulu, of which 72 were in Chinatown.
In 1886, calamity struck Chinatown when a fire raged out of control and destroyed the homes of 7,000 Chinese and 350 Native Hawaiians, and most of Chinatown. The fire lasted three days and destroyed over eight blocks of Chinatown.
Then, again, in 1900, the area burned when deliberate fires set to wipe out the bubonic plague spread through Chinatown.
The highest proportion of Chinese inhabitants in this area, as recorded by an official census, was 56.3 percent in 1900, just three months after the second devastating Chinatown fire, and this ratio dropped to 53.8 percent in 1920 and still further to 47.0 percent in 1930.
By 1940, Japanese had exceeded the number of Chinese residents, and by 1970, persons of Chinese ancestry made up less than 20 percent of the inhabitants of the area.
Honolulu’s Chinatown is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the Western Hemisphere. Inspiration and information here comes from chinatownhi-com.