HONOLULU -- It is the exotic jumble of aromas that entices you out of downtown Honolulu and into Chinatown.
Ducks slowly roasting in a meat market window. Fragrant plumeria blossoms from a lei shop. Incense smoke wafting from some unseen shrine. Tropical fruit ripening quickly in a street market.
Just as diverse are the sounds of multiple dialects being spoken, and the sights of architecture and neon lighting from bygone eras.
All of these have made the Chinatown district an intriguing tourist destination over the years -- but only in the daytime. After dark, it was a place no respectable visitor sought to be, because it always had a sailor-in-port feel, with roughhouse bars and strip clubs and a lot of unsavory
But that is changing, and fast. Chinatown has become the nightlife destination of choice for Oahu's 20-something club-hoppers -- eclipsing Waikiki -- and some inviting dining establishments and wine bars have sprung up in response to demand. The art-gallery scene has taken firm root, too, and cultural attractions are enjoying a renaissance at the renovated Hawaii Theatre Center, a former silent-picture house.
If you happen to visit Oahu at the beginning of a month, you won't want to miss the convergence of all these elements in First Fridays, which was established as an after-hours gallery walk but has morphed into a street fair, with live music performed in courtyards and on sidewalks, vendors selling jewelry,
It's a nice statement for Honolulu that so many people turn out to look at art, or at least marginally. Many galleries are choked with people -- notably the impressive Arts at Mark's Garage (1159 Nuuanu Ave.), which was displaying a show of contemporary indigenous works during our visit. Others worth a look include the Ramsay Museum (1128 Smith St.), with its quill-and-ink art, and the Pegge Hopper Gallery (1164 Nuuanu Ave.), with its dreamy paintings of island images.
Many galleries serve wine on First Fridays, and some have live acoustical music programs or poetry readings. It's a friendly, festive atmosphere.
Then, as the oldsters begin to drift off in the midevening, Chinatown's tenor changes. The neighborhood is handed over to the clubbers, who queue up at the velvet ropes in front of the Green Room Lounge, Bar 35 and other night spots.
Thus, Chinatown's nighttime vibe is no less lively than it traditionally has been, it's just a little more respectable.
And if this club scene holds no appeal for you, rest assured: Honolulu's Chinatown remains as appealing as ever in the bright light of day.
Exploring an urban ethnic district can be daunting for any visitor, and certainly for an Anglo in this one, so a guided walking tour is a good way to get acquainted with it. On a previous visit here, we were disappointed with a tour offered by Honolulu's Chinese Chamber of Commerce, because the guide imparted little information but spent most of the walk grumbling about how the neighborhood had deteriorated. This time, we opted for a stroll with the Hawaii Heritage Center and were treated to a much more rewarding experience.
Wendell Ching, a retired nuclear engineer at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, led the way, and he could fall back on some deep roots in Hawaii.
"In the late 1880s, my great-great-grandfather was put on a ship from Canton to America," he said. "He was below, with the coolies, and he got very sick. They put him off in Hawaii." And the family has been here ever since.
Ching knows many of the merchants of Chinatown, and the strength of this tour was the number of glimpses it provided behind the scenes.
We stepped into Shung Chon Yuen (1027 Maunakea St.), a bakery where peanut candy was being rolled out on vast sheets. We climbed the stairs to Lum Sai Ho Tong temple (1315 River St.) and sat for a time in front of the lavish altar, our senses assaulted by thick, pungent incense smoke. We were led into the back room of Cindy's Lei & Flower Shoppe (1034 Maunakea St.), where the air was richly scented by the fresh flowers that women were stringing on leis.
We spent a few minutes in -- but were eager to get out of -- the Ying Leong Look Funn Factory (1028 Kekaulike St.), where a thin batter was poured onto rectangular pans to make sheet after sheet of rice noodle. It was dark in there. It was hot. The steam in the room was oppressive. "I wouldn't want to work here," Ching said as we returned to the sidewalk.
"This is a sweat shop." (He was referring to the atmosphere, not the demands on the workers. I think.)
Another stop was the Hou Ren Tong herb shop (183 N. King St.), where the proprietor pulled out a jar of dried sea horse. "This is for general health," he said. "We grind it up into powder and put it in tea." Here's hoping for some tangible benefit -- it costs $32 an ounce.
Buoyed by the discoveries of the tour, we returned for some independent ramblings on another day.
As hotel-dwellers, we didn't have much need for fresh produce or meat, but it was nonetheless fun to poke through the open-air Kekaulike and Oahu markets, where savvy locals come to shop for the island's best prices on produce, fish and meat.
The ethnic cooking styles create demand for some unusual cuts, though. At one meat stall in the Oahu Market, various slabs of pork were displayed. Along with an entire, intact pig's head. That's right: propped right up there on top of the counter, gazing vacantly out into the busy market. It made me hesitant about ordering the "hot & sour soup" when we later stopped for lunch at the Little Village noodle shop.
Elsewhere, we happened upon a string ensemble of elderly Chinese men playing music in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza, and, nearby, incense sticks being lit at a little outdoor shrine that honors Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion and mercy in the Buddhist faith.
Chinatown here is by no means homogenous. Along its western edge, demarked by the Nuuanu Stream, are Filipino and Vietnamese businesses, as well as a Japanese Shinto shrine, the Izumo Taishakyo Mission, built in 1923 without a single nail.
The blend of ethnic influences mirrors the growth of Hawaii's population, and the birth of Chinatown, more than a century ago.
As entrepreneurs began to establish plantations -- first sugar, later pineapple -- on these islands of rich volcanic soil and temperate climes, workers were needed in the fields. Poor people in distant countries were recruited, from Portugal, China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and South Seas islands.
When the work contracts of the Chinese workers were up, many moved to the city with an enterprising spirit, establishing small shops, restaurants, temples and clubhouses in an area west of downtown. Just up from Honolulu Harbor, it then became the gateway to Hawaii for many Pacific Rim immigrants.
By the turn of the 20th century, there were 153 Chinese stores in Honolulu, according to ChinatownHI.com, a local business association.
Then, suddenly, there weren't many at all.
When cases of bubonic plague were detected in the neighborhood in 1900, the city government concluded that one way to keep the black death from spreading would be to burn down a building in which an afflicted person had resided. But you can probably guess the result: Before long, most of the neighborhood was up in flames.
Chinatown rebuilt, though, and later was bypassed during the building boom of nondescript modern towers that swept through Honolulu and Waikiki in the 1960s. As a result, it today resembles a historic town in the American West, with two-story buildings constructed of stone or brick.
There are a few surprises mixed in here, if you have a keen eye to seek them out.
Those rough-hewn stones imbedded in the sidewalk? They were ballast for clipper ships that arrived in Hawaii, left behind when the hulls were loaded up with the islands' precious native woods of koa, sandalwood and ohia. Paving stones for sidewalks seemed a sensible reuse for them.
A Bank of Hawaii branch at 101 N. King St. looks unassuming from the outside, but inside are teller cages framed in polished wood and a historic drawing of the Honolulu waterfront hanging on the wall.
See if you can identify the signs of the Chinese zodiac -- they're all represented by medallions embedded into the upper perimeter of the Chinatown Gateway Plaza building (1031 Nuuanu Ave.).
And don't miss the Lucky Lions, marble sculptures that guard the eastern gateway to Chinatown (Hotel and Bethel streets).
This neighborhood's transformation is nowhere near complete. You'll still find homeless people and druggies (and sometimes homeless druggies), and the creepy sex establishments still advertise their "fantasy booths."
But one encouraging bit of juxtapositioning can be found in a block of Hotel Street. A red-brick building that was home to the notorious Hubba Hubba Club -- a popular haunt for sailors during World War II -- is shuttered, its neon sign dark.
Right next door is the 2-year-old Bar 35, with its live music, indoor and outdoor congregating spaces, and menu of 110 beers. Oh, and a line down the sidewalk to get in. The clientele, waiting patiently, is mostly local kids, with a few tourists sprinkled in. There is nothing the least bit rowdy about the scene.
It feels civilized, safe. What a refreshing change for Honolulu's Chinatown.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Honolulu's Chinatown is a fairly compact neighborhood -- about five blocks by five blocks -- on the western edge of downtown. It's roughly bordered by Bethel Street on the east, North Beretania Street on the north, the harbor on the south and Nuuanu Stream on the west.
TRAVELER TIPS: Parking is a real crunch in this neighborhood. Avoid the lot at Aloha Tower; the rates there are larcenous. Look for blue signs with a capital P throughout Chinatown. These are reasonably priced public lots. There's a good-sizeparking structure on North Beretania between Smith Street and Nuuanu Avenue. ... Hotel Street through here is for buses only, but the signs declaring this fact are not exactly prominent. It's one of the Honolulu Police Department's favorite tickets. ... The second-favorite ticket is for jaywalking in Chinatown, particularly during the busy street fair that is First Fridays. The fine is $70, and plainclothes officers prowl the streets looking for offenders.
WALKING TOUR: The guided tour mentioned in the story is conducted by the Hawaii Heritage Center. The two-hour tour, which costs $10, is offered Fridays at 9:30 a.m. Meet at the center, 1040 Smith St. Reservations (not required): (808) 521-2749.
HAWAII THEATRE: Stages live theater, an eclectic musical slate (classical, ethnic, jazz), comedians and classic films. 1130 Bethel St. www.hawaiitheatre.com; (808) 528-0506.
INFORMATION: A neighborhood business association provides information on activities, shopping, dining and other attractions at www.chinatownhi.com. Also, check the tourist brochure racks for one titled "Gallery Walk" or "Restaurant Guide" (depending on which side of it is facing out); it has a detailed walking map and comprehensive listings for art outlets and eateries.A TASTE OF HONOLULU'S CHINATOWN
HONOLULU -- The Australians at the next table caught our attention. They hadn't gotten to a barbecued-pork pastry, and hated to be wasteful. They were graciously offering it.
We were already well into an order of sweet, sesame-studded rolls for dessert. But oh, what the heck; anything for positive international relations.
Having eyes that exceed appetites is a common occurrence at a dim sum house, particularly at Legend Seafood Restaurant, reputed to be one of the better such establishments in Honolulu's Chinatown.
There's nothing notable about the decor -- a big, brightly lit hall, with light colors and tables that have an institutional aspect. The emphasis, instead, is on the tasty morsels that pass through the restaurant on carts.
Char siu (sweet barbecued pork) is a house specialty, and it can be found stuffed into dumplings, buns and the aforementioned pastries.
We were also pleased to find items prepared at table (because with dim sum, you never know how many trips around the dining room a particular item has taken). Cooked to order on the cart were sizzling pan-fried dumplings with shrimp and chives, among other delights.
On the negative side, we had to flag down some of the carts (at most such restaurants you have to wave them off), spinach was cooked within an inch of its life, and in a sea of tea-drinkers it's not the easiest place to get a beer. But on balance it's a tasty place to eat. And overeat.
Another reliable lunch spot in Chinatown is Little Village, which combines fresh ingredients with innovative preparations. Check the specials menu for anything with the word "volcano" in it. It's a steamy dish prepared in an aluminum-foil shell -- a pork chop, on our visit -- and the scents and flavors burst forth when it's liberated at your table.
For dinner, Indigo has long been one of our favorite restaurants in Honolulu, but on a recent visit we found that it has suffered from the explosive success of its bar, the Green Room, which has become one of the hottest clubs in Chinatown -- if not Honolulu.
A brick-walled courtyard hung with huge paper lanterns used to be an enchanting place to get a table for dinner, but now that area is often crowded with young club-goers, such that dinner customers must be content with a table in an adjoining room. But the din from the bar was deafening on a Friday night, such that people at a table for two must lean forward and shout at one another and the waiter must stoop down to detail the specials menu.
Service was inconsistent and seemed overwhelmed. We selected a wine to go with our starter courses, but they arrived before it did. When we brought this to the waiter's attention as he passed by, he seemed peeved, saying, "I'll get it as soon as I can" (which proved to be when we were nearly finished with the dishes).
Also disappointing was a main course of silver snapper. Indigo's strength has always been its Eurasian stylings with local ingredients, but this fish was tricked up with such an elaborate preparation that you couldn't tell what you were eating.
-- Legend Seafood Restaurant, 100 N. Beretania St., (808) 532-1868. Little Village, 1113 Smith St., (808) 545-3008. Indigo, 1121 Nuuanu Ave., (808) 521-2900, www. indigo-hawaii.com.-- Eric Noland