Every month on the first Friday, the Honolulu Arts District and Chinatown host a street festival featuring the art galleries, shops, restaurants, live entertainment, street vendors, and more. Many establishments offer discounts, food and drink specials, and free entertainment. Most shops are open from 5-9PM, but you can party into the night at bars and clubs throughout the neighborhood.
About Honolulu Arts District and Chinatown
Downtown Honolulu is bounded by Nuʻuanu Stream to the west, Ward Avenue to the east, Vineyard Boulevard to the north, and Honolulu Harbor to the south. It comprises four districts: the Capitol District, Chinatown, the Central Business District, and the Waterfront. Each neighborhood boasts its own unique cultural, historical and social features. Places of interest include Iolani Palace, Kawaiaha’o Church, the King Kamehameha I Statue, Washington Place (the Governor’s mansion), and Honolulu Hale (Honolulu’s City Hall). A new high-intensity mixed-use IwileFi district is under transformation as an extension of Downtown.
The Honolulu Arts District is roughly 12 blocks, sandwiched between downtown Honolulu and Chinatown. The Arts District is defined by the Nimitz Highway along the waterfront and mauka to Beretania Street, between Bethel and Smith Streets.
Chinatown continues west of Smith Street to River Street along the Nu’uanu stream. Over the years, an eclectic mix of cultures have settled in Chinatown—named for the primary inhabitants at its inception in the mid 1850s. Today, there is a mix of Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese, as well as as well as Native Hawaiians and Caucasians. It is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Honolulu. The neighborhood has weathered ups and downs through the decades following the 1886 and 1900 fires, through World War II in the 1940s, the effects of the 1959 opening of Ala Moana Mall two miles east and Hawai’i statehood, then later decades shifting urban populations plus influences from the developing tourism trade. The area is re-inventing itself once again.
Chinatown Fires of 1886 and 1900
In the mid-1800s, Honolulu’s now historic Chinatown began to develop when immigrants came to work in the sugar cane fields on 5-year contracts. After their contract ended, many Chinese workers settled as residents in the area along Nu’uanu stream. Some bought land and built businesses.
In 1886 and 1900, the area was twice decimated by fire. The 1886 fire started in a restaurant and burned for three days, destroying eight blocks. The second fire was purposely started on January 1, 1900 to eradicate the bubonic plague which was raging through the neighborhood. Unfortunately, winds whipped embers from one of the 41 fires onto the wooden Kaumakapili Church steeple. The fire truck pumps could not reach the steeple and the fire began to spread. It burned for 17 days and destroyed almost all of the wooden structures in Chinatown.
A few buildings survived the fire, but most buildings you see today in Chinatown were built between 1901-1920 and are constructed of brick, stone, and concrete. The following lists include some of the survivors and some of the newer buildings, all of which can be visited in Chinatown today. Look for them during your First Friday art walk. The stories they could tell….
Buildings that survived Chinatown fires
- The Royal Saloon Building, 901 Nu’uanu Street (corner of Merchant Street) was constructed in 1890 and is one of the few buildings in Chinatown to have survived the 1900 fire. The design of the building is a blend of Florentine Gothic and Renaissance Revival Styles with cast iron decorations and white stucco pilasters, balustrade, and cornice.
- The T. R. Foster Building, 902 Nu’uanu Avenue, was constructed in 1891. 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, 928 Nu’uanu Avenue, dates from 1897. The Richardsonian Romanesque style building is built 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.
- The Perry Block Building, on the corner of Nu’uanu Avenue and Hotel Street, dates from 1889 and is another survivor of the 1900 fire. The building design is Renaissance Revival and Neo-Greco styles. The sidewalk in front of the building is covered with stone pavers that came to Hawai’i from China as ballast on ships.
- The Club Hubba Hubba building, 25 North Hotel Street, dates from 1899 and is a survivor of the fire of 1900. The two-story commercial building in simple Italianate-style housed several businesses over the years including the popular World War II-era Aloha Café. Club Hubba Hubba operated from 1947 to 1997.
Buildings constructed after Chinatown fires
- Mendoca Block Building covers one entire block at North Hotel and Maunakea Streets and was one of the first buildings constructed in Chinatown after the 1900 fire.
- O’ahu Market at North King and Kekaulike Streets was built in 1904 by Anin Young and owned by the Young family for 80 years. In 1984 it was sold 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, on a stone foundation with a wooden roof. The interior is divided into stalls that are open to the street, as they have been since 1904.
- The Armstrong Building, 175 N King Street was built in 1905. 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.
The Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel Street, was built in 1920. The Beaux Arts design includes ornate moldings and classical pillars, with elements of Art Deco added later. Over the years, it operated as a live playhouse and movie theater. Renovated in 1996 as a new live performance theater, including a modern electronic lighting and sound system.
- The Wo Fat Restaurant Building, at the corner of North Hotel and Maunakea Streets, was constructed in 1938. The design is the Italianate style, featuring an octagonal tower and architectural references to Chinese temple motifs. The original Wo Fat Restaurant opened in 1882, burned down in 1886, was rebuilt, burned down again in 1900, and then relocated in 1906 to North Hotel Street, until the current building was constructed in 1938 specifically for the restaurant. (Now THAT is resilience.) Until it closed in 2009, Wo Fat was the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Honolulu. Today the building houses the Hong Kong Supermarket Asian grocery store.
- Chinatown Cultural Plaza, 100 North Beretania Street, built in 1974 is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood. The mini-mall and open air plaza offer a variety of shopping and dining options, plus entertainment and services. Chinatown Cultural Plaza map (PDF)
On the first Friday of every month, the Honolulu Arts District and Chinatown are alive with art exhibits and entertainment in a street festival atmosphere featuring an exciting mix of of artists, tourists, and locals. Explore art galleries, boutiques, and street vendors while enjoying live entertainment throughout the neighborhood.
After the shops close, Chinatown’s bars and clubs remain open for drinking, dancing, and music.
Parking map: First Friday Honolulu Parking (batchgeo.com)
More info: First Friday Honolulu (firstfridayhawaii.com) and First Friday Hawaii | Facebook
Self-guided Honolulu Chinatown walking tours
Here are a few suggested routes around the neighborhood:
- A short, circular route around the neighborhood includes a walk along Maunakea Street from Beretania to King Street, then turn up Smith Street and head back to Beretania.
- Another route goes down Hotel and up King Streets between Maunakea and River Streets.
- And finally, from Beretania, head down Nu’uanu Avenue to S King Street, and take on Bethel Street back to Beretania.
- GPSmyCity walking tour is another option using your smartphone: GPSmyCity: Chinatown and Arts District Walk (Self Guided), Honolulu
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