A Strong Backbone

Ongoing improvements support Chinatown's prized mom-and-pop culture.

May, 2002

Sun Hung “Sunny” Wong spent much of his youth cruising around Chinatown with his Palama buddies. Now its honorary mayor, the 82-year-old says the historic area still resembles that cherished childhood hangout, even though he’s witnessed firsthand the many changes that have broadened the neighborhood’s business community.

“It’s a different Chinatown from during the days when we were kids, and it’s a different group of people,” says Wong, who also is president of the Chinatown Merchants Association. “Stores used to be run by all Chinese, but now you have a good combination of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino and other types of owners.”

The former Pearl Harbor worker chuckles when he recalls the condition of the area after World War II. “It was pilau (dirty),” he says. “You couldn’t give Chinatown away. Nobody wanted it.”

But he quickly follows that statement by detailing how he and real estate developer Bob Jerrell began working closely in the ’70s with community members and the city to change that perception. His smile widens as he describes how strongly that effort thrives today. “The type of business hasn’t changed too much,” Wong says. “But the place is much cleaner and the buildings look nicer. And you can say this: These people work hard.”

Immigrant-run, “mom-and-pop” establishments remain the backbone of this 15-block district, due partly to the availability of low-rent units as well as the community-based efforts to restore the area.

Jennifer Chan decided last year to relocate her Chinese restaurant from Moiliili to a space half the size in Chinatown, because of the location’s potential to attract tourists, the downtown lunch crowd and residents from outside of the area. “We have three kinds of customers, and that’s why we always have plenty,” says Chan, who co-owns Little Village Noodle Shop with her husband, Kenneth, and friend David Chang. “And customers come to my place because of the atmosphere and a reasonably priced menu.”

So far, the move has paid off. Little Village’s gross sales have surpassed that of the former location. That’s a relief for Chan, who usually works seven days a week tending to a second restaurant near the airport as well as the Chinatown spot, whose most popular dishes include Northern-style pot stickers, Szechwan hot chicken and honey walnut shrimp.

The nonstop schedule has been customary since the couple emigrated from Hong Kong to Hawaii 30 years ago. Her husband started out as a cook in a dim sum restaurant. “In Chinatown, you have a lot of startup businesses, those with just a one-year lease, immigrant-run, or Asian businesses, and you see a lot of office space with artists moving into them,” says Andy Conboy, valuation and investment specialist at Grubb & Ellis. “It’s an odd mix. Businesses are either there because the rents are cheap or because they fit into the mystique of Chinatown.”

The city has worked closely with residents, business owners and law enforcement to reduce crime and improve the appearance of the area to increase visitor traffic. Projects have included the construction of a police substation on Maunakea Street, the installation of better street lighting and the formation of a Downtown/Chinatown task force.

“It really has made an impact on the entire community,” says Dion-Magrit Coschigano, who recently created the “Chinatown Hawaii” Web site after retiring from a 10-year career with the Historic Hawaii Foundation. “I think it’s given a lot of merchants hope. Every entity of improvement and renewal impels the progress forward.”

The federally funded Weed and Seed program – aimed at encouraging community members to help curb crime in their own neighborhoods – reports a 70 percent drop in crime in the Kalihi-Palama/Chinatown area from 1997 to 2000. The change hasn’t gone unnoticed by many businessowners, who have seen significant increases in customer numbers.

“It’s a big improvement in just the last few years; it’s night and day,” says Russ Sowers, gallery director of Ramsay Museum, located in the historic Tan Sing Building. “The traffic is a lot safer in the evening, as well. They don’t have to be afraid of the street life, which is pretty well under control.”

The city’s efforts to preserve Chinatown buildings – many dating back to the 1800s – maintain the mom-and-pop character of the area but leave little room for technological innovation. That limits the variety of businesses coming into the area, Conboy says.

“You’re very constricted with the zoning by the city and county,” Conboy says. “They’re not modern buildings, they’re not wired for modern technology. More or less, though, Chinatown is a Class C area, all lower-quality buildings without the same facilities you’ll see throughout downtown.”

Vacancy rates in Chinatown’s Class C buildings were between 21 percent and 24 percent last year, compared with downtown Honolulu’s rates of 16.5 percent to 18 percent, says Jeff Nasrallah, director of research at Grubb & Ellis.

As a result, landlords are often willing to negotiate, Conboy says, which translates into continuously low rental rates in the area. The average gross rental rates in 2001 ranged from $1.52 to $1.83 per square foot, compared with $2.17 to $2.21 in downtown Honolulu. Gross rates include the base rent and operating expenses, such as janitorial services, property taxes and insurance, and common-area maintenance costs.

“Rental rates have been pretty stable over the past five years; it hasn’t been increasing,” Conboy says. “When the market contracts, the best thing that landlords can do is retain their tenants. They’d rather have some cash flow than no cash flow.”

Those low rates have opened the door for many startup businesses, including a slight resurgence in the number of Chinatown art galleries, which had sprung up in abundance in the early ’90s.

“There’s been some fluctuation around here,” Sowers says. “There were dozens of galleries 10 years ago, and then there were only about half a dozen. Now, I’d say we’re back up to about nine or 10.”

Many of them have collaborated to organize the “Downtown Gallery Walk,” a monthly event in which Chinatown visitors receive maps that guide them to the galleries and double as dinner coupons for nearby participating restaurants.

That movement has been reinforced by the city’s ongoing efforts to establish a culture and arts district in the area, which consist of Nuuanu, Bethel and Smith streets. Along with the art galleries, the area includes Hawaii Theatre Center, various music venues and trendy bars, all aimed at converting Chinatown into a prime spot for nightlife.

“It happens because we’re all willing to do our part,” says Sandy Pohl of the Louis Pohl Art Gallery. “Little things like that, making it happen, based on a lot of aloha that’s created because we’re working together to make it happen.”

Conboy says city-sponsored events, such as the St. Patrick’s Day block party on Nuuanu last March, are slowly increasing the number of evening visitors to the area. “Right now, downtown/Chinatown is a business area that starts up at 6 a.m. and goes out at about 5 p.m.,” Conboy says. “It’s really hard to survive beyond that. There are very few examples of businesses that can go beyond 5 o’clock.”

That’s another perception Wong hopes to dispel in the near future, with the help of community members and the assistance of the city. The Chinatown Merchants Association sponsors several events every year, including Miss Chinatown Hawaii, to attract more visitors to the area. “There are more people shopping in Chinatown every day,” Wong says. “Chinatown is much better today, cleaner, safer, a good place to go shopping, because the price is right.”

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