Explore Chinatown in Honolulu!
Chinatown’s longtime reputation as a seedy neighborhood with a Red Light District is slowly transforming. Today when you walk Chinatown Honolulu’s streets you will not only see remnants from its storied history, but you will also be able to visit award-winning restaurants, art galleries, interesting boutiques, and busy markets.
The History of Chinatown Honolulu: Whaling Ships to Fires to Booming Businesses
Chinatown’s first buildings were constructed during the 1840s and 1850s near Honolulu Harbor, as arriving whaling ships made Chinatown one of the busiest areas of Honolulu. When whaling declined, Chinese laborers, who came to Hawaii to work on the sugarcane plantations, settled into Chinatown’s streets, opening businesses of their own and expanding the thriving commercial area to cover around 35 acres.
A devasting fire in 1886 destroyed eight building blocks and quick construction resulted in few building regulations being followed. By the late 1890s, Chinatown had more than 7000 residents, and the close quarters with minimal sanitation spurred the Bubonic Plague. After a number of deaths, the city of Honolulu decided to destroy buildings where the disease had been contracted. Despite efforts to control fires that were set on January 1, 1900, shifting winds resulted in 38 acres being burned down in Honolulu, including almost all of Chinatown. Although nearly 4000 residents became homeless, Chinatown was declared plague-free by June 1900.
By the 1920s, Chinatown had been rebuilt once again into a thriving commercial district, with newly immigrating Japanese plantation laborers opening theaters, hotels, cafes, and bars. Many of the buildings found in Chinatown Honolulu today are from this era. Filipino and Portuguese plantation laborers also moved to Chinatown, creating a vibrant Honolulu neighborhood.
With the onset of World War II in the late 1930s, Chinatown once again experienced a revival. The nightclubs, restaurants, brothels, and gambling parlors along Hotel Street were a popular destination for the many military members coming to Oahu, giving Chinatown a reputation as a Red Light District.
Once the war ended, Chinatown’s business declined, and it became known as a hotspot for illegal activities. With the opening of Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1959 and the branding of Waikiki as a tourist destination for people from the U.S. Mainland, fewer and fewer people frequented Chinatown, and its reputation for prostitution, gambling, and other criminal activities grew.
However, in 1973 Chinatown Honolulu was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. And the business owners in Chinatown continued to try to revitalize interest in the district – along with encouragement from government spending. Their arduous efforts can be seen today.
Chinatown Honolulu 2021 has a diverse blend of Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Native Hawaiians, and Caucasian cultures – offering unique experiences for visitors and residents. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic closing some Chinatown shops, there is still hope that many of the art galleries, performing art spaces, and boutiques will survive. And Chinatown’s popular restaurants and bars will most likely surpass the trying times of the coronavirus pandemic, continuing its revitalizing as a trendy and desirable Honolulu destination.
Where is Chinatown Honolulu?
The Chinatown Historic District is located in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. It is roughly bounded by Nuuanu Stream, Beretania Street, Nuuanu Avenue, and the Honolulu Harbor.
What are the top Chinatown Honolulu restaurants?
There are many places to eat in Chinatown Honolulu – offering Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, American, Thai, Ethiopian, and more. Here are a few of the best Chinatown restaurants.
The Pig and The Lady
This award-winning, family-run restaurant serves mouthwatering Vietnamese fusion food. Try their pho and sandwiches.
This modern, farm-to-table restaurant has unique dishes such as foie gras gyoza and house-made gnocchi. At this cozy restaurant, reservations are recommended.
Serving simple, American comfort food with an innovative twist, Livestock Tavern always has new seasonal dishes. Some of their popular dishes include prime rib, lobster roll, tavern burger, and clam chowder.
This popular Honolulu ramen restaurant also has pork belly bao, lamb lumpia, oxtail dumplings, and hot pot options.
Formerly known as JJ Dolans, this is one of the top places to get pizza in Honolulu. With New York style pies and an Irish pub vibe, J Dolans is always a hit.
Little Village Noodle House
This Chinese restaurant offers an array of Chinese food options, including hot and sour soup, honey walnut shrimp, lettuce wraps, and spring rolls. They are open for lunch and dinner.
This family-owned Thai restaurant in Chinatown Honolulu serves mouthwatering dishes for dinner. Try the pad thai, drunken noodles, tom yum soup, or special cake, and you will not be disappointed.
Mei Sum Dim Sum
How can Chinatown be Chinatown without dim sum? This small Cantonese restaurant is always filled with people, and their reasonably priced dim sum is made fresh by hand each day. The dim sum carts are available during lunchtime (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and dim sum is available off the menu for dinner.
This longtime Chinatown restaurant serves local Hawaiian and American food – sometimes in a fusion way. Try the loco moco, vegan chicken katsu, French toast, Rueben sandwich, or buffalo chicken.
Olay’s Thai Lao Cuisine
Like its name says, this Chinatown restaurant serves Thai and Lao food. It has long hours being open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week. Their most popular dishes are the spring rolls, pad Thai, summer rolls, mango sticky rice, papaya salad, and tom yum.
Only open for dinner, this is Oahu’s only Ethiopian restaurant. Use the unique spongy bread to scope up delicious meat and vegetable dishes. Some of the top orders are the lamb tibs, shiro, romi, and miser wot. Enjoy this fun Ethiopian eating experience in the heart of Chinatown.
What are the popular Chinatown Honolulu bars?
If you want to meet new people and try delicious drinks, Chinatown is the place to go on Oahu. There are a number of bars and clubs within walking distance, and locals, tourists, and military members frequent the establishments, making Chinatown a fun place for a night out.
Chinatown Honolulu hours typically end around midnight or 2 a.m. at the latest due to strict liquor laws in Honolulu. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, all bars close by 10 p.m. and must also serve food to stay open.
Coffee bar by day and chic cocktail bar by night – Manifest serves up cocktail creations in their trendy space. They have a daily happy hour as well as Trivia Night.
The Tchin Tchin Bar
Walk up a set of stairs to be greeted by an upscale lounge with an open rooftop patio. They have an extensive wine list, artisan cocktails, and some delicious dishes.
With drag shows, men in Speedos, and cage dancers, this is the place for a night on the town. They are open Friday and Saturday only from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., and there is a cover charge to get inside. Scarlet has not reportedly closed down due to COVID-19 restrictions; however, it is advised to call before going to ensure they are open.
Proof Social Club
This bar also has pizza and sandwiches – and a late-night happy hour. A pool table and bar games make the ambiance even more lively.
Smith’s Union Bar
Open every day from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., Smith’s Union Bar is a staple in the Chinatown community. It has been open since 1934 and is the oldest bar on Oahu. This dive bar has cheap beer, a local vibe, and $1 karaoke.
Located where the historic Swing Club once was, Bar 35 serves craft cocktails and mouthwatering pizzas. They often have fun events, including cigar and whiskey nights, happy hours, game nights, trivia nights, and live music.
The Dragon Upstairs
This hole-in-the-wall jazz bar has live music most nights along with poetry slams, comic nights, karaoke, and other fun entertainment to keep the crowd lively. They have Chinese-themed decorations with reasonably priced, strong drinks.
Is Chinatown’s reputation as being dangerous true?
Chinatown Honolulu has popular restaurants, bars, shops, and art galleries, but while you walk the streets, you will notice that its reputation as a more dangerous neighborhood on Oahu exists for a reason. Late-night fights on Hotel Street are not uncommon, and there is a houseless population who call the streets of Chinatown home.
However, if you are from a big city – like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or even Beijing – Honolulu’s Chinatown most likely will not phase you. If you follow some basic safety precautions while visiting Chinatown, such as keeping your valuables safe, staying in a group, and going home at a reasonable hour, you probably will have a great time.
Chinatown continues to become safer and trendier, so don’t miss out on the excitement of this historic Honolulu neighborhood!