A Guide To Historic Honolulu Chinatown

HONOLULU | Chinatown, Honolulu is such a vibe. There’s so much great food and drink to be found, from simple and affordable classic through to contemporary, trendy but still chill spots. Add to that the amazing produce markets, interesting architecture, narrow streets, and independent boutiques, and you’ve got what’s hands down one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Honolulu.

One of the oldest in the United States, Honolulu’s Chinatown feels a world away from the tourist focused Waikiki. During the 19th century laborers were imported from China to work on sugar plantations in Hawaii. Many became merchants after their contracts expired and moved to this area. The result is a neighbourhood that’s rich in history.

Chinatown is also a part of Honolulu that’s seen its fair share of ups and downs. It’s undoubtedly a gritty neighbourhood. For a time, especially in the mid 20th century, Chinatown was home to Honolulu’s red light district. Pool halls, dive bars, and prostitution were plentiful along Hotel Street. Drugs and crime continue to be an issue after dark, and shuttered windows and tenancies with for lease signs are a common feature.

Chinatown is without a doubt a real, living neighbourhood. It’s not sanitised, and it’s not touristy. Yes, the area has its issues, but it’s also an area that’s full of stories, with a welcoming sense of community. I love Chinatown’s vibe, people, and hospitality scene, and recommend a visit if you’re ever in Honolulu.

Here’s some things to see and do when you visit Honolulu’s Chinatown.

Eat & Drink

Fête

Fête is a modern American restaurant with a global outlook, with dishes that celebrate the diversity of Hawaii’s food and people. It’s about showcasing the best Hawaiian produce, with a strong farm-to-table ethos, through food that’s a homage to the food that the people of Hawaii love to eat.

The Lei Stand

Owners Ryan Kalei Tsuji and Tara Shimooka’s bar, The Lei Stand, pays tribute to the Chinatown’s markets and long-standing lei makers. It’s a fun space, featuring an outstanding cocktail list, and snacks by James Beard Award-nominated chef Ricky Goings.

Livestock Tavern

Livestock Tavern modern American bar and eatery serving a seasonal menu of tasty, classic bistro and gastropub dishes with a twist. There’s an impressive wine global wines list, and a great selection of independent spirits, small production beers, and classic cocktails.

Maguro Brothers

Famed for their sashimi, grilled fish, and poke Maguro Brothers have been serving up some of the freshest seafood in Honolulu for over 50 years. The Chinatown location, inside Maunakea Marketplace’s food hall, is open for breakfast and lunch.

The Pig And The Lady

Chef Andrew Le’s modern-American restaurant, The Pig and The Lady, marries his Vietnamese heritage and American upbringing. It’s a family affair, with deeply personal dishes you won’t find elsewhere.

Skull & Crown Trading Co.

Skull & Crown Trading Co. is tiki bar at heart, with contemporary flair, inspired by the trading companies that used to occupy this part of town. Cocktails are the focus, with a diverse assortment of delicious options.

Smith’s Union Bar

Located in Honolulu’s Chinatown, Smith’s Union Bar has been doing its thing since 1935, making it the oldest bar on Oahu. Today, things are much the same as they’ve always been in here. Cheap drinks, and a welcoming, fun, no nonsense vibe.

Shop

BāS Bookshop

BāS Bookshop is an independent bookstore by wife and husband team Aly Ishikuni-Sasaki and Travis Sasaki. The shop acts as a gallery and event space, hosting a rotating selection of books emphasizing graphic design, art, fashion, photography, & architecture. There’s a particular focus on Hawaiian authors and artists.

Kekaulike Market

Similarly to Oahu Marketplace, Kekaulike Market is a great place to visit for fresh produce and meat products.

Lai Fong Department Store

Owned by the same family for over than 80 years, Lai Fong sell an eclectic assortment of modern and antique goods. They’re particularly known for their extensive selection of Chinese silks, brocades, and custom dresses.

Maunakea Marketplace

Split across two levels, Maunakea Marketplace is a great place to visit if you’re looking for clothing, nick knacks, herbs, and fresh produce. It’s also well known for its food hall, where you’ll find vendors selling delicious food from across Asia.

Oahu Marketplace

Oahu Marketplace has been around since 1904, and is the place to go if you’re interested in Asian cooking. You can find all the ingredients you need, from fresh meat and produce, through to condiments, dried and fresh herbs, and more.

Roberta Oaks

Roberta Oaks is a fashion and lifestyle boutique selling an assortment of Hawaiian designed and made products. Visit for contemporary Aloha shirts, dresses, throws, and assorted art, home, and lifestyle products.

Do

Izumo Taishakyo Mission Cultural Hall

Built in 1923, with a history that dates back to 1906, this small wooden shrine is one of the few active Shinto shrines in the United States. It offers a relaxing escape from the bustle of Chinatown as you observe rituals taking place.

Kuan Yin Temple

This Buddhist temple is dedicated to Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy, whose statue towers in the prayer hall. It’s still an active temple, so remember to leave your shoes outside before you enter.

Hawaii Theatre

Even if you don’t intend to see a film or concert, this restored 1920 Art Deco theatre is well worth a visit to admire its stunning architecture and interior.

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