Chinatown takes shape
Honolulu's Chinatown took shape earlier than the Chinatowns of San Francisco, New York, Seattle and other U.S. mainland cities. Chinese immigrating to the U.S. mainland arrived in massive numbers from 1850
to work in mining and railroad construction projects. The insular communities they established gave rise to anti-Chinese sentiment, especially in California where laws in the 1870s
prohibited pole vendors, firecrackers, Chinese gongs and the wearing of the Chinese queue or long male hair braid.
As Honolulu's Chinese community grew, it did not spawn the social conflicts and severe discrimination experienced on the mainland. Chinatown established itself during the 1840s
in the 25 acres bounded by Beretania, Hotel, and Maunakea Streets and Nu`uanu Avenue. Fronting Honolulu Harbor, the area first developed in response to the whaling trade, offering ships' supplies as well as every type of vice imaginable to serve sailors who "had hung their conscience on Cape Horn," as a popular phrase of the time expressed it. From 1822
, whaling ships filled the harbor every spring and fall and the sailor population could mushroom to 4,000.
Whaling eventually waned, but shipping activity from the growing sugar industry kept the harbor district lively. Sometime between 1864 and 1867, the ancient fishpond was infilled and the space transformed for business and residential use. Chinatown catered to its own Chinese population as well as the outside community. Chinese stores functioned as meeting places and aid houses, welcoming especially those who had arrived from the same Chinese village. Store keepers loaned money, acted as banks and post offices, and sometimes offered meals and lodging. In the early 1800s, one-story buildings included shops, restaurants and housing. When two-story buildings became more prevalent in the late 1800s, the storeowner often lived upstairs above his storefront. Chinese businessmen established grocery stores, retail stores, herb shops, temples and restaurants. By 1880
, Chinese held 24% of wholesale, 62% of retail, and 85% of restaurant licenses in Hawai`i. By 1896
, there were 153 Chinese stores in Honolulu, 72 of them in Chinatown.