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Chinatown's beginnings
Hawaii's first Chinese
Chinatown takes shape
Chinatown's other communities
Chinatown fire of 1886
Chinatown fire of 1900
Chinese culture
A`ala Park
Cultural and economic changes
Chinatown's rejuvenation
Chinatown today
Bibliography - Chinatown

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Cultural and economic changes

Honolulu's Chinatown reached its zenith during the 1920s. Buoyed by the economy of whaling, followed by the sugar industry, and largely rebuilt after the fire of 1900, it remained a vibrant business district. With fish markets, chop suey joints, cinemas, shooting galleries, massage and tattoo parlors, bootleggers, dope peddlers, opium dens, gambling halls, pimps and prostitutes, the area was a bustling marketplace during the day, host to baseball games in the afternoon, and a den of sin and vice by night.

Area residents included Japanese, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, Caucasians, Filipinos and Portuguese, but by the 1930s, Chinatown was also a ghetto neighborhood that many Chinese wanted to leave. As Chinatown became less and less a village substitute for recent arrivals, more individuals and families settled farther out into permanent homes. In 1884, 75% of all Chinese in Hawai`i lived in Chinatown. After the fires of 1886 and 1900, the percentage of Chinese was down to 40%. This was still the highest concentration of Chinese anywhere in the U.S. The decline accelerated after the 1930s and by 1960 only 5% of Chinatown's residents were Chinese.

While Chinese continued to own a majority of Chinatown's businesses, other immigrant groups joined the neighborhood as residents. Japanese were the next group to arrive as plantation laborers and they soon followed the Chinese in moving to Honolulu and its Chinatown when their contracts were up. In the early 1900s, many Japanese women were also present in Chinatown as prostitutes. By 1938, an abundance of Japanese theaters, hotels, cafes and bars served the Japanese population. Filipinos arrived after the Japanese, coming to Hawai`i first as single male workers. In 1920, 52.3% of Chinatown's population was elderly single Filipino men. After 1945, more Filipino women began to arrive.

The military build-up of the 1930s and World War II brought a huge military population - 46,000 in 1944 - to the Islands including many blacks. Chinatown catered to the needs of servicemen with 10 blocks of strip shows, X-rated theaters, massage and tattoo shops, cheap arcades and women-for-hire. Several businesses blossomed on Smith Street to attract black GIs: a café, a barbershop, a tavern and pool hall, all run by black proprietors.

As time wore on, Chinatown's seedier aspects rose to the fore. During the 1970s and '80s, the residential population of Chinatown dropped 38.9% while the rest of Honolulu experienced 12.4% growth. Economic changes shifted business activity elsewhere. Board of Health regulations against smoke houses and exposed meats closed some Asian shops. The opening of Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1959 turned downtown into a deserted ghost town in terms of retail establishments. The growing abundance of supermarkets took away the appeal of small produce shops. During the 1960s, tourism boomed and shifted new business activity to Waikiki.

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