Chinatown's renewal began with the 1973
nomination of the neighborhood to the National Register of Historic Places. The preceding decade had brought a number of urban renewal projects to the neighborhood - Queen Emma Towers (1958
), Kukui Plaza (1961
), A`ala Park redevelopment (1965
) and Kauluwela - causing the relocation of thousands of Chinese families. With these new projects, the residential function of Chinatown ceased to exist and the seediness factor grew.
Along with the historic district designation came a renewed effort to revitalize the area and capitalize on its unique gifts. Chinatown was Honolulu's earliest trade center; it had a continuous history as a commercial area attached to the harbor; as the first clearly ethnic center in Hawai`i it had a continuous identity since the 1810s and it was the only area to retain that distinctive identity over time; and it was the largest area in the city to retain a cohesive architectural character with an identifiable storefront style, common building materials and low-rise silhouette. Historic renovation sought to retain these elements alongside city efforts to clean up the social atmosphere of Chinatown.
Due to the major fires that destroyed much of Chinatown, many of the area's most notable buildings date to the turn of the 20th
century. Wo Fat Restaurant - Honolulu's oldest restaurant - was established in 1882
. After the original building burned down in the 1886 fire
, owner Wat Ging rebuilt it only to have it burn down again in the 1900 fire.
He rebuilt again and that building stood until it was torn down in 1937
and replaced with the current structure. The Wong building at Hotel and River Streets was built in 1905
. At that time, store owners lived above their shops. The Wong family has owned this building since 1925
. The Royal Saloon Building at Merchant and Nu`uanu was established in 1890
; the original saloon was a popular watering hole, quenching the thirst of King Kalakaua as well as countless stevedores. The Pantheon Bar at 1129 Nu`uanu was another bar visited regularly by the King. It was destroyed by the Department of Health in 1900 after two plague deaths occurred next door, but the building was rebuilt around 1911
. The Encore Saloon Building nearby at Hotel and Nu`uanu was built in 1886 and was one of the few buildings to survive both Chinatown fires. During 1980
renovations, workers discovered a small hidden passageway there believed to be a hideout for shanghaied sailors. Other notable buildings include the Kuan Yin Temple at 170 West Vineyard - established in the 1880s
and Honolulu's oldest Chinese temple - and the Toyo Theatre designed in 1938
by C.W. Dickey to serve the Japanese community with films and plays.
During the 1970s
, the area around Hotel Street - the city's "red light" district - still served as an image for the whole of Chinatown. One writer enjoyed the ambiance: "The bards, night clubs, adult film and book shops which comprise this sub-area are concentrated on Hotel Street, forming a colorful and gaily-lit night scene." But many found the area repugnant. Slowly, more upscale businesses began to take over the area. The installation of a new police substation in Chinatown helped decrease crime in the area.