Exploring Honolulu’s Historic Chinatown

As the capital of Hawaii, Honolulu has had a long and interesting history. The first Chinese immigrants to arrive in the Aloha State did so in 1788. During this time, Chinese immigrants would work the sugar plantations to feed their families. As the years passed, the Chinese population made their mark on Honolulu and stayed to open their own businesses.

This was part of the inception of Honolulu’s Chinatown. Chinatown covers 15 blocks and is part of Downtown Honolulu, so it is always busy. However, there are places in this part of town where you can visit to find peace. The marketplaces might be a place you want to go to find people, but if you want some peace and quiet, you may visit the Kuan Yin Temple and perhaps make an offering. If you would like to find out more about the significant historical places of Honolulu’s Chinatown, continue reading the sections below.

The Marketplaces

There are several marketplaces located at the edge of Chinatown, near the ports to the Pacific Ocean. The marketplaces have a large array of tropical fruits, like pineapples and watermelons. But they also have multicultural foods and items on display as well. Depending on the marketplace, you will find different items. For instance, the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet and Marketplace is great place to go to find a bargain and buy cheap souvenirs for your family. They also sell several Hawaiian T-shirts. It is a cash only market, so stop by an ATM before arriving to this market.

The Oahu Marketplace is at the heart of Chinatown and has several shops and cultures mixed into one location. This marketplace primarily sells food and has different kinds of restaurants, but most feature Asian cuisine. You may also find Asian produce if you are looking to diversify your meals or for a good souvenir. The marketplace has been open since 1904 and, for 115 years, this market has been providing fresh fish, eclectic produce and meals from Asian storeowners.

Chinatown Cultural Plaza

The Cultural Plaza is another area in Chinatown where there are many shops and restaurants. Aside from being home to retail stores, the cultural plaza plays a significant role during Chinese New Year. Several vendors will sell their wares, but there are also live musical and cultural performances. Some cultural performances include the lion dance and the dragon dance.  There are kung fu performances as well.

In the central courtyard of the plaza, there is a statue of Kuan Yin. This area is typically known for having elderly Chinese people lighting incense. It is important to note that the majority of the establishments in the plaza are Chinese influenced. Unlike the multiculturalism of the marketplace, the Chinese community of Oahu has a heavy influence in the plaza.

The Cultural Plaza also hosts other seasonal events and classes. For instance, the plaza will have classes on traditional Chinese dance, Tai Chi, Chinese Instrument classes and even karaoke class. Additionally, they also celebrate the Chinese Moon festival, which is a Chinese celebration of autumn that occurs in Mid-September.

Kuan Yin Temple

Known as the oldest Buddhist temple on the Hawaiian islands, this temple is still an important place of worship today. The building is also best known for its architecture, with trademark green roof made of ceramic tiles and bright red columns. This temple is dedicated to the Goddess Kuan Yin, who is a Chinese goddess of mercy. People will create devotions to her by burning fake paper money for luck and place fresh flowers and fruit on the altar to promote fertility.

During festivals, devoted Buddhists will burn incense in order to receive blessings. Buddhists will also chant and give prayer. This temple has been receiving offerings since its inception in 1880. Inside the temple there are Buddhist nuns that maintain the area. Visitors are allowed inside but they must not take photographs.

Inside the temple, there is of course an idol of Kuan Yin, but her statues can be found all over Hawaii. The temple is also known for its peaceful atmosphere and quiet place. If you go at the right time, the monks will serve jai, or monk’s food. This is a traditional vegetarian dish that monks and nuns enjoy.

Foster Botanical Gardens

It has been said these botanical gardens have been open since 1931, but this garden has been around since 1853. During this time, Queen Kalama leased a portion of her land to the German doctor, Dr. William Hillebrand. Known as the oldest botanical garden in Honolulu, this plant sanctuary is on the National Register of Historical Places. The gardens are 14 acres of trees, flowers and palms. Some of them have been planted by Dr. Hillebrand himself.

There are many highlights to the Foster Botanical Gardens, one of them being the outdoor butterfly garden. It is an open-air habitat that houses species from Hawaii. In addition to the butterfly garden, there is also an orchid conservatory. The conservatory has orchid species from the New- and Old-world eras. The main terrace is you will find the oldest part of the garden, dating back to the time when Dr. Hillebrand first leased the area. Furthermore, the garden has a prehistoric glen with primitive plants from across the globe.

Hawaii Theater Center

Known as the “Pride of the Pacific,” the Hawaii Theater Center is another cultural landmark for Chinatown and Honolulu. Open since 1922, this historic theater has provided a variety of entertainment, cultural and educational experiences. The theater is a non-profit organization and was recognized as the “Outstanding Historic Theatre in America” in 2005. In the early days, the theater was a popular grand movie palace.

The theater also puts on vaudeville performances and shows silent films, musicals and concerts. Art exhibitions are hosted there as well. The current showings display photographs from the oldest bar in Honolulu and the history behind the bar. The Hawaii Theater Center will display art exhibits throughout the year. The theater also hosts pageants, both local and national. They also have educational programs for students interested in the arts.