In 2018, a host of factors led to the cancellation of Honolulu’s annual Night in Chinatown, held to honor the lunar new year. This year, both the Night and parade are back, but as Chinatowns across the nation sputter and fade away, HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, Honolulu’s Chinatown, too, is in the midst of a struggle.
Night in Chinatown brings booths and entertainment to the heart of Chinatown, Maunakea and Smith Streets, 8am to 9:30pm Saturday. The Lunar New Year Parade begins at 4:30 on Hotel Street from the State Capitol to Chinatown. Events at the Chinese Cultural Plaza run Friday from 5 to 10pm and Saturday from 10 to 10pm.
Gifford Chang is with the Chinatown Merchants Association, and has worked in and around Honolulu Chinese New Year celebrations for most of his life.
Chang says the annual street festival with food and culture booths, entertainment, and a parade costs about $60-$80 thousand dollars to produce. Vendor fees normally cover $40-$50 thousand, depending on the vendors and their numbers. Chang says in the past, he has covered the shortfall up to $25 thousand dollars.
Chang: We work hard, we give back. People always say, when you work hard and you have few dollars to give back, you give back. Our office donates lot of time, our staff, my great friends, all the people in the community that volunteer, they give back their time. So why not? Luckily we have an events company that supplies a lot of the equipment. To rent all that is quite expensive too, but we try to do what we can to donate back.
Chang says the City was able to work with HPD on their requirements for this family event, and found a way to come on as a full sponsor again. Hawai‘i Tourism Authority also jumped back on board this year after changes to their requirements nixed support in 2018. The Honolulu Chinese Jaycees and Taiwan Economic Development group are among other supporters making it happen.
Curiously, the Chinatown merchants themselves, are not big supporters.
Chang: It’s a tough comment to make because, here, if they’re open, they’re going to benefit from the crowd, the participants that come. And they’re the savviest business people in town. If you’re asking do they donate, do they contribute? We haven’t seen it.
Chang: We’ve been trying to ask them to reach in their pocket and give us something. And we don’t get it.
Merchants I talked with said they do not expect a business bump from this event. They said business this past year was worse than ever because of vagrancy, filth, crime, and traffic changes ---- the pedestrian bulb-outs, plus enforcement preventing the traditional quick stops for take out or lei purchases.
Now, produce prices are up.
Chang: Yes, after the holiday season, as I understand, produce prices have gone up almost 30-50% depending on the type of produce.
Chang guesses the cause is transportation price hikes, but regardless, as a leader of the Chinatown Merchants Association, he wishes the store proprietors would participate, band together.
Chang: They should join the Chinatown Merchants association, we can revive it, come back and start listening to their concerns, voice their opinions like how it used to be, and let’s organize as an association and voice our concerns to our legislators. The reason our legislators and public officials don’t do much in Chinatown is that a lot of merchant act individually and not as a whole. If they start doing things as a whole, I think our public officials would really start to listen.
Chang: That’s one thing Chinatown lacks, as well as in other Chinatowns in other states and countries, everyone’s there, they worry about their own business and they’re not worried about their neighbor they’re worried about more business coming in their store, but they’re not worried about the whole aggregate of where they’re located. They don’t have an organized body to voice their opinion.
Last year, one disgruntled store owner said he wishes the Merchants Association would offer health or business insurance. Many merchants, renting stalls, are not Chinese or might be Vietnamese Chinese, Laotian, or Filipino. And many feel under siege. Two merchants with stores on Maunakea street said 2018 was terrible for business.
“When they put the bulb outs in, incomes dropped 20-40% for merchants who rely on drive-by trade.”
Oren Schlieman is a designer who has worked in Chinatown for 30 years. He has lived at Pauahi and Maunakea for the past 13 years.
Schlieman: It’s against the law in a historic district to screw around with the economics. It’s a state law. What this shows is a cavalier attitude towards Chinatown on the part of the authorities.
Schlieman: I got so frustrated having a police substation a block away from two murders in the last year, a bunch of stabbings, drug deals, people going buckaloose in the street, and no one really taking responsibility for it.
Schlieman started a website called Chinatown Watch, where crimes and incidents are logged.
Does the Chinatown New Year celebration do anything at all for you?
Schlieman: We get the lion dances all day, the food booths, and it’s packed with people. You’ll see second and third grade classes from all over the island come through Chinatown at Chinese New Year. They just started, I saw the first one today. It’s really cute, you have these beautiful little kids walking around next to drug dealers. The drug dealers don’t care, because it’s their turf. The kids don’t know, the moms are nervous as hell.
Schlieman: But the net result is, the more people we get down in Chinatown having a good time and enjoying it, the better! I think we ought to do tours for locals that say, Eh, you may not have grown up in Chinatown, but here’s what this is, and here’s what you cook with it. The decoder ring for Chinatown!
This Friday is also First Friday, with special art and culture events planned at the Hawai‘i State Art Museum, Marks Garage, and elsewhere. Friday night, the Chinese Cultural Plaza events will run 5-10pm, then 10am to 10pm Saturday. On Saturday, the street fair along Maunakea and Smith Streets opens in the morning and runs until 9:30pm with the New Year parade at 4:30, starting at the State Capitol.
Really hope the old jai and jin dui makers will be out this year. If there are any left.