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Honolulu's Chinese New Year Celebrations--Whaa?

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa

Chinese new year has always been huge in Honolulu and the Chinatown Street Fair with smoky noisy lion dances and street food you can only get there, has been a part of it--- for the last 35 years at least.  People were stunned and disappointed when 2018 celebrations were canceled the week of the event.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on how it all happened.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Stunning black lion at the Chinese Cultural Plaza, February 2018.

“It's a tough thing and it's very disappointing, but yet sometimes it's the awakening process.”

Gifford Chang is President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, this year and long term President of the Chinatown Merchants Association.  Chang pitched in with the Merchants’ Association when the popular honorary Mayor of Honolulu’s Chinatown, Sun Ho Wong, passed on.

Chang says the tight Chinatown community, with its underlying societies and cultural institutions, is very different now. 

Chang:  Through the years after Sun Ho Wong passed away, we've lost touch with a lot of the merchants because it's a change you don't see the Chinese really operating any more.  It’s non-Chinese, it's open to everyone.

Chang says when people think of Chinatown they think really of the area Smith Street to River Street, Beretania to Nimitz, an epicenter of demographic mixing.  Chang points to young operators coming in with innovative, higher priced menus.  On the other hand, he says, Chinese have become landlords in the area while Thai, Korean, Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Filipino and other immigrants have moved in. 

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Gau, mochi cake, is a lucky food for Chinese New Year. It should be coconutty with a ti leaf infused richness.

Chang:  They’re all hard-working, I can tell you.  Each one of the vendors in Chinatown works hard, each business person there works hard. They work hard on several things.  One is to pay the rent and if it’s a leasehold property it’s to pay the lease rent. And second obviously, to raise their families.  That’s not any different from any hard working class family.

Chang:  Those people are smart. They know their margins of pricing better than anyone else.  And I tell you that’s why people go to Chinatown, it’s a good bargain.  It’s not cheap it’s just a good bargain.  It’s just being a good shopper. That’s what Chinatowns about.  If you can survive in Chinatown you can survive anywhere.

But the neighborhood has been changing.  Eight years ago, Chang says, the Merchants Association did a poll, and the majority said they didn’t need the Chinese New Year Parade and Street Fair, that business was fine without it.  With waning merchant support, the event depended more on City and HTA grants. Those disappeared three years ago.  Meanwhile, costs increased:  electricity, permits, disposal fees, traffic, coning, security, and new this year, bus rerouting.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Narcissus claws set in water adorn Chinese New Year decorations. In no time, green shoots appear then fragrant white blooms with yellow centers. Carving the bulbs for maximum effect is an art.

Last year, the Merchants Association raised vendor fees for the street fair---and it rained.  This year, only one third as many vendors had signed up by the week of the  event. The ultimate hiatus may have seemed sudden to the public, but Chang says it’s been in the making.  The final straw has been the business decline in Chinatown.

You really hate to bother the merchants here, they’re doing things.  At Nam Fong, a purveyor of roast pork, duck and chicken, the butcher is hacking through crispy skin and juicy flesh.  The cashier says business has been slow.  Chinese New Year was good, but regular days are very slow, and getting slower.  She says the Street Fair and Parade make no difference to her business.

“Not safe.  Chinatown is not safe.”  Danny Ng is the owner of China Arts Restaurant Supplies and Gifts.  He’s had a store in Chinatown over 30 years, on King Street prior to the current location on Maunakea.

Ng:  Chinatown business is coming very slow because a lot of homeless people make Chinatown so dirty, and people don’t like to come to Chinatown.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
"Bulb out" at Pauahi and Maunakea Streets, Chinatown. The markings "extending" the sidewalk are supposed to be for pedestrian safety.

Ng says 60% of Chinatown businesses are seeing declines in the last two years.  He cites homelessness, and like many others, recent city traffic changes and enforcement.  “Bulb-outs,” markings that “extend” the sidewalk at intersections, were intended for pedestrian safety.  They have had the effect, however, of blocking slots locals loved to slide into to pick up a lei or take out. 

Chang:  Yes it’s a violation of parking, we know that, but you know in Chinatown, you have your leeways.  It happens in Chinatown. For some reason in Chinatown people have this preconceived idea it’s okay.

Because we need our lei.  Ng contends city traffic enforcement has been punitive lately, for street crossers too. 

Ng:  I was dropping off my father, my father cannot walk so good, we cannot park far away in the lot and walk to here.  I was just dropping him off and the guy is writing a ticket.  That’s why people don’t want to go to Chinatown.  That’s why Chinatown is so quiet.

Ng:  It damaged a lot of Chinatown businesses.  Not only damage Chinatown owners businesses.  The city is losing taxes. 

Ng:  The first thing must be, take care of the homeless people around Chinatown.  They make it dirty and steal.  United States, is not in the same condition as Singapore.  Singapore is clean.  Even Thailand, even the Philippines is cleaner than America, you know.  America is so dirty!

Chang:  If you go to Chinatown at 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening, why do businesses shut down, when all other Chinatowns in other states are open and thriving?  The first issue is to get homeless ness out of Chinatown.  At least eight years ago when things were flourishing, when things were going good, when homelessness was not a big factor, Chinatown did fine.

Both the Chinatown Merchants and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce are reevaluating their New Year events.

Chang:  Can they afford it?  Can they produce something for the community for free?

Meanwhile, Ng says, after dealing with homelessness what would really be helpful for the Chinatown merchants is somehow securing group business insurance and health coverage rates.

Imagine the produce vendors, their profit margins and their daily costs, plus business insurance.  Add family health insurance at $1500 a month.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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