Chinatown Treasures: 2010s Rock and Punk Glory Days
Just before the Covid shutdown, a live music scene was thriving in Honolulu's Chinatown. On a Saturday night, you could find rock, reggae, blues, jazz, and Dj's all in walking distance, with tasty snacks nearby. As more people begin to head back out into Chinatown’s night life, local businesses are looking ahead—with a healthy respect for those recent glory days.
Chinatown just seemed like a place where rook and roll shows should happen, according to songwriter, singer Josh Hancock, Josh 86 of the punk band 86 List. When the opportunity for a bar on Hotel Street came up in 2010, he and a partner started Downbeat Diner and Lounge. It quickly became a hub for live music.
"A fun band that played regularly at Downbeat that kind of definitely captured the heart of a lot of local scenesters was the Hell Caminos," says Hancock. "They were a psycho-billy band, so it's like rockabilly and punk together."
"Mr.Meaner is probably the oldest punk band that's been playing in Hawai'i the longest," he says.
"The Smitz, super great ska punk band, this is a good example of just really killer musicians and artists that performed at Downbeat and other small venues. I think our city is a little bit too small for some of them. If they were on the mainland, they would have had huge followings, bigger impact but..."
"The kind of magic is that in Chinatown there is a following these bands had," Hancock continues. "Between Downbeat, the Mercury Bar and Next Door, these fans would turn out every single week. The punk scene or the music scene was super healthy during that era."
Hancock mentions well-known, Hoku-winning artists who got their start in those days, including Tavana and Mike Love.
"People would maybe start for drinks at the Mercury Bar, and walk to Downbeat and have dinner. Maybe hop across the street to Next Door. If 39 Hotel Street was open, they'd go up there and check out a DJ. Get into Bar 35 if they were dressed appropriately," recalls Hancock.
"Probably end up down at Hank's or Smith's Union for karaoke and end up smoking cigarettes of cigars at O'Tooles. Having all these different bars and different venues spread across his small area becomes this fun kinda of night time wonderland."
Hancock says Downbeat had live shows six nights a week , folk to reggae, rock, indie and punk nights. I believe i saw the sign for another establishment in the Downbeat window just last week.
Hancock left Downbeat in 2018, and the scene was already changing.
"Tinder ruined the bar scene for everyone," says Brandon Reid, co-owner of Manifest Cafe-Bar and Restaurant. "Pre-Covid, the scene for nightlife, nightclubs was going down. Happy hour was already going down. The millennials were like, I'm not doing that."
Nicole Reid , Manifest's other owner, says re-opening actually means taking a leap in her business. The Manifest is becoming a restaurant and incorporating multi sensory experiences.
"So yeah you can have music, but I think you're also going to have projection mapping, visual interactions, even 3-D art. Immersive spaces, more immersive experiences being a way for people to create different audio-scapes in addition to landscapes in their space."
The Reids are staying abreast of developments in recreational cannabis. They see cannabis being incorporated into expanding aspects of the food, beverage and entertainment industries.
Heading 'Ewa on Hotel Street, at Maunakea, restoration has begun on the Wo Fat building. Former University of Hawai'i coach June Jones is part of a hui that's renovating the famous party palace. It will have a street level restaurant and lobby bar with a 23-room boutique hotel above.
"Bring back everybody to Chinatown, that's what we want to do," says Jones. "I think everybody in the community, all the store owners, everybody are so excited that we're getting this done."
The Mighty Union development group behind the Wo Fat refurbishment has a history of respectful, thriving renovations to its credit. The idea is to create an easy resident and visitor mix in the public spaces, the lobby restaurant, they say, will not be Chinese. Estimated completion in Fall of 2022.