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Crime in Chinatown: Will 'Weed and Seed' Get to the Root?

Kekaulike Mall in Chinatown
Noe Tanigawa
Hawaii Public Radio
Kekaulike Mall in Chinatown

Honolulu government leaders are trying a new application of an old program to improve life in Chinatown. It’s called “Weed and Seed” — and city officials say that 20 years ago it cut some crimes in the area by 75%. Temporarily. Cultural or historical factors may contribute to illegal activities that persist in Chinatown.

"We had tremendous success when we did this the last time when I was U.S. Attorney. Now we're in the process of doing it again."

Beginning in 1997, City Prosecutor Steven Alm helped steer a process that weeded out criminal elements and seeded in community building activities. That effort predated Chinatown’s last flowering in the 2000s.

"We've been going for about a month. I think it's already had a noticeable effect on Chinatown. It's safer, it's cleaner, I think the merchants just want to be left alone to sell their products," Alm said.

Listen to Alm's longer interview with HPR's Noe Tanigawa from The Aloha Friday Conversation on Aug. 27, 2021.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm - Aug. 27, 2021
The Aloha Friday Conversation

The usual 10 to 15 people camping on the stone wall above Nuʻuanu Stream are gone. It's been about three weeks now, to the relief of businesses across the street. Some of those homeless are currently in Aʻala Park or elsewhere in Chinatown. Free meals continue at River of Life Mission.

"A couple of dozen homeless guys with drug problems and mental health problems have been arrested. We're working with the Department of Health to get them assessed, then into one of our good drug treatment and mental health treatment programs," he said.

Still, after a community-wide cleanup by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Art Center, and others, graffiti, public defecation, and more were back the next day.

Wayne Yoshioka

"There are certain crimes that we're convinced take place in Chinatown just because of the milieu, because of the bars, the restaurants, the alleys and stuff," Alm told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Like what?

"Like prostitution, it's not going to take place on King Street five blocks toward Koko Head. It's going to take place in Chinatown. Same with the shoplifting in some of the stores, disorderly conduct, fights, selling weed, that kind of stuff. It's something about an urban core like that that makes that easier to happen."

"You cross right into another world, and that's where those enterprises thrive. Because nobody wants them to thrive three blocks Diamond Head of that. You know? That's why they take root there," said Scott Kikkawa, a writer and federal law enforcement officer for Homeland Security.

Kikkawa has covered Hawaiʻi's ongoing ice epidemic for The Hawai'i Review of Books, and is researching Hawaiʻi's social and criminal history for a series of crime novels.

"There's also a cultural aspect to it. In many Asian cultures, gambling is not considered to be immoral. Although it is illegal in many places, it is not considered to be immoral," Kikkawa said. "Prostitution, the sex trade, the line blurs. A lot of it is not what we call a quid pro quo/sex for money exchange which is how prostitution statutes are written."

Kikkawa points out that prostitution, rampant before the first Weed and Seed, was allowed in Chinatown during World War II and prior when Hawaiʻi was a Kingdom and Territory.

"It went from being an almost ethnically white phenomenon during the war (WWII), to being an ethnically Asian one after the war, after 1952. Prostitution really went hand in hand with the other two rackets, with gambling, and with narcotics."

As far as drugs, opium was big in Honolulu's Chinatown until supplies dried up in WWII. Heroin became more common, cocaine hit in the '60s and '70s, then ice.

"Gambling remained one of the constants. A lot of it remains in Chinatown today, and other places, which are the new Chinatown."

Kikkawa cites the Keʻeaumoku and Kapiʻolani areas.

"And that's one of the big issues that city council members get repeatedly from residents wherever they are on the island: game rooms and drugs," Kikkawa said.

Prosecutor Alm says his office is trying to be creative about nuisance abatement or other charges that might stem the game rooms.

"Councilmembers get repeated complaints about drug dealing and game rooms all over the island," Alm said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice funded the first Weed and Seed go-around. A Weed and Seed nonprofit that remained nearly went under this year, but recently staged a successful fundraiser.

With Councilmember Carol Fukunaga's stewardship, $250,000 in the city budget has been allotted to weed out crime and seed in productive activities in Chinatown.

"The City Council, with Councilmember Fukunaga, got it in the budget," Alm affirms. "It's going to take a while to get the funds released to pay for the two coordinators. And in the meantime, we're working the weed part, we will work the seed part. It's already working."

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