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Honolulu’s Chinatown – Smelling pee and getting fleeced

I love Chinatown in Honolulu. I really do. The fresh produce on Saturday mornings, the fun food and bathing products from other countries like the Vietnamese instant 3-in-1 Coffee (that’s coffee, cream, and sugar all in one pouch) and the Japanese Ding Dong cracker snacks as well as the seemingly questionable meat market and the fish that range from still moving to probably on the edge of toxicity.

When I first moved to Hawai’i back in 2001, Chinatown was a place no one recommended you go to. It was still the haven of prostitution, drug users, and low rent housing above illegal gambling operations – I probably wouldn’t have been able to survive without my weekly trips to Chinatown – not for the reasons above but because it was also home to rice for next to nothing, $1 pineapples, and other cheap vegetables. I arrived here with $100 and was staying in a shared dorm room in Waikiki – I got a job painting and lived on Pineapple fried rice I cooked in the communal kitchen. While I waited for that first check – I had fifteen dollars to live on – lucky for me, I spent it in Chinatown and not in a grocery store. I bought rice, pineapple, cilantro, onions, coffee, and a couple of cans of Spam back before it was expensive. So, I love Chinatown.

In this photo made on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, a homeless man sits on a sidewalk in Chinatown in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Honolulu City Council is considering several bills that would expand the ban on sitting and lying down on sidewalks in commercial districts. The prohibition began in Waikiki and has been extended to a growing list of neighborhoods on Oahu. (AP Photo/ Cathy Bussewitz)

Even as it began to change in the early 2000s, I still loved it. I had my mixed feelings about the gentrification of Chinatown, but loved seeing things like First Friday Art Walk and The Arts at Mark’s Garage, Bar 35, and great blues acts showing up at hole in the wall Chinatown bars. My friends and I were frequent visitors to Little Village and our entire Burning Man group would meet in Chinatown barsfor drinks and planning. Yes, the prices went up, but so did the quality of experience.

So, recently returning, I led my wife and daughter to Chinatown.  We parked in the Maunakea parking garage and got out of the car and were overwhelmed with the smell of urine. As we went into the stairwell leading to the surface streets, it was even worse. We had obviously picked a public urinal and not a staircase! The smell of urnine stuck with us through the day. Chinatown had resisted gentrification but only in terms of it still being peed on a lot. As far as the prices and the rents, those had gone up just like everywhere on Oahu. Totally unsustainable – and that was refelected when I saw the prices on things $850 for a buddha statue, $10 for a bag of rambutan, $6 for two bunches of parsley. The prices are no longer cheap – maybe if you look deeper, but I didn’t have time. My wife and daughter were wondering why I loved Chinatown so much – but I couldn’t really take them into Hanks to hear a throaty blues gal singing sultry songs and we weren’t hungry enough to venture to Little Village.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook