aloha to all that

Reminiscing on partying in Chinatown a decade ago

Text by Sonny Ganaden || Images courtesy of Dan Weaver & Aaron Van Bokhoven

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” Joan Didion famously wrote in 1967 in “Goodbye to All That,” an essay about leaving New York City at the conclusion of her youth. “I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.” 

 Honolulu can never be New York. But by many metrics, it’s better and it’s getting better, and whatever the Chinatown scene is now—with its scant hip restaurants and bars with spare brick walls, the monthly hit-or-miss art events marked by rampant homelessness—were seeded in the late-night exuberance of a place finding itself a decade ago. For a crew of then-young people, Honolulu emerged from the sea. It wasn’t life altering and maybe it didn’t change a thing, but it was our little Woodstock: The further we get away from the moment now, the more of us were there then. No need to get nostalgic; it’s quite easy to stay too long at the party. We do not want to rock the uncle-at-the-club or momma-got-a-sitter look. And why should we name names when most everybody’s still around?

The year 2004 was a rough year around the world. In Hawaii, war was, and is, big business, and the United States was in the honeymoon phase of what would be its longest of engagements. Thousands of soldiers were shuttling through the dozen bases across the archipelago; the largest land grab by the military since World War II was underway on Hawaii Island; urban assault Stryker brigades were mobilized to wage a seemingly endless anti-terror campaign; and the pacifist Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement was still being laughed out of rooms. The president was essentially saying, if you don’t stampede people for home electronics, the terrorists win. Honolulu’s political priorities regarding art and culture shifted to visitors. Waikiki had recently undergone a multi-million dollar facelift, displacing an urban homeless population a few miles ewa to Chinatown, where a methamphetamine crisis was cresting on the sidewalks—minus the psycho violence of Skid Row in Los Angeles or the south side of Chicago, but with its own island-style heartbreak. 

Young party people reacted with a universal, “whatever.” This is the Tila Tequila era of the Internet we’re talking about here. There is almost nothing more seemingly empowering than being young and up all night. See kids, back then most of us had flip phones (Did you hear Japanese people have cameras on their cellies? Crazy!), so nightlife was documented with newfangled digital cameras and posted online the next day. As since time immemorial, introverted partiers used a camera as the perfect bridge of human interaction. A generation found the answer to the question: What to do with an art degree? Make a blog, duh. Honolulu had a series of them for hung-over mornings over the next few years: Chris Kalima’s, danceonpartyon, supercw, honozooloo, theenterprise, junkparty. In print, it was documented in the middle pages of the Honolulu Weekly—all lovingly curated with a style gentler than the Vice or Frank looks of the mainland.

In 2003, a consortium of community arts organizations, small businesses, and galleries started Honolulu’s First Fridays, the monthly occurrence that hasn’t abated since its inception. Places like Anna Bannana’s, The Wave, The Garage, and After Dark had their scenes, but Chinatown, with its bars and sex shops that had been in existence since the ’40s and underground events like Acqua, Kids Klub, and Cuntroversy continued throbbing. In 2004, it sparked off. Infamous disco king DJ Harvey played a weekly event called Quiet Storm at the recently opened club thirtyninehotel; Richard Li and Ara Laylo threw electroclash and Britpop ragers at the now-closed Club Pauahi. Josh86, Ross Jackson, Shane Okuichi, and DJs Kavet and Eskae all brought their own squads. The less adventurous never passed Ward Avenue: The W Hotel at the base of Diamond Head hosted a club night that played almost exclusively Destiny’s Child; Restaurant Row and its rotating bar space reigned, with cops everywhere; and the new Art After Dark at the Honolulu Academy of Arts thought it was a good idea to have a tiki night. 

The year 2004 was the year Gelareh Khoie and her mother opened thirtyninehotel on storied Hotel Street, after Khoie had spent years throwing parties with Mark Chittom, Chris Lam, and a half-dozen others at Indigo restaurant on Nuuanu Street. Those years, a night trip to the club felt remarkable because of the journey up its steps to the second story. Buildings looked like East coast America but smelled like the dank understory of a tropical forest wizened with ripe, unwashed humanity. Once there, the disco reigned, and Chittom served as Horatio to Hamlet for any who needed his service on any given weekend. He was already the narrator of the scene in his column “Clubbed to Death” in the Honolulu Weekly, hilarious because most articles discussed how a club was nary worth a mention. At the massive space next door, Chris Kahunahana and Sergio Goes were gearing up to open Nextdoor, breaking down the layers of drywall, paint, and crust of the past century. A neighborhood literally peeled off its old history, and the party scene was culled mostly by immigrants.

It wasn’t until later that I learned Chinatown’s red bricks had arrived via the hulls of merchant and whaling ships that passed through Honolulu Harbor a century earlier, held near the keel, necessary to keep the ship upright. There was an eight-block fire that inspired the king to pass a law saying, “Hey guys, no more wood buildings,” but the immigrant community said “whatever,” then another fire, then the provisional government of the now-territory said, “No, seriously this time,” then the whole neighborhood was built out of bricks. Later, I also learned that the Oahu Market, where local rambutan and mango were sold on the street, had been around for a century; that Club Hubba Hubba, with its endearingly derelict skanky neon pole-dancer sign was the most prominent jazz, burlesque, and later strip show spot in the Pacific—this neighborhood was built to party, built to last. 

Please refrain from eye rolling and allow me to spin bragadocious about local girls. Dudes exiting the scene around the world can elaborate on the beauty of their locale’s women: Paris, New York, London, whatever. No ways, brah: Chinatown, Honolulu. Because, on an ethnically diverse island in the middle of the ocean vast as space itself, where lineage is venerated and everybody’s got a few aunties and uncles unrelated by bloodline, Chinatown’s pre-camera-phone era offered just enough ambiguity to show up wearing whatever you damn well wanted. These were the same young women who complained that the city was never enough or was too much; too hot, too provincial, too incestuous. The young women who later easily traded the Ala Wai bridge for the Triborough or the lapping beach park of Ala Moana for Marina Del Rey, returning for holidays with stable families. During that era, a night spot was never closed because of murder or sex assault. 

Since 2004, most of the scene has moved on or gone pro, had babies or been crushed into conformity by capitalism. But what happened a decade ago was the suspension of disbelief, as if nobody in the history of this city or any other had ever been young before. A century ago, a decade ago, continuing forever maybe, Chinatown, Honolulu was and is created by immigrants selling wares or throwing parties. Our bloggers never aspired to the grand coming-of-age narratives of Didion, but who cares. This town’s poets play ukulele. So to amend the classic lament of Honolulu City Lights by the Beamers, here’s a lyric from local girl Paula Fuga’s song “Misery’s End”: “And when I return / I hope you pick me up in baggage claim C.”