FIVE QUESTIONS WITH CHRISTOPHER OSWALT, OWNER OF ANTIQUE SHOP TIN CAN MAILMAN

Collected by Hannah Broderick, photographed by Maxfield Terrell Smith

What drew you to Chinatown?

It was the history, the old buildings, the coral curbs, and the hidden gardens. I also really liked the seediness of the 1970s that still lingers. I thought there would be lady-boys and evil dragon lady madams that ruled with an iron fist and wore too much eye make-up. It looked, on the surface, to be a hip, modern community.

How has being in Chinatown influenced your business?

Being in Chinatown has been a double-edged sword. My location has gotten me noticed by movie industry people, the publishing community, and commercial advertising producers, all of which has helped my business to flourish. On the other hand, this location has gotten me noticed by the criminal element of Chinatown who bring in a menagerie of things to sell me, some of which have led to altercations in the store.

Describe your customers, any surprises?         

My customers are Japanese, European, and Australian visitors, set/movie people, interior decorators, locals, and mainland visitors.

 How do you feel about the homeless population in Chinatown?

I feel equal parts profound sadness and anger toward the homeless in Chinatown. It's heartbreaking to see people sleeping in doorways, saving cardboard for beds, and storing all of their possessions in a cart. However, it also frustrates me to no end. It makes me really angry when I have to wake somebody out of a drug-fueled stupor to open my door. The ice heads that congregate at the bus stops and the guys that sit and drink all day in doorways scare away visitors. 

Imagine you're a young girl from Japan taking the bus to my store. You get off at Hotel Street across from Long's, and are immediately greeted by a congregation of drug users and trash. Traveling further down Hotel you encounter a screaming lady sitting in her own feces. Cross the street to the trash-filled park, a pathway of people that haven't bathed for a week, and a man peeing in the bushes. Walk past the transients living alongside the tattoo parlor whose belongings cover the sidewalk. Cross the street and pass the older woman passed out in her wheelchair. Meander through the cloud of marijuana smoke outside one of the bars where street people sometimes wait for a freebie. Finally you’ve arrived at the Tin Can Mailman—where someone is passed out in a pile of vomit. See you next time.

What do you think can/should be done about the homeless in Chinatown?

There have got to be better solutions to address this dire problem then what is currently being done. I wish I had better city planning skills, but I simply don't. The first part of the problem is a lack of accountability on the part of the homeless, as well as a lack of follow-through on the part of the police. There are very few consequences for inappropriate behavior and the homeless people understand that. Regardless of the crime—drug use, shoplifting, jaywalking, public drunkenness, loitering, they know nothing (no arrests, no tickets). It is really hard to get in trouble in Chinatown. The answer is not a stronger police presence, but an effective one.

Another major part of the problem is the addicts. These addicts are living on the street because nothing else matters but their addiction. A seemingly easy way to fix this would be to get rid of the dealers. The dealers aren't homeless and they are more than happy to take anyone's money for their product. Get rid of the dealers and their customers will follow.

These are just two things that I believe would make a huge difference towards mitigating this tragedy. This issue and its solution is relevant to everyone living in Hawaii, as every lost visitor negatively impacts our economy. There's no reason why Chinatown can't be a bigger part of the visitor industry. We've got wonderful restaurants, homemade ice cream, artisan chocolate, specialty boutiques, and even a candy store.

If Chinatown were an ice cream flavor, which would it be?

Rocky Road, because while it has some bumps, there’s also nuts and marshmallows to look forward to. 

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