John “Prime” Hina, the founder of 808 Urban—a community arts organization that mentors at-risk youth through arts education—recounts how growing up in Chinatown’s red-light district in the 1970s colored his world.

As told to    Kelli Gratz ||    Illustrations by    Mitchell Fong

As told to Kelli Gratz || Illustrations by Mitchell Fong

When I was a boy growing up in the 1970s, I remember staring out the window from the second story of our home at 36 N. Hotel Street. There were two men standing outside. One of them was holding something, an object of some sort. A few seconds later, a loud bang echoed through the street, and the other man fell to the ground. Blood trickled from his head and pooled onto the asphalt. At 9 years old, that was the first time I witnessed a shooting. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last, or the worst: In growing up in Chinatown, I would witness multiple shootings, and was even held at gunpoint. 

It’s hard to imagine, but these were the golden years of my youth, growing up in a Chinatown bathhouse (though I didn’t know that was what it was called back then)—the innocent days when I couldn’t understand why the sailors who came into our home were taking so many showers. Maybe I should start taking more showers, I thought. And so I did. Morning, noon, and night. I was one clean kid. If I had been a different kid, an older kid, I would’ve known that those sailors weren’t wrestling with my aunties. I would’ve known that these aunties were prostitutes having sex with clients in the rooms down the hallway. “John boy, why are you walking around here alone? Get back to bed!” they would scold when I came out of my room. 

There were so many military men coming in looking for action. The way it worked was, someone would buzz them into a waiting room, and they would pick the girl. They would take a shower, then get a quick handjob or blowjob, depending on what they paid. Next, they would go into the room to get a massage and “happy ending.” Then they showered again. With the steady flow of men coming from military bases established in Hawai‘i decades before, business was booming. In case you didn’t want to be seen, there were underground movie theaters and peep shows. What is now Manifest was Esquire bookstore and peepshow, which existed just a floor below our home.  

My parents divorced when I was young, so I looked to the pimps and prostitutes as family. But my dad, who happens to be a descendant of Princess Pauahi Bishop, he only wanted the best for me, and he even sent me to attend St. Theresa Catholic School, Cathedral Catholic Academy, and later, Saint Louis School. Funding for my private school education came from piles of jewelry and stacks of cash next to mounds of cocaine. I always considered myself lucky. That is, until I realized what was going on. Being in that neighborhood at that time, growing up in that environment, would send any normal kid over the edge, and slowly, depression crept into my life. But I found solace in graffiti art, in lettering, and in spray paint. The city was my landscape, and hip-hop was my culture. When my school day finished, it was time to change clothes and head back to the hood.

In the ’80s, after a raid took place at the bathhouse, my dad was left with two choices: 1) continue what he was doing and end up in prison, or 2) disappear and start over elsewhere. He decided to close the bathhouse and start from scratch, off the grid. My mother, however, who also happened to be descended from Samoan royalty, decided to take over operations. Everything from River Street to Nu‘uanu—that became her turf. Anyone that pushed game in the area had to go through her. 

I moved with my father to the Punahou area, and he soon discovered that clean work was hard to find. Sometimes we only had enough money to buy candy bars to eat to hold us over until the next day. I tried hard to blend in. I started selling newspapers to make extra money and played football at school; I even had hopes of becoming a professional football player. But, times got hard. From a young age, I always felt like I had to grow up too fast. I felt like there was too much pressure on me to succeed, and as much as I tried to stay away from illegal activities, I was like a moth to flame. In my second year of high school, I got kicked out of Saint Louis and ended up at Kaimuki. My life became a whirlwind of gambling in the pool halls, hustling, and doing drugs. Some nights I would come home with $3,000, and I thought, screw school, I can make money without it. I was in so deep that I thought I would never come out alive. Until one day, my girlfriend told me I was going to be a father. I realized, just like my father did, that if I continued down this path, I would most likely end up in prison or dead. So I went back to school and even moved to Japan to attend college. Although I didn’t graduate college, I did my best to give my children a safe and sound environment to grow up in, one like I never had. It was my children that saved my life.. 

Today, crime continues in the streets of Chinatown, but it’s like a paradise compared with what I was surrounded by growing up. Some of the kids I work with at 808 Urban tell me, “Uncle, you don’t understand, I came from the streets.” I say to them, “Tell me, tell me your story, and I’ll see how hard you have it.” That’s why I started the organization. I saw myself in these kids and wished I had something like this growing up. I flunked all my art classes. I couldn’t see myself cutting linoleum and making rubber stamps. That wasn’t my thing. I wanted letters, I wanted spray paint. The ditches were my sanctuary.