Chelsie Mow, Miss Chinatown Hawaii 2017, explores food and family in the neighborhood where she spent her childhood.

Text by    Eunica Escalante  ||   Images by    Gabriel Estevez

Text by Eunica Escalante || Images by Gabriel Estevez

Two days before Chinese New Year, the streets of Chinatown are brimming with an afternoon surge of shoppers hauling plastic bags spilling over with the day’s bounty. Navigating the labyrinth of stores and stalls peddling everything from $2 noodles to $100 bags of dried mushrooms is Chelsie Mow, an unassuming presence since she is not wearing her glittering crown or her sash that reads “Miss Chinatown Hawaii 2017.” Despite having been crowned merely four months ago, in September of 2016, Mow says she rarely gets recognized. But the pageant queen, who doubles as a customer service agent for Delta Airlines, doesn’t seem to mind as she innocuously slips in and out of shops, undisturbed by members of her adoring public.

Walking along North Hotel Street, she weaves along the narrow sidewalk with practiced grace, then stops outside a store marked by a red doorframe and a red sign that reads “Sun Chong Grocery.” “It’s crowded,” she comments as she nervously glances back at us, a writer and a photographer, trailing her. But when she steps into the bustling nook, she stands taller, her shoulders back, head high, and neck long—like a switch was turned. She glides throughout the shop, picking the candies she favored as a kid: slivers of dried coconut and lotus root caked in powdered sugar. She recalls her younger years frequenting Sun Chong, scurrying around the crates displaying mountains of candied fruits and the shelves stacked floor to ceiling with the imported and exotic. “When I was a kid, I used to sneak a bit of candy,” she admits sheepishly. “I mean, I feel guilty about it now, but as a kid, I thought it was okay because it was so good.”

The food was what drew her to Chinatown. A fourth generation Chinese-American, Mow admits that, growing up, she dreaded the family trips downtown, since she hated the characteristic smells of raw fish and overripe fruit. Only the promise of dim-sum—the good kind, like her favorite, Tai Pan Dim Sum—sedated her. “So, if I wanted some, I had to go with them,” she says. Years later, after moving to Oregon to pursue Asian Studies at Willamette University, she realized how deep-rooted her fondness for Chinatowns was. “I didn’t have any access to all of these restaurants anymore, so I began going out to Chinatown more often, as much as I could,” she explains, guiding us to the next stop: Ying Leong Look Funn Factory, a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop on the stretch of Kekaulike Mall. The shop, which exclusively sells freshly made funn (starch) noodles rolled around fillings, is open until late into the afternoon but is usually sold out by 2 p.m. “The rolls are huge, and only $2.35. Add shoyu, and char siu from down the street—that’s lunch right there,” Mow says.

For Mow, Chinatown is more than a place to spend a Friday night—it’s her second home. She walks through Chinatown’s alleyways as comfortably and familiarly as she does the halls of her own house. Mow’s grandparents—or Po-po and Gong-gong, as she affectionately calls them—planted the seeds for Mow’s love of Chinatown. Her grandfather frequented the casual mahjong games along the paved walkway of Chinatown Cultural Plaza, making many friends, and a little money, along the way. Some nights, Mow and her sister would run to Lee Ho Fook, a wad of their grandfather’s winnings clutched in their hands, to order cake noodles and choy sum. “If he gave us money, we would know that it was a good day of mahjong,” Mow says.

Her grandmother was the first female president of See Dai Doo Society, the oldest of numerous exclusive membership clubs catering to Honolulu’s Chinese community. Mow, who is now on the society’s board of directors, points out her grandmother’s portrait hanging on the wall, one of only two women amid presidents dating back to 1900. Mow remembers a childhood steeped in Chinese culture, spending weekends at See Dai Doo Society or attending her mother’s and grandmother’s lion dance performances, a tradition that Mow learned and showcased for her pageant talent. “I’m in it for life now,” says Mow, who now performs with the Wah Ngai Lion Dance Association, trading her pageant gown for a lion dance costume before climbing a bamboo pole with her hands and feet.

“When I come to Chinatown, I’m reminded that my ancestors worked really hard so that my generation could have the opportunities that we do,” Mow says before she bites into a mini custard pie from Tai Pan Dim Sum. “I’m still learning about all of this, but it’s made me realize not to take my culture for granted.”