By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
Mar 11, 2022
CHINATOWN IN HONOLULU has been many things since its founding in the 1840s: a nightlife destination, an arts hub, and one of the best spots in town to grab fresh lei. Most of it the area burned in 1900, in what is now known as the Great Chinatown Fire. Thousands of immigrants, who first arrived on Oahu to work on its sugar plantations, suddenly found themselves without homes. But from the ashes, Chinatown was reborn.
Its continuing evolution is evident in projects like the restoration of the Wo Fat Building, a landmark that until 2009 was home to the oldest restaurant in Hawaii. The boutique hospitality group Mighty Union will reopen it later this year as the 23-room Wo Fat Hotel & Restaurant. Here is our guide of seven more favorites that show off the best of old and new Honolulu through its nostalgic Chinatown.
1. SUN CHONG CO.
Sisters Ann Sung and Shirley Ing have been in the fruit business for more than 30 years; regulars, whose families have gone there for generations, even refer to their spot as “the two-sisters shop.” Juicy Kaimana lychee, grown in Hilo, is a Hawaiian tradition and a best seller.
2. THE PIG & THE LADY
Inspired by his upbringing, chef-owner Andrew Le serves a mix of traditional Vietnamese and Asian-American food, showing how, much like every other Chinatown in the U.S., Honolulu changes with the times. Try the brisket banh mi “French dip” with a side of pho broth, or the Hanoi egg coffee: sweet whipped-yolk topping over hot Kona brew.
thepigandthelady.com; mains US$17–$33
3. LIN’S LEI SHOP
This family-owned store has made lei by hand since 1987. There are up to 25 styles to choose from, depending on the season, but summer is when the blooms are at their peak. Try pikake, a white flower from the jasmine family that’s beloved for its beauty and sweet scent.
4. SING CHEONG YUAN BAKERY
The start of the Mid-Autumn Festival is marked by Sing Cheong Yuan’s legendary moon cakes—with both traditional Chinese and local Hawaiian flavors, like sweet mango or taro mochi. Available year-round: pork hash, gau (a steamed rice pudding popular for Lunar New Year), baked manapua (Hawaii’s Chinese-fusion pork bun), and pineapple cakes.
5. TIN CAN MAILMAN
FROM LEFT: Hula figurine, courtesy of Tin Can Mailman; vintage postcards, photo by Marco Garcia
Old menus, rainbow aloha shirts, and neat piles of black-and-white photographs welcome visitors to this vintage shop. Owner Christopher Oswalt sources Hawaiian antiques from both international collectors and flea markets around the island.
6. BĀS BOOKSHOP
Aly Ishikuni-Sasaki and Travis Sasaki opened Bās to bring a little bit of Tokyo to Chinatown—a smart design choice in Honolulu, where so many locals are of Japanese descent and, in normal times, tourist numbers are dominated by those from Japan. Inside you’ll find artwork, clothing, zines and a wide selection of books. The space doubles as a gallery and hosts regular talks by local artists.
7. NATIVE BOOKS
This cozy bookstore specializes in literature about the traditions of the islands and the greater Pacific. Since 1990, founder Maile Meyer has created one of the largest collections of books in the endangered Hawaiian language. Pick up stories in translation (like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) or a picture book about kalo, Hawaii’s sacred taro plant.