Local Connections: Stephanie Lum and Chinatown

Published: Nov. 6, 2009 at 3:47 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 6, 2009 at 4:41 PM HST
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By Stephanie Lum - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - My hometown is Pauoa Valley but a lot of my childhood memories are from Chinatown. It's a colorful place of many shops, people, and languages; rich with culture and located in Downtown, Honolulu.

Honolulu's Chinatown is America's first Chinatown. It was started by the Chinese, for the Chinese who came to Hawaii in the late 1700's. It spans 15 blocks from Nuuanu Stream to Nuuanu Avenue.

When I was a kid, every weekend, this is where I'd be; in Chinatown walking with my grandma or "Popo", my mom and Dad, shopping for fresh pork, fish, fruits, baked goods and my favorite char siu!

Aside from the tasty food, I remember the people.

"If you were coming from the old country and you didn't know how to speak english, it was a place to meet. They shopped there, they lived there and they worked there," said Wesley Fong, Director of See Dai Doo.

Being Chinese, I have a special and personal connection to this place. My cousin Wilfred Lum's father-in-law Chun Quan Yee Hop opened one of the first and largest open markets in Chinatown.

"C.Q. Yee Hop" started in 1887 and still thrives today.

"He came from China when he was 18 years old with just 25 cents with no background except to come here and start a new," said Lum. "These are the things that people find in the orient and come here to buy. That's why they feel comfortable," said Lum.

In the back of the market, stands a vacant building declared a historical site by the state.

My cousin explains, this is where C.Q. Yee Hop helped groups of chinese immigrants get their start.

"So we brought them here, we housed them, we gave them jobs. From there, they built up and eventually they became self sufficient for themselves; a lot of them. Today, their family members still work in Chinatown," said Lum. "I can tell you some of them right now. You go to the look funn store and he didn't speak any english. Today, he's a multi-millionaire."

We found that man at the Ying Leong Look Funn store still working more than 50 years later.

As we went store to store, we saw that most of the original merchants are no longer in Chinatown.

"Chinatown has evolved. After the Chinese came, the Japanese people came, the Filipino people came, and pretty soon you see a lot of Vietnamese people here opening up business," said Robert Lum.

Now, Chinatown is more of an ethnic-town, filled with merchants of various nationalities all looking to live the American dream.

"Chinatown is a place for entrepreneurship. People do basic business here they get their start and they move on. It's been a good place for immigrant groups to start, new businesses to start, and as they get successful, they broaden beyond," said Warren Luke, C.E.O. of Hawaii National Bank in Chinatown.

Chinatown isn't without problems. Recent crimes have hit headlines, raised concerns and have more police patrolling the streets.

"They needed that assurance that we are going to help keep the streets safe," said Honolulu Police Department's Major Saito.

Helping that happen, are community events like "First Fridays" and new bars and clubs.

The face of Chinatown continues to change, but one thing will remain the same. This is a place my family and I will always come back to.

Because of time constraints, I wasn't able to fit in all of my research including a bit about the historical chinese societies like "See Dai Doo" and "Lum Sai Ho Tong", still around and operating in Chinatown today.

Despite the changing face of Chinatown, these societies continue to promote the chinese culture and service the chinese people through scholarships and activities. The challenge for them has been recruiting and retaining new members from the younger generation.