Thursday, January 15, 2009

Honolulu Chinatown

"Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them."
Robert Henri

"Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught."

Sir Winston Churchill

"Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."

Samuel Johnson

“Let’s Stroll Through Asia!”

All my friends and family have heard it over and over again: I love Chinatown! For a city kid like me, Honolulu’s Chinatown is familiar “mother street.” The grit, the small streets full of vehicles, a multiplicity of languages, old buildings and a million little family shops, all make me feel very much at home. “Yo! I’m walkin` here!” Loving a place, as I do America’s oldest Chinatown, means having favorite defunct restaurants/buildings/signs, and forever-magical spots like King St. & Smith where I bumped into Morgan Freeman one midnight as Chinese Opera music wafted from an upper window. Love affairs are not clear-eyed; there is always mystery. And especially in the case of Chinatown, for haole ole me, there has always been that certain veil. I might read about the old opium and gambling den days, know the former sights of plantation era dime-a-dance palaces, might even say “Nihau” or “Gung Hee Fat Choy” at my favorite Dim Sum place with total sincerity, but there is just no way into the secret truth of the Chinatown Community without the kindness of a trusted guide. Such is 3rd generation resident Anthony Chang,
Along with about a dozen other locals one recent Saturday morning, I was fortunate to join Mr. C’s monthly strolling tour through the neighborhood he knows so well. And vice versa! It was like being in the entourage of a celebrity. Everywhere we went, neighborhood folks greeted our host with warm smiles, and this included in the back rooms of small noodle factories, butcher shops, and tiny restaurants gearing up for the day. Watching sheets of rice noodle being made from scratch we learned that the proprietors add the drippings of roasted meat (from the butcher next door) to some of the noodles to suit Chinese taste, but keep other batches meat-free for the Vietnamese who prefer them that way. You see, not only is Vietnam strongly Buddhist (and therefore largely vegetarian) it is also the farthest from the spices of India and deeper Asia. Now I understand why Vietnamese food is so fresh and clean to the palate!
Ancient China had few trees, so folks cooked over grass flames: fast and hot. This gave birth to the stir-fry method, which quickly “bursts” and caramelizes the cells on the surface of your food, sealing flavorful juices inside where they wait to explode on the tongue like a Shanghai soup dumpling. Each village, if large enough, had a central shop, which roasted the meat for everyone. This is why roasted ducks and pigs are displayed in the familiar fashion one sees in Chinatowns throughout the world. Here’s a tip: it is the Chinese custom to go food shopping early in the day. So the very best shops are found on the morning-shady side of the street! If you see a similar shop across the street, it’s probably second best, though still worthy, and you might find shorter lines over there as well. If you’re in a hurry, your guests will never know the difference. Shhhhh!
The ancient Hawaiian Village of Kou sat where the Foster Botanical Garden and the lovely Kwan Yin Temple stand today on the mauka side of Vineyard Boulevard, which itself is named after the vineyards established there by early Portuguese resident Juan Marin on land granted him by the king. [Marin was reportedly not as generous with his harvests, opting to sell his provisions to the ships in the harbor rather than to share them with his neighbors. This made quite an impression on them which lives on today in the Hawaiian word: “manini” which means “tight” or “ungenerous.”]
Today’s Chinatown, bounded by Alakea, Vineyard, River, and Nimitz, had always been a sparsely populated marshy area. The solid land around the Iolani Palace and Kawaihao Church was dominated by the government and by commerce, leaving the less desirable area west of Nu`uanu affordable to immigrants. You can see a nice pair of stone lions at Bethel and Hotel Streets guarding the old boundary. They are a gift from our sister city Zhongshan China, whose officials are expected to be here for the dedication of a new statue of Sun Yat Sen (portraying his Honolulu schoolboy days) now being cast for us in China. Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Filipino restaurants have sprung up in recent years, as the area is constantly refreshed by today’s immigrants. But why “Soul De Cuba?” someone asked. That’s because early Chinese immigrants to Cuba played an important part in the war against colonial Spain, and added their food-wisdom to the African and Creole culinary traditions that gave birth to Cuba’s food heritage. Who knew?! Space does not permit me to rhapsodize here over all the wonderful little restaurants and food stalls – you really owe yourself a Chinatown adventure of your own, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out one of my personal favorites: Duc’s Bistro on Maunakea (Chinatown’s “Main Street”). This wonderful little enclave is a welcoming and civilized place for excellent French-influenced cuisine, the best in atmosphere and live music, all hosted by the man himself, Duc. I love to sit at the tastefully lit bar and treat myself to a bowl of their signature lobster bisque. It’s easy to think that I’m in classy New York, or visiting Paris. Not “cheap,” but well worth it. Check them out!
Gorging myself at a Dim Sum palace on River Walk with our group, I decided to try chicken feet for the first time. They were sort of like tiny, savory, Buffalo wings! “Probably the loser.” Said one of the guys, alluding to the chicken fights still held in our rural districts. Yes, it was a day of illumination and of firsts, but my favorite local treasure turned out to be Mr. Liu who has a small stand in the lobby of a building on the makai side of King Street’s first (second) block. Mr. Liu is a true artist, trained in the traditional arts as a boy in China. One can purchase custom calligraphy, lovely paper-cut art, or even have a genuine Chinese seal (“chop”) carved to use on your important documents or artworks. But the really interesting thing about Mr. Liu is how he raised his three children in this new land, and put them all through prestigious colleges where they excelled in professional programs. You see, this talented artist spent years earning his living in Chinatown by cutting meat as a butcher! I was glad to see that, yes, he still has all his skillful fingers and displays the soul of a true artist. Be sure to stop by for some affordable and elegant art when you explore the world’s best Chinatown for yourself. . . And be sure to stop me and say “Aloha” the next time you are walking in Waikiki. Warmly, Cloudia