Sunday, June 02, 2013


City clueless on Chinatown

by Larry Geller

When I wrote the earlier article, Star-Advertiser editorial opposes city budget item to fund public toilets in Chinatown (6/2/2013) I had just taken in the paper and searched through it for the Insight section. Now that I’ve had my daily cup of espresso and more time to look through the rest of the paper, it’s worth sticking with the dual Chinatown/public toilets theme for another shot.

This is inspired by the lead story in the Local section, Tourists clueless on Chinatown. The story includes both themes and the issue of homelessness as well, which is not unusual, because Chinatown suffers greatly from the City’s lack of attention to the basic human need for public toilets and its unwillingness to assist its homeless residents:

[Tour guide Michael] Packard said tourists have to look past some of the problems in Chinatown to really appreciate it.

"It gets a little rough going down Hotel Street and you can smell the urine and see the homeless down there," he said.

But, he noted, "there are homeless in Waikiki. There's homeless in Manoa. … Like every big city, it's something you have and you just have to deal with it."

[Star-Advertiser p. B1, Tourists clueless on Chinatown, 6/2/2013]

Sure, there will always be homeless people, but on the other hand, the City has done next to nothing to improve their situation. Instead of working on solutions, they have taken a relentlessly punitive approach, raiding camps and encampments, closing parks and forcing many homeless onto the edge of the sidewalks, then confiscating their property.

One of the largest encampments began at the stream in Chinatown and extended all the way to Alala Street and around the corner before it was disbanded.

I even observed tourists asking a person standing outside their tent where they could find a public toilet on one occasion, when I went over there to take some photos.


(photo shows beginning of Chinatown tent encampment starting right near Chinatown statue—a popular tourist attraction on the Nuuanu Stream, August 2011)

The City’s latest initiative, to finally implement Housing First best practices, is still just a plan, and an unambitious one at that.

So yes, given the absence of public toilet facilities and the lack of meaningful action to assist the homeless residents of Honolulu, there is a smell of urine on the streets of Chinatown (and elsewhere). Were there public toilets for all to use, the smell might be significantly reduced.

"They (tourists) want to see it (Chinatown). They want to take pictures. They're fascinated by the lei shops and the open markets," said Lynne Matusow, the secretary for the Downtown Neighborhood Board. "I don't think there are many places that have markets like this. They're very different than a supermarket."

"We've been trying to turn Chinatown into a tourist attraction for years," she added.

My suggestion: try harder.

You could push the City to do something about the pointless concrete columns with rusting brackets and broken lights that Mayor Mufi left behind when he left office. The space could be better used for both residents and tourists (see below).


Update: After posting this, we went to Chinatown for lunch. The bridge has been fixed! See: Chinatown bridge fixed! (6/2/2013).  I’ll leave the picture below as it is, though, the repair has been a long time coming.  Next: the ugly posts? One can hope.

Next, find a way to repair the crumbling railing on the pedestrian bridge crossing Nuuanu Stream:

Finally, my suggestion: The Nuuanu Stream embankment now wasted on the unused Stonehenge posts could be a site for outdoor dining and recreation. In the Google Streetview capture below, we see the wide embankment from Kukui Street looking towards Beretania St., with the Chinese Cultural Plaza at the mid-left. The crumbling bridge is mid-right, the centerpiece of the area.

While keeping a wide promenade, tables and umbrellas could transform the area into a venue similar to Singapore’s popular hawker centers, where residents and tourists alike could relax and enjoy meals or snacks prepared (and perhaps delivered) by the many shops and restaurants inside the Cultural Plaza. The makeover could be an economic boom for the area.

That’s just my idea. Certainly, there are other possibilities. Wouldn’t almost anything be better than the neglect that the area has been subject to all these years?

Oh… I nearly forgot… to work as I’ve described will require that some actual public toilets be made available.


Thanks for pointing out the cities short comings. Clean public bathrooms are needed all over Oahu.

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