Community Leader Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock's Guide to Honolulu's Chinatown
Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock moved from Singapore to Oahu almost 50 years ago, but if you ask her now, she considers Honolulu’s Chinatown home—it’s where she works and also resides, after all. One look at her accolades proves that she’s also a true community leader; not only does she serve as a board member for the Chinatown district, she also founded the Chinatown Business and Community Association in 2009, a grassroots organization to improve the quality of life for Chinatown’s business owners and residents.
With her deep-seated knowledge of both the latest happenings and history of the neighborhood—which only spans about five blocks, but is packed with vibrancy—Shubert-Kwock is just the right person to ask for tips on how to explore and enjoy Honolulu’s Chinatown. Here’s what she had to say.
A brief history of Honolulu’s Chinatown
Located by the water’s edge of Oahu’s south shore and the Nu’uanu Stream, Shubert-Kwock points out that Honolulu’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in the nation, having been established around the mid-1800s. Historically, the neighborhood has been a thriving hub for business and immigrants, like those from Asia and Portugal who came to work on the plantations, because it was so affordable.
“Chinatown is like an unpolished jewel,” says Shubert-Kwock. “It’s so multicultural from the immigrants and everybody started out in Chinatown because it was cheap. It’s always been for the working class.”
Honolulu’s Chinatown has shown resilience over the years. At the turn of the 20th century, a 3-day-long fire destroyed a large part of the neighborhood, but it was quickly rebuilt. In 1900, the neighborhood was hit with an outbreak of the bubonic plague, prompting the government to evacuate residents and set 41 controlled fires to infected buildings. The low, historic architecture seen in Chinatown today comprises the buildings rebuilt after the controlled fires.
These days, Chinatown is still the bustling gathering place for people, sharing a border with the more modern downtown Honolulu, where trendy restaurants, bars, and shops start to mingle with the long-standing, more traditional spots of Chinatown.
Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock’s Chinatown recommendations
1. Affordable eats: One thing that remains true about Chinatown is that it’s affordable. “If you have $10, you can treat yourself really well here,” says Shubert-Kwock. When in Chinatown, definitely stop for dim sum. Shubert-Kwock’s favorite place is Golden Palace. For more high end dim sum, she likes Legends and Fook Lam, both located at the Chinese Cultural Plaza.
For tasty Chinese food, such as cold ginger chicken and duck with fried taro, dished up in healthy portions, go to Yong’s Kitchen. “When I want to eat with my good friends, I take them to this hidden gem,” says Shubert-Kwock. “It’s an excellent place and the skill of the chef is just fantastic.” She also enjoys the hole-in-the-wall Lam’s Kitchen, which serves up hand-pulled noodles at a low price. Their beef stews shine, she says.
2. Dining: You’ll find the most ethnically diverse restaurants in Chinatown on Hotel Street, according to Shubert-Kwock, including Laotian food at Olay Thai Lao Cuisine, which has a charming dining patio; as well as the only place serving Ethiopian cuisine in the city, Ethiopian Love Restaurant. And on the corner of Hotel Street and Nu’uanu Avenue is Fête, featuring James Beard Award–winning chef Robynne Maii. (In fact, she’s the first female chef from Hawaii to win the award.)
3. Bakeries: Save space to hit up a bakery, such as Lee’s Bakery & Kitchen, known for its custard pie. For a taste of Macau, Shubert-Kwock likes Jacky’s Macau Cafe, started by a chef who came from Macau to work at hotels until opening his own bakery, which is cash-only. Find mochi cakes, soft manapuas (buns with filling), and pineapple buns. Then there’s Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery, which gets busy but sells delicious and affordable dim sum, including pork hash (shu mai) to-go.
4. Medicinal stores: If you want to attempt to remedy an ailment with acupuncture, stop by Hou Ren Tong, a family-run shop that offers acupuncture, cupping, and Chinese herbs. Or, head to the Chinese Cultural Plaza, where you’ll find the Institute of Clinical Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, an affordable place to try out acupuncture and other Chinese medicines, according to Shubert-Kwock.
5. Marketplaces: Markets in Chinatown offer some of the freshest and most budget-friendly produce and seafood. “Everyday is different at these markets,” she says. “You can find everything under the sun.” Find affordable ingredients such as dried seafood, crackseed (dried and preserved fruits as a snack), teas, and more at Sun Chong Grocery. Meanwhile, Kekaulike Market is the place to get locally grown vegetables and fruits at a low price. Just bring cash and get there early. If you’re hungry, visit Maunakea Marketplace, known for having many vendors selling fresh sashimi (don’t miss the Maguro Brothers), roast duck, and smoothies blended with fresh fruit.
6. Flowers: Maunakea Street, one of the main streets in Chinatown, is lined with florists who put together the prettiest and most fragrant leis, says Shubert-Kwock. Cindy’s Lei & Flower Shoppe is an award-winning florist and beloved neighborhood staple. Even if you’re not in the market for a lei, at least stop by to check out the florists at work with their nimble hands and their beautiful finished products.
7. Historical sites: Given Chinatown’s history, cultural sites abound and are worth a spot on your itinerary. At over 100 years old, the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii is one of just a few active Shinto shrines in the nation. Back in the day, according to Shubert-Kwock, Chinatown was also flush with theaters. While most of them closed down, the Hawaii Theatre Center has remained since 1922 as a “beautiful piece of architecture,” she says. (It was once dubbed “The Pride of the Pacific.”)
8. The Arts District: The eastern half of Chinatown is also known as Honolulu’s Arts District, where artists have capitalized on the vibrancy, bustling energy, and affordability of the area. Visit galleries such as the ARTS at Mark’s Garage, which showcases local artists; or the Hawaii State Art Museum, where admission is free. Both of these places (and more) open late into the night during the First Friday Art Walk, which takes place monthly, so stop for a drink beforehand at the rooftop Tchin Tchin! Bar and make the most of the atmosphere.