HONOLULU — Honolulu's Chinatown gets an early start. Before 8 a.m. shopkeepers along North King Street have stacked their boxes of fresh mountain apples, litchi, taro and lemon grass, anticipating early morning shoppers.
At the '99 Coffee Shop, sticky pastries in colors found only in canned fruit cocktail are lined up in the front window. Elderly men, sitting alone, huddle over steaming bowls of rice soup and watch the neighborhood come to life.
Shoppers on a mission duck into the Phuoc-Thanh Market at 170 N. King St. to pick up curry beef jerky, Kaffir lime leaves and peanut candy. The latest Vietnamese CDs, bearing pictures of attractive recording artists, line one wall.
I love Chinatown. I come here often to lose myself in another culture. To be anonymous. It's been this way since I was 13 and was sent to boarding school in Honolulu from my home on a Maui sugar plantation.
I would ride the city bus through the district, past the shabby, two-story buildings with their tin roofs and stacks of produce on the sidewalks, to visit my two uncles, attorneys with a law office on the edge of the district.
This was in the mid-1950s, and Chinatown had started to lose many Chinese who had been raised in the district to the more upscale neighborhoods of Kahala, Manoa and Nuuanu. This is not to say that they didn't still love Chinatown. Many still returned to the herb shops, restaurants and stores on Saturday mornings to "talk story" with old friends and shop.
The Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Filipino businesses now so prominent in Chinatown started arriving in the late 1970s and '80s and have brought new vitality to the district bordered by Nimitz Highway along the Honolulu waterfront to River, Maunakea and Beretania streets. Miraculously, the new Asian cultures coexist, for the most part amiably, with the old-time Chinese businesses that have stayed on.
With its pungent smells of incense and fish, Chinatown has been the heart of Hawaii's Chinese community since the earliest settlers arrived in the late 1700s aboard sailing ships returning from Canton for more sandalwood from Hawaiian forests.
The first Chinese in the district opened shops to supply both Honolulu residents and sailing ships with goods. As the Chinese, who were imported in the 1850s to work the sugar cane, finished their labor contracts (which paid them $3 a month), they streamed into the city. Here they found familiar food, language and customs. Commerce came naturally, and they soon opened tailor shops, jewelry and dry goods stores, laundries and groceries. Before long there were herb shops, chop suey houses and gambling shacks as well.
At the heart of Chinatown is the old Oahu Market, an open-air mix of independent stalls under one roof selling everything from red ducks and char siu pork hanging in glass boxes to pigs' heads, tripe for stew and fresh reef fish stacked out front in plastic tubs filled with ice. The smells and sounds of the Oahu Market could be anywhere in Asia. The charm remains in the buckets of brilliant heliconias and red torch gingers outside the stalls and the noisy chatter of foreign dialects.
I get excited by the small things here: the mounds of mountain apples, watery, almost tasteless, but reminding me of childhood in a different Hawaii. I also come here for the feeling of authenticity that's sometimes missing in an economy given over to tourism.
Not only neighborhood housewives shop the Chinatown markets these days. The young, chic chefs of the new Hawaiian regional cuisine movement, such as Sam Choy and Alan Wong (of restaurants bearing their names in other parts of the city), make regular forays to snap up the fresh water chestnuts, Thai basil and fresh strawberry papayas brought in by small farmers.
Across the street from the market, at 150 N. King St., is the Bale French Sandwich & Bakery. Cool and clean with Formica tables wedged into small booths, it was one of the first shops bearing that franchise name to spring up around the city--and it's still the best.
It's run by Vietnamese, who learned about French baking back home and produce buttery croissants and crusted French breads. Order them with a piping hot cup of thick French coffee mixed with rich cream, and you're in France.
Bale is popular with the lunchtime crowd for a marinated vegetable sandwich
served on a hard French roll, and for their assortment of tapiocas in flavors such as taro, banana, coconut, papaya and almond tofu. They also serve a steamy Vietnamese noodle soup called pho (pronounced "fa"). At noon, at the corners of King and River streets, Pho To-Chau and Ha-Bien Vietnamese restaurants also serve the soup to diners while lines of customers wait outside. Vermicelli-like noodles in a rich, clear broth are garnished with meat and vegetables, then seasoned to taste with bottles of fish sauce or hot, sweet chile sauce.