Chinatown Report

Global Chinatown News and Information

Chinatown Hawaii: The state of Chinatown in Honolulu these days

By Mark Coleman, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 04Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock is originally from Singapore, which could help explain her reaction to the state of Chinatown in Honolulu these days.
“We don’t have vandalism in Singapore,” she said. “We don’t have people damaging property. In Hawaii, folks damage property. They damage public toilets so nobody can use it. Why?”
That’s a good question, and though an answer is elusive, Shubert-Kwock is intent on at least trying to mitigate such behavior, especially in Chinatown, in downtown Honolulu, where she lives and works. It’s also where she serves as president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association (CBCA), which she helped found in 2009. Representing about 300 members, the group’s mission is to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors toChinatown. In 2009, a major problem in the area was crime.
“People were ripping off old ladies in the markets, pushing them down, stealing their purses,” plus businesses in the area were frequently getting burglarized, Shubert-Kwock recalled. “It was pretty bad.”
But few people in government were taking it seriously, so she and restaurant owner David Chang organized the association and started pushing for the city and state to help improve the area, which these days has about 30,000 residents, mostly in about a dozen high-rises.
Shubert-Kwock moved to Hawaii in 1975 with her former husband, John, whom she had met in 1970 while attending the University of Singapore, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, history and sociology. She also earned a master’s degree in library technology from the Western Australian Institute of Technology in Perth, which is where she married.
After a brief period in Hawaii, the couple moved to California, where she became a real estate agent, taught Chinese cooking and owned a catering business and gourmet shop.
Back in Hawaii by 1979, she soon opened her own realty and mortgage firms,Chu Lan Properties and ABC Mortgage, and has been in those businesses ever since. She also is a consultant to several Chinese restaurants.
The mother of two adult sons, Shubert-Kwock has long been active inChinatown affairs. Currently she is a member of the Chinatown Neighborhood Board and Oahu president of the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association. She also is immediate past chairwoman of the governor’s Small Business Regulatory Review Board and a past member of the Honolulu Liquor Commission.
Question: What’s the worst thing going on in Chinatown these days that has your attention?
Answer: Drug dealing and petty theft.
Q: Not homelessness?
A: Drug dealing and homelessness. I was coming to that. But I will tell you why. I was thinking about Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. We have a huge statue of him on North Beretania, on the backside of the Chinese Cultural Plaza, parallel to the Nuuanu Stream, which is very historic. … That has become the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mall, and it’s a city park, but it’s very neglected. There are a lot of gamblers and drug dealers there and homeless there. So this is something very blighted. We have a lot of Chinese visitors now, and they all come and pay homage and take pictures in front of there, but the backdrop is very bad. And also, six years ago, the city took out the trellises in Chinatown at that park, so it looks ghastly. It looks like a war zone; it’s horrible.
Q: So what specifically are you recommending for, let’s say, the homelessness issue?
A: Well, actually I was studying all night yesterday writing support for Bill 44, City Councilmember Carol Fukunaga’s bill to have the same 24/7 “no lie/no sit” in Chinatown (as in Waikiki). Then, also, I support Bill 42 (a “no sit-lie” bill) forWaikiki.
I also really support Ikaika Anderson’s Bill 45, which makes sense; it (the proposed “no sit-lie” law) should be islandwide. Because the people fromWaikiki will come to Chinatown, go to Kakaako. Then that’s a merry-go-round and musical chairs — back and forth and back and forth. We now have $47 million appropriated by the City Council to address the homeless housing. We can get housing for them, we get rental programs, we have drug rehab, we got mental health — whatever they need is at their disposal. There’s no excuse to go lay on the streets.
Q: Are you worried about the constitutionality of the sit-lie bills?
A: You know, let individuals who have problems sue the city. But I think, majority of people, we care about the health and welfare of our homeless. Living on the street doesn’t prolong their life. Living on the street is going to make them sicker. So what constitutional rights do you have when you’re dead?
Q: Is the crime situation separate from the homeless issue or are they related?
A: The big part, of course, is that homelessness has impacted our businesses. People stop coming to Chinatown because the homeless are panhandling, they’re threatening, they are a terrible sight. A lot of people stopped coming toChinatown because of the homeless problem.
Q: What’s your main goal for the area? What would you like to see?
A: We really need to clean it up with efforts from the city, and also I really want our Hawaii tourist promotion board (the Hawaii Tourism Authority) to help, because many tourists come to Chinatown.
We need the promotion of Chinatown to help our businesses. This is the only cultural enclave that people from Waikiki, tourists, would love to come to, because there’s food … there’s a lot of interesting things. We have a lot of museums, we have a lot of exotic things. We have so many things to offer, a cultural experience, but we’re not seeing a partnership or participation from HTA. In fact, very little literature about Chinatown. In fact, for a long time, concierges in the hotels would tell (tourists), “Don’t go Chinatown; too dangerous.” At one time it was very dangerous. It’s not so much dangerous now, since we got involved.
What we want the city to do, really, is to power wash our sidewalks every day. Not like only some days, when they feel like they have the people or the machine. They don’t power wash because the urine and the feces really send out such a terrible odor. That’s why one of my vice presidents of CBCA calls it “the perfume of Chinatown.” (Laughter) We don’t want this “perfume” ofChinatown.
Q: So you think a sit-lie law would alleviate the homeless issue, and you’d like some public bathrooms funded by the city?
A: I’ll tell you, No. 1, public toilets should be in an existing public building, and stand alone, like we search so much for bathrooms. We recommended five locations to the City Council. … I said that, you know, public toilets, public building, built with public money should be shared.
Q: What is the reaction you get generally at the City Council?
A: They are respectful of me. They ask me to testify on certain things.
I tell you one of the problems we have is the city government: In the last five years, we had three mayors. And then we had changes in department heads, which affects institutional memory.
So our dragon statues, we submitted our dragons for approvals, and went through so many levels for approvals … CBCA paid $3,500 for this dragon beacon that we’re buying as a gift to our Chinatown. To make it a landmark. To make it a happy crossroads. To make it where we have a center, and a heart and a soul. This is the kind of infrastructure that is overdue.
Q: When did you get the approval for the dragons?
A: I got the approval in 2010. Then when Mufi Hannemann quit as mayor to run for governor, the managing director (and acting mayor) was Kirk Caldwell, and it was approved. It was fine, because had the same director. And then when
Peter Carlisle came into office, I submitted it again because with every new mayor, they have to reapprove. Then come now, we have Mayor Caldwell. So I have 31/2 mayors.
Q: Do you think the city is not taking the area seriously enough?
A: They’re not investing in Chinatown. That is the problem. And another thing that happened is that because of Chinatown‘s poor image of crime and homelessness, there is a proliferation of farmers market all over Honolulu, and that has taken away a lot of our business.
Another thing is the graffiti. We need a graffiti law that is strong. I have been seeing buildings that have the same graffiti on for 10 years. But the building owners should take them down. I think when you own a property inChinatown, in the historic district, you must comply with the law about graffiti. I mean, it’s unsightly, it’s a blight to the neighborhood, so there should be an ordinance that requires them to take it down.
Q: But that’s vandalism on their property, isn’t it? Isn’t it unfair to expect them to have to take it off all the time?
A: Well, you have to because you have a responsibility to the community. You cannot just leave it up for years.
Q: But what about the responsibility of the police to prevent the graffiti?
A: Well, like I say, a graffiti law is very important to protect the community from blight. And owners, they can file an insurance claim for damage to their building. To me, police have to be more active in catching these graffiti artists. They are property-damaging people. These are not artists. They are vandals. If they really want to be a good artist, draw something on canvas and sell it.
Q: Looking ahead, are you expecting the advent of the rail system to have any impact on Chinatown?
A: The rail is a good thing because we have asked that toilets should be at the stations for people coming and going and can use. And the toilet should be available to people who are not riding the train as well. Why not multi-task our public facility? Cut cost and make them more available to more people, you know?
… We also want to draw people to Chinatown to shop, eat and enjoy the cultural experience, but we can’t do it without the city investing money, without the state investing money to clean it up, to make it more enjoyable.
And we need to take out the crappy trees on River Street because they block traffic. They narrow the roadway … You have maintenance problems. The fire truck can’t pass by easily. Then also it becomes nice planter boxes for people to relieve themselves in. And that stinks.
Another thing we really want is, for the last 10 years, ever since we all tried to help revive Chinatown as a commercial place — because it was so bad 10 years ago — we encouraged First
Friday, for the gallery walk, and get-to-know Chinatown walk. But for the last six years the First Friday has become a nightmare for Chinatown.
Q: Really?
A: Yes. Because it’s become a non-permitted on-street closure, so the buses get diverted, and so bus riders are hurt, because a lot of working-class people, they have to walk up just to get to the bus. And then when you have that many people coming into Chinatown, their purpose is not for an art gallery. If you look now, we only have one art gallery left: Pegge Hopper’s gallery. The rest are not really art galleries any more. We have places that are more bars and restaurants. They push one product — alcohol — the main product; the second product they push is loud music. And it has caused so much problems to our residents.
One of the things the community is so up against is so many block parties inChinatown. Every little excuse, they have to make a block party. So, for instance, in 2012 we had 40 block parties. On Nuuanu, on Pauahi, on Smith …
Q: So what would you urge, that they don’t allow so many?
A: Yeah. We’re trying to cut that down because it’s really wrong. There is really no public purpose to allow this. The streets belong to the people. The inconvenience is a cost to our population. And we really have only a one-dimensional party, which is to get wasted and get drunk, and you get so many companion problems. People yelling, screaming, fighting, they’re vomiting, peeing. There’s garbage.
Q: Who do you complain to about that?
A: In 2012, August, I have a petition of 535 signatures, of people living, working, owning businesses in Chinatown, signing petition to the mayor to theDepartment of Transportation, the Honolulu Liquor Commission and the neighborhood board, asking them, please, no alcohol on block parties. I went to Peter Carlisle. There was a news report, a TV thing on it, too.
Q: What happened to that petition?
A: They ignored it, because the mayor’s Office of Economic Development very mistakenly thinks the block party is the vehicle to economic revitalization inChinatown. But that’s not right, because there are many other types of businesses in Chinatown. When you have block parties, you cut off four or five streets for two days, because before you have the block party, you take away all the parking, with all the signs, no parking. People are gone.