(bright music) (waves crashing) - [Kimberlee] Minutes from Waikiki Beach, lies another Hawaii.
I'm fourth generation Chinese in the islands.
And my community has long been part of the fabric of Hawaii.
But the COVID pandemic put even our Chinatown on edge.
- [Chu] There was some racism.
Anytime we are Chinese looking, people kind stay away from you.
Like... You're diseased, you know.
- [Nicholas] Seemed like a very desperate time.
People didn't want to come into Chinatown.
There just wasn't a lot of foot traffic or retail sales.
- Every phone call was like, I'm sorry, we have to shut down.
Week one, the flowers were in the refrigerator.
Week two, the flowers are in the refrigerator.
And my mom was just so heartbroken.
She couldn't believe that we had to throw it away.
She kept thinking that, oh, next week will be better.
Next week will be better.
And then we had to, like...
When we closed the doors, that was a big hit.
- [Kimberlee] The pandemic hit Chinatown harder, than other parts of Hawaii.
With fewer people going to Chinatown, longstanding housing and mental health issues, became more apparent on the streets.
- [Nicholas] Homeless is a lot more visible.
I'll probably file five to 15 police reports, like in a given year.
Just having to do with some kind of vandalism.
Hi, Cindy's Lei Shop.
- [Wing] In the evening, a different community takes over.
Some of it has to do with drugs.
And some of it just has to do with people, who want a place to sleep.
- [Chu] I would call myself an advocate for Chinatown.
Who wants people do respect our Chinatown.
- [Mei] Ms. Chu Lan, she do very good work at Chinatown.
Without her, I tell you, like, I lost, you know.
She do a lot.
- Thank you.
- I very appreciate it.
(gentle music) - [Kimberlee] My family has a building in Chinatown, where we hold Chinese New Year banquets every year.
The building bears my great grandfather's name.
He was the founding member of my family in Hawaii, and a prominent businessman.
It was in reading his autobiography, that I learned about an earlier pandemic, that hit Honolulu Chinatown.
In December, 1899, the bubonic plague arrived in Hawaii.
The first plague victim was in Chinatown.
The next day, the government imposed an exclusive quarantine on Chinatown, locking down the neighborhood.
- [Wing] We are guarded day and night, by those who have complained, that we cling together too much like grains of sticky rice.
Now they will not let us out, fearing our lice and our fleas.
It is true that gray rats scramble beneath our floorboards, and peer down at us from our rafters.
Our cockroaches are the largest in the four seas, enough for a man to make a meal of or solely say.
But the giddy disease has also claimed others elsewhere.
It is just that they wish to believe, that we like to wallow in our own pus, and believing it is so, they will never allow us outside to live or to work, like they do.
I think there were very hard feelings that were generated, because of the really strong militaristic measures.
And they took very drastic measures to mandate, that if someone died, in a particular building in Chinatown, the survivors were put in detention camps, and that specific building was burnt to the ground.
- [Kimberlee] My great grandfather wrote... - [Man] The authorities deliberately ordered, certain sections of the city set afire, to burn out the plague disease.
Unfortunately, a shift in the winds, caused the fires to rage uncontrolled.
And the downtown area, including Chinatown, went up in flames.
At the time, I was outside the quarantine zone.
I stood helplessly beside the barricades, erected to keep the citizens away, and watched with alarm, fear and dismay, as our market burned to the ground.
It was a disaster.
We lost everything.
- [Wing] If you walk around Chinatown, all of the buildings, none of them are before 1900.
We kind of put that together that something happened, that basically obliterated whatever was there before, in Chinatown.
- [Kimberlee] Two years after my great grandfather, watched his market burn to the ground, he co-founded a new market, which grew into one of the biggest supermarkets, in the islands.
It's that resilience that characterizes Chinatown.
Then and now.
- [Kimberlee] We had a lot more talking, with other lei stands and florists.
You know, just to get a pulse on how things are, and we even compare notes, to kind of like share some insights, on just how to navigate this a little bit better.
- The lei is such an essence of our lifestyle.
You know, the leis is like in everybody's story, birth, and anniversaries and deaths and any momentous occasion, and so the product stayed strong.
- [Kimberlee] A year into the pandemic, the city began responding to the problems in Chinatown, launching programs to bolster a safer community.
- [Steve] We have developed this program, that I'm really excited about, to get the homeless folks assessed and into treatment.
The vast majority of the chronically homeless, have mental health and or drug and alcohol problems.
So in order to have long term success, we need to both arrest some people in Chinatown, that are there to cause trouble, but we also need to help the homeless, and get them into treatment, so they can get their lives back.
- [Kimberlee] My family was also contacted, by businessman Eddie Flores, as my great-grandfather had been selected, as one of 14 people to be honored in a new archway.
Honolulu has one of the few Chinatowns, without an iconic arch.
- [Eddie] The purpose of the arch is very simple.
It's the pride of the Chinese community.
This is one way for us to promote Chinatown, to invigorate Chinatown, to help us, you know, bring tourists in.
This is where I do all my shopping in here.
And that's my cousin working.
My two cousin from the same village in China.
(Eddie speaking foreign language) - Okay.
- Here in Chinatown, you can buy anything.
Look at this dry fish.
So we're excited because we wanna clean up Chinatown.
We wanna bring it back to what it used to be.
To promote businesses.
This, to me, is very important.
- [Chu] China can be a shining jewel.
If there are more people involved, in realizing how special a place it is.
And I hope everybody has more of a civic-mindedness, to give some time to help.
- [Kimberlee] Honolulu Chinatown rebuilt, after the 1899 plague and fire.
And I'm hopeful for better days after this pandemic, when I can bring my children, to see their great great grandfather's name on the archway, and learn of the legacy of this place.