Chinatown: More than Just Chicken Feet

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Chinatown: More than Just Chicken Feet

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Apr 24, 2013

We stood on the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Merchant Street in Honolulu—the very edges of Chinatown.

Most people come to Chinatown looking for dim sum, noodle houses, flowers, fruit, bootleg trinkets and your more unusual ingredients for Asian recipes. Chicken feet anyone? On the first Friday of every month, there’s also Art Night—with street food, performance artists, Taiko drumming, and art gallery showings. But I found myself in Chinatown on an architectural tour.

Once a month, the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects conducts two-hour, walking tours that point out buildings of interesting in the city. Every April, in celebration of National Architecture Month, the tours—which require advance registration because they do sell out—hit the streets of Chinatown.

With the sun high overhead, the two-and-three-story buildings around us only offered a few slivers of shade, and I thought this wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon in Hawaii. 

Our assigned AIA volunteer pointed out the Wing Wo Tai Building, built of basalt stone in 1877 by a Chinese import business that sold teak furniture, silks, embroidered materials, ivory, liquors and groceries. He said that in 2009, The Nature Conservancy retrofitted the structure according to LEEDS “green” standards and became the first existing building in the state to do so.

Across the street, in 1891, the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company built the T.R. Foster Building, made in the tradition of 19th century Italianate brick design. 

As the guide pointed out the pilasters, cornices, balustrades and other architectural nuances of the T.R. Foster building, my mind wandered. I fixated on the current tenant of the building: O’Toole’s Irish Pub. What’s an Irish Pub doing in Hawaii? I thought. And in Chinatown, at that? It felt a little odd. Maybe it was the sun.

As the rest of my group ambled off to our next stop on the Chinatown Architectural Tour, I finally came to life. “Wait. Wait.” I called to our guide. “But where did they get the brick?”

I grew up in a part of the country where contractors commonly specified brick construction in older homes and businesses. In fact, a portion of all three of my childhood homes was made of red brick. So, at first, O’Toole’s Irish Pub looked very familiar to me. But something in my sun-soaked brain addled me. There is no brick manufactured in Hawaii—not in 1891 and not today.  The Wing Wo Tai Building was made of basalt—lava rock from these volcanic islands. A short ways away, the historic Kawaihao Church was built of coral mined from the reef. 

And, so, our guide shared a fact that sticks with me today. A fact that whenever I pass O’Toole’s Irish Pub, I cannot help myself. I turn to whomever I am with and ask, “See that brick building?”

“Yes,” they obligingly respond, probably thinking I’m going to tell them about the great Guinness the pub serves.

“Do you know where they got the brick?” I ask.

No one I’ve yet asked has known the answer. In fact, they usually make me repeat the question twice.

Here’s what I learned on my AIA tour about the brick buildings in Hawaii: The brick came to Hawaii as ballast on boats.

In the 1800s, brick was commonly placed in “light” boats. Boats that weren’t filled with cargo coming into Hawaii were weighted down with bricks. Once the boats arrived in Hawaii, the bricks were replaced with sugar cane.

For some reason, I was fascinated by that fact, and the experience reminded me why I’d signed up for the architectural tour in the first place: I dig history.

Today, the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Merchant Street may cater to diners and drinkers, but it got its start as Hawaii’s first business district, now registered as the Merchant Street Historic District. The Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company that built the T.R. Foster Building went on to become Hawaiian Airlines. The original owners of various other nearby buildings eventually led to other institutions we know today: First Hawaiian Bank, Alexander & Baldwin, Bank of Hawaii, the Bishop Estate, and the Bernice P. Bishop Museum. 

And that’s why architecture is so cool. It’s another view of the history of a place, giving it more meaning, and allowing me to connect even more deeply with it. I’ve driven by O’Toole’s Irish Pub hundreds of time, seeing it as just another building in Chinatown. But it seems that buildings, like people, have another side to them, another story behind their closed doors—and, apparently, in Honolulu, behind their brick, too. 


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