A Journey to Chinatown

Students in the Writing for the Media class took a field trip via the public bus to Chinatown, and wrote about their journey and destination. These are their stories:

Photographs of Chinatown by Mackenzie Cammack (’17), Jeremy Chang (’15), Jordyn Hartley (’17), Joel Lau (’18), Lauren Lee (’17), Brandon Miyasato (’17), Kristin Moniz (’18), and Megan Yamauchi (’18).

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Cameron Kaneshiro (’18)

Chinatown is one of the busiest places on this tiny island of Oahu. Though on the surface, it may seem like a place with only Chinese goods and eateries, I discovered during a recent school trip that it is a lot more than that. In addition to a lot of Chinese people working and shopping in Chinatown, there are also many other races doing the same. To me, it’s a really great thing to see; it shows how all cultures could, some day, be united as one.

Walking along the streets of Chinatown, I saw an old Japanese couple buying fruits, a Caucasian lady and her daughter exchanging smiles with a Chinese man after shopping at his store, and a Chinese woman helping an old man choose the best fruits to buy. One may think that all these shopkeepers are obligated to act in kind and polite ways to their customers, but it looked like a lot more than standard customer service. There seemed to be sincere kindness coming from the shopkeepers’ hearts, as they smiled genuinely and laughed with their customers.

Those were some of my positive observations but I also saw another side to Chinatown that was repulsive. My list of repulsive things could go on and on if I were a totally pessimistic person. Luckily, I find myself in the middle between optimism and pessimism. I would say the most repulsive thing about Chinatown is the smell. A revolting smell lingers throughout a whole block while the fresh produce markets are in the center of it all. When anything in Chinatown says “fresh”, it literally means “fresh”. Have you ever gone to an ice cream shop? Maybe one like Baskin Robbins? The ice cream is displayed behind a glass case so you can see what all the flavors look like. The same thing goes for Chinatown fresh produce markets, except that behind the glass are raw meat, seafood and other fresh produce.

The smell of pig and fish hit me right in the face the moment I stepped through the entrance into a market. Pig carcasses and parts (including livers, intestines, hearts, feet, ears, stomachs, noses), whole fish, and live bullfrogs in tanks were lined up behind open glass cases for customers to view. It was a nauseating buffet of raw foods.

My classmates and I had to rest a while before we ate lunch because of all the gruesome smells we had encountered. Lunch was at Downbeat, a diner a block away from Chinatown. It was only 11 A.M. and I was in the mood for breakfast food and chose a $8 breakfast burrito. When the burrito arrived in my booth table, I couldn’t even describe how huge it was. It was a flour tortilla concretely filled with fluffy scrambled eggs, chunks of potatoes, melted American cheese, hot salsa, and juicy red peppers. Man, and that burrito was spicy! It was so massive that I only finished half and had to put the other half into a take-out box.

Our Chinatown excursion came to an end and we took the city bus back to school. Although the bus made frequent stops, it was still really relaxing to sit on the soft seats in air conditioned bus. I had a great experience on this trip and was glad to experience a culturally different place than what I’m used to.

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Natalie Kwon (’18)

Recently, I took the public bus to Chinatown with my class for some travel writing inspiration. We were gone for about three and a half hours and in that time, I had a small glimpse of Chinatown. My mom drives through Chinatown almost every day on the way to school, and to me it was just a shady city. Through the car window, all I saw was the same streets, the same stores, and the same shops. But I gained a new perspective by exploring Chinatown on foot as I experienced something a little bit different from my usual drive-through.

Once we stepped off the bus, I felt the sun beating down on my back. There was no shade and my thick uniform shirt did not help my situation. People filled the sidewalks, and when we passed by a bus stop, the foot traffic on the sidewalk was extremely slow.

We turned a corner and the sour smell of urine hit me. The thing I remember most vividly about Chinatown is the smell. One second you’ll smell sweet rice, and then the smell of something herb-like or fermented will hit you in the face. These sudden changes in smell—from sweet, sour, herbaceous to unidentifiable— were hard to get used to. Yet, these foreign, mysterious smells matches the hustle-and-bustle of the city, and makes it very unique.

We reached a small market and the first thing you see when you walk in is a display shelf full of raw meat and seafood, from pigs to fish to live frogs. As you make your way further into what I call the ‘meat cave’, you’ll see a large aquarium holding twenty or so frogs. My teacher said the butcher would kill a frog of my choosing on the spot if I wanted to purchase one. A frog’s large, bulging eyes stared at right at me, as if in fear, knowing what was coming for it. How sad.

We continued to walk, seeing every part of an animal that was edible for sale: intestines, ears, feet — you name it — they sell it. Dismembered animals lay all across bloody cutting boards, and the only thing separating me from the carnage was thin, glass windows. A few dollar bills and coins lay on one cutting board, just inches from raw meat. Was this a sanitary environment? Probably not. But it didn’t seem to matter here.

The sight of the the meat didn’t bother me too much, but it was the smell of the entire market that really gave me ‘chicken skin’. The smell of raw fish, live frogs, heaps of bloody meat slabs, and mildew filled the entire market with a horrific smell. By the time we walked out, I was cringing.
We walked past more shops and came to an area with small eateries, jewelry shops, and prom dress shops. I noticed that at every café, bubble tea was always on the menu. Big, bright bubble teas were advertised on shop windows everywhere so I began to counting how many I saw. I think I saw around seven to ten bubble tea ads or shops within the two blocks that we walked. The drink must be a popular around here, and after walking around in the busy streets and hot sun, I could see why.

As I sat on the bus heading back to school, I realized how out of my element I was in Chinatown. I wasn’t used to crowded, dirty walkways with homeless people, or meat shops that were musty and old. I was used to seeing and buying packaged meats from one big grocery store. I was used to having my parents drive me everywhere so I didn’t have to walk. My walk through Chinatown showed me a different lifestyle, one where people walked to a marketplace to buy fruits and raw meat, from a variety of stores. And instead of Starbucks, they drank bubble tea. This is what makes Chinatown unique from the rest of Oahu.

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Kuulei Rodby (’16)

Recently, my Writing for the Media class and I took a journey on the public bus and ended up in Chinatown. I remember feeling eager to get out of the school campus and experience life outside of school with people I normally wouldn’t meet up with on the weekends (even if it was only for a few hours). As we boarded the bus, I sat down and examined everyone on board. Everyone seemed to be at least in their late forties since it was still early in the morning, and all that could be heard was the quiet communication between friends.

Wandering around Chinatown was the best part of the trip. I have lived in the downtown area for my entire life, so it was fun for me to experience something I knew so well with my classmates. I have been to the marketplace in Chinatown more times than I can count, yet every time I go there, it still feels like an adventure to me. Seeing all those bizarre foods, including pig ears and feet, never fails to fascinate me. One time prior to this visit, I even saw the bottom half a cow hanging from the ceiling. I always get a new experience each time I visit Chinatown, despite the fact I live within walking distance from it.

The downtown and Chinatown area is full of whimsical characters. The person I found to be the most interesting during this school trip was the waitress we had at Downbeat Diner, where we ate lunch. She had bright pink hair with two short pigtails. Her makeup and uniform made me think she was cosplaying as someone from a Japanese anime television show. She was easily one of the most beautifully eccentric females I have ever seen. I actually wanted to take a picture of her but I did not have my camera with me.

After finishing our meal, we headed back to school on the same bus we took to arrive in Chinatown. Feeling the cool air conditioning as I entered the bus seemed almost therapeutic after walking around for two hours in the sun. I noticed that there were many younger people riding the bus than in the morning. Some lacked bus etiquette and instead of remaining quiet since there weren’t many people, talked loudly to one another while the rest of the passengers conversed quietly amongst themselves.

Chinatown is definitely one of many locations that seem to be underestimated by many people for its quirky stores. But once you get past the shops and markets, there is a whole other world to discover. From night clubs to chic boutiques, Chinatown is slowly becoming a trendy area for young adults to have a good time.

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Jaryd Sugihara (’15)

When I first think about the public bus, a very negative image develops in my mind. It is one of grotesque smells and bizarre sights not dissimilar to what I would experience at our destination—Chinatown. While I have taken several forms of public transportation in other states, I had yet to take a bus in Hawaii. I was not quite sure what to expect when my class went on a field trip on The Bus, Honolulu’s public bus system.

When I stepped onto the bus, it was obvious the bus was updated with air conditioning and a monitor announcing the next stop. I found it to be the same experience as the other forms of public transportation I had taken on the mainland, if not more enjoyable, because at the time, there were not many people on the bus.

The bus ride came to an end without complication, which was a huge relief. As we strolled through Chinatown, the daily life of hundreds of people was brought to light before my eyes. What seemed exotic and strange to me was routine to the shop owners and the customers that frequent the markets. For them, this was their livelihood. As someone who grew up around large warehouse supermarkets, it’s easy for me to forget that people routinely come to Chinatown for groceries and household supplies. While it may seem like an outdated, caricaturized lifestyle, it is truly alive and bona fide.

In fact, parts of Chinatown that have been shuttered as old businesses close down are now occupied by contemporary small businesses. Will traditional Chinatown be the same when there are so many new shops moving in? It will be interesting to see what happens in the future and how the new stores affect the culture of Chinatown. Either way, Chinatown is proving to be a resilient business district. It’s obvious that even in the era of supermarkets and extravagant shopping malls Chinatown remains to be a reminder of a seemingly forgotten livelihood.

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Trent Tsuzaki (’15)

Recently, we took an unusual, yet unique school trip on the public bus to Chinatown. Unlike most students, who travel to school in cars, I actually enjoy riding the Honolulu city bus because it’s very relaxing especially when no one is around you. Nonetheless, Honolulu’s Chinatown is notorious for homelessness, crime, polluted markets, and uncleanliness so I was expecting a dumpy area with rats possibly running around. I was also curious but I knew at the same time that it may be trip I wouldn’t enjoy at all. So this is my experience of our school trip to Chinatown and downtown Honolulu.

One of the things I dislike about the city bus is waiting for it to come. Many times I end up waiting a long time for it to come, or I end up coming to the bus stop on-time, only to find out that the bus had come early. But thankfully this time, the bus came only two minutes after we arrived at the bus stop. It was very nice to see that there were many open seats and that our bus was one of the newer ones with air conditioning that worked. I decided to take a seat next to a classmate, who seemed very uneasy probably since it was his first time riding the Honolulu city bus. As more people boarded the bus on our journey, I wasn’t exactly sure if I had to give up my seat for an older fellow but thankfully he found an empty seat.

In Chinatown, I was surprised to see that there weren’t many homeless people on the streets and that the sidewalks weren’t as filthy with bird turd or trash as I thought. It still looked like a place for lower-income folks and elderly people. As we walked through a fairly quiet block, I was glad to see that there were many small shops offering different little knick-knacks at cheap prices. It reminded me of a place in Washington DC where I played the role of a curious tourist, window shopping and pondering over whether to buy something.

The grocery market which my teacher led us into was definitely a step down from Foodland or Safeway or even Marukai. The fishy smell didn’t reek but it was uninviting. However, in Chinatown, I played the role of a local and I didn’t really care what was around me. It is a sharp contrast to Ala Moana Shopping Center where each retail store fancies up their storefront to attract consumers. Chinatown stores don’t seem to bother to beautify their stores, and mostly serves as a market for local shoppers. While laissez-faire does exist, it seems like no one bothers to take advantage of it. I was reminded that we don’t always need to be fighting for profits; that businesses don’t need to run others out of business to succeed. This was a mediocre, yet peaceful experience for me because the stores weren’t trying to shove offers, discounts, or advertisements in my face.

As for downtown Honolulu, I was surprised to see the number of homeless people walking around. The sidewalks and streets were dirty and there was always someone looking in the trash for bottles and cans. Being that this is the business district where the Circuit and District Courts are located, I expected many business people to be roaming the sidewalks like in New York; but it wasn’t the case. This appalled me because the homeless people looked so out of place; the business district does not seem to have anything to offer them.

We ate lunch in Chinatown but thankfully it wasn’t Chinese food, which can give me diarrhea. The diner, called Downbeat, was empty and the waiter was very kind. Unfortunately, I had cross country practice after school so I decided to eat something that would digest quickly; a salad is more of an appetizer rather than a main dish but it looked good in the menu. The Chef Salad that I ordered wasn’t worth the $9.50 I paid, being that it seemed as though they just chopped up veggies and meats and put it on a plate. I also hated how the food took so long so arrive. How long does it take to put together a raw salad? Except for the breakfast burrito that a classmate ordered, everything else seemed easy to make.

As for the diner’s environment, I could care less. It looked like they were were trying to imitate a certain cultural period but totally missed the mark. As a result, the restaurant had dull lighting and waitresses were very gaudy in appearance. As I mentioned earlier, the salad didn’t look very special. I’ll also add that it didn’t taste that good either; it wasn’t bad but it was just boring. The vinaigrette dressing had a bitter, yet unique flavoring but that didn’t make up for what it dressed. Overall, the restaurant didn’t amuse me and shouldn’t be considered at all if you’re taking a trip to the area.
After lunch, our class walked near a disgusting, murky waterfall in small square that mostly housed homeless people. Bird poop dotted the ground as large flocks of birds resided in the large tree in the square. I know that it’s not the birds’ fault for being there, but they really did make the area dirty. I always thought places with waterfalls and benches were for people to sit and relax, yet I couldn’t see how anyone could do that here.

The bus stop for our return trip to school was adjacent to the Honolulu Theatre. I am familiar with this whole area so it felt so weird to be coming here during school hours. As we waiting for the bus, I took time to reflect on what I had just experienced. One thing for sure was that I was very tired so that would explain most of my irritation. I always enjoy field trips and am usually sad to leave, but this one felt different; I didn’t really care about Chinatown or downtown Honolulu, and I really wanted to go back to school. I guess since I go these areas often, they are not special to me. Chinatown has a long history in Hawaii but the area not very appealing to the average person because its lack of excitement and cleanliness.

After we got off the bus, I struggled to walk back to school in the hot sun. I really did not want to go to my AP Chemistry class and endure an hour of sitting. This wasn’t a good day for me! Yet, I am thankful that the teacher planned this trip because it was indeed a unique experience, but I’ll probably never choose to do it again.

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