The district formerly known as an unsavory spot is thriving now, sparked by the restoration of the historic Hawaii Theatre, and later the opening of art galleries and new shops opened under owners attracted by cheap rents.

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HONOLULU — Mornings at Manifest, a cafe, lounge and arts venue in Honolulu’s Chinatown, start with a latte and breakfast from the “toast bar.” Afternoons and evenings morph into laptop time over bacon-wrapped dates and craft cocktails.

Sharing the block with a Chinese herbal pharmacy, a jade shop and a tattoo parlor, Manifest occupies an Italianate-style brick building on Hotel Street in a neighborhood once known for its strip clubs and X-rated theaters.

Across the street, next door to where patrons at Smith’s Union Bar start the morning with $2 beers, is Tchin-Tchin!, a rooftop wine bar serving drinks in a garden patio furnished with white sofas.

If you go

Where

Honolulu’s Chinatown centers on 12 square blocks around the intersection of Nu`uanu Avenue and North Hotel Street, about five blocks northwest of the State Capitol grounds. Public buses get there in about 30 minutes from Waikiki Beach; see thebus.org.

Exploring

• Take in the Chinatown arts and culture scene every First Friday of the month from 5 to 9 p.m. when shops, galleries and the Hawaii State Art Museum stay open late. See firstfridayhawaii.com. Download a map at st.news/2jdeWIY.

Second Saturday “DiscoverArt” daytime events feature mini-classes, music and arts-and-crafts demonstrations. Info at facebook.com/discoverchinatown.

• More maps and information are available at the ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nu`uanu Ave.; artsatmarks.com.

More information

See gohawaii.com/oahu

A block away in the Maunakea Marketplace, a man sits on a box as he hacks stalks of sugar cane with a machete while locals sip coconut juice next to a statue of Confucius.

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Call it the tale of two Chinatowns: Bakeries, lei makers and outdoor markets catering to a large ethnic population do business side-by-side with art galleries, hip restaurants, bars and designer boutiques in a historic 12-block area designated as the Chinatown Honolulu Culture and Arts District.

Phuong Tran, owner of Art Treasures Galley in Chinatown, invites visitors into his Honolulu shop stocked like a mini-museum of Asian antiques and artifacts. (Carol Pucci / Special to The Seattle Times)
Phuong Tran, owner of Art Treasures Galley in Chinatown, invites visitors into his Honolulu shop stocked like a mini-museum of Asian antiques and artifacts. (Carol Pucci / Special to The Seattle Times)

Low rents spur innovation

“This is one of the few places in town where you can still get cheap rent, so it tends to attract people willing to take a chance,” says Mark Pei, co-owner of the Hound & Quail, 920 Maunakea St., a vintage shop specializing in medical antiques, old photo equipment and typewriters.

Just a few miles from the high-rise glitter of Waikiki, Honolulu’s Chinatown for years “had a reputation as one of the worst neighborhoods in the Pacific,” says Rich Richardson, of the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts, headquartered in the ARTS at Marks Garage, a gallery and performance space that serves as an unofficial visitors center. “It was a red light district during World War II, then a no man’s land after that.”

Changes began with Chinatown’s designation as a historical district in the 1970s, a move that’s preserved many of the one- and two-story buildings constructed in the early 1900s after a major fire.

Sparked by the restoration of the historic Hawaii Theatre, and later the opening of Indigo restaurant (since closed), art galleries and new shops opened under owners attracted by cheap rents.

“It was like SoHo in New York,” recalls Sandra Pohl, owner of the Louis Pohl Gallery, making a comparison to the Lower Manhattan neighborhood known for its artists’ lofts and galleries.

She and others got together and launched First Friday art walks, which drew crowds of newcomers until the economy sputtered in 2008 and many of the galleries closed.

“It’s much more quiet now,” says Pohl, who sells the work of her late husband, Louis Pohl, known for his paintings of Hawaiian volcanos. But First Fridays continue, with shops, galleries and restaurants inviting visitors to linger over cocktails and late-night happy hours. Aimed at attracting more families are new Second Saturday “DiscoverArt’’ events with artist demonstrations, ukulele jams, craft displays and improv performances.

Old-time establishments such as Smith’s Union Bar, opened in 1934, mix with hip, new restaurants and bars in Honolulu’s Chinatown. (Carol Pucci / Special to The Seattle Times)
Old-time establishments such as Smith’s Union Bar, opened in 1934, mix with hip, new restaurants and bars in Honolulu’s Chinatown. (Carol Pucci / Special to The Seattle Times)

Browsing to bluegrass

One of the liveliest venues is the Hawai’i State Art Museum, 250 S. Hotel St. First Fridays always feature music — bluegrass on the night I visited — but also slack-key guitar, harp and piano. Housed in a Spanish Mission-style building on the edge of Chinatown, the museum focuses on the work of contemporary artists who are either Hawaiian or have a connection to the islands.

Pohl calls the outdoor sculpture garden “magical at night,” when lights transform what was a swimming pool into a shimmering blue surface resembling a skating rink. One of the reasons to come other times is to see the museum’s collection of welded copper and brass wheels by Hawaiian sculptor Satoru Abe, now in his 90s. Another is to eat breakfast or lunch in the downstairs Artizen Cafe, which makes its own version of Spam, the canned pork and sausage loaf fed to the U.S. military stationed in Hawaii after World War II, making it a staple of the Hawaiian diet.

A few blocks away from the museum is the Hawaii Theatre Center, 130 Bethel S., a historic Vaudeville theater and cinema with a large neon marquee. First opened in 1922, and reopened in 1996 after a $20 million restoration, it’s a popular venue for stage shows and concerts. At last check the theater no longer offered public tours, but visitors can usually peek inside when the box office is open.

Around the corner is the recently expanded ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nu`uanu Ave., a community arts center and performance space on the ground floor of a parking garage owned by an arts patron.

First Friday nights bring a youthful vibe to Chinatown, says Melanie Yang, assistant at the Pegge Hopper Gallery, 1164 Nu`uanu Ave., open since 1983 in a building that once housed a Chinese herbal shop and barbershop. “It’s a different energy.”

In4mation, 1154 Nu`uanu, a shop selling skater gear, tees and hoodies, used a fog machine, techno music and an offer of “beers flowing like wine” to set the stage for a recent exhibit called “Overmind.”

Jewelry designer Cindy Yokoyama, owner of Ginger13, at 22 S. Pauahi St., hired a henna artist to apply free tattoos while customers sipped orange cocktails and tried on chunky necklaces and sets of mismatched earrings.

A local henna artist applies a free tattoo during a recent First Friday art walk. (Carol Pucci / Special to The Seattle Times)
A local henna artist applies a free tattoo during a recent First Friday art walk. (Carol Pucci / Special to The Seattle Times)

Clothing designer Roberta Oaks poured gin-and-tonics made with green cucumber soda for customers browsing racks of the men’s shirts she sells at her retail shop at 19 N. Pauahi St. Next door, Phuong Tran, owner of Art Treasures Gallery, wore his signature straw hat as he guided visitors through his shop, stocked like a mini-museum of Asian-inspired jewelry, antiques and artifacts.

Tea and chocolate

“Chinatown is mostly a locals spot,” says Oaks, but drawing more tourists are new foodie destinations specializing in coffee, tea and chocolate, and restaurants featuring French, Latin, Moroccan, Italian and pan-Asian cuisines.

Barely visible from the street except for a small neon sign in the shape of a pig is the Pig & the Lady, which Honolulu magazine recently named Oahu’s best restaurant.

Creating a menu filled with seafood and specialty noodle dishes, owner and chef Andrew Le — the self-described “pig” in the restaurant’s name — took inspiration from recipes created by his mother, Loan — the lady — to go from pop-up restaurant to farmers market stand selling Vietnamese sandwiches to his current brick-and-mortar outpost at 83 N. King St.

Morphing into a nightclub on First Fridays, with live music and samples of spiced hot chocolate, is Madre, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker tucked into a storefront at 8 N. Pauahi St.

Dr. Nat Bletter, a researcher at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, drew on his expertise in ethnobotany to start making chocolate from scratch for friends 10 years ago. The hobby turned into a business, with a factory and shop in suburban Kailua, and later a store in Chinatown.

Bletter invites visitors to stop in for samples made from locally grown cacao spiced with coffee, cinnamon, ginger and coconut, or sign up for “make your own chocolate bar” classes. If he’s around, he will show you around his urban garden where he experiments with growing cacao, sugar cane, lemon grass, figs and passion fruit.

A two-minute walk from Madre is Tea at 1024, an English-style tea salon on Nu`uanu decorated with glass tables and chairs wrapped in pink bows. Owner Michele Sorensen grew up in Tacoma, opened a design shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1997 and the tea shop in 1999.

“Years ago,” she recalls, “there was nobody here … Now it’s above amazing what’s happening.”

Despite the changes, she doesn’t sugarcoat the lingering problems that come with a neighborhood in transition.

Extra police patrol the bars and restaurants on Hotel Street on First Fridays, and Sorensen says it’s not unusual for her to come to work and find someone camped on her doorstep.

“We’re still interlaced with the homeless and drugs,” she says. “If you have thick skin, and like to experience fun, cool places, come on down. If not, go to the mall.”