Hello everyone! I am so happy to welcome the lovely and talented AJ Llewellyn to First of a Thousand Steps!
I was so thrilled to be asked to blog about my romance with the Hawaiian Islands today because they are never far from my mind or heart. Today especially, I feel it’s a gift to be able to share my thoughts because I am reading a mystery novel set in Honolulu that up until a certain point had me completely captivated. I knew all the sites the author talked about, knew the surfing breaks and the dirty streets of Chinatown…and then I came to a part where he made up a restaurant on River Street!
At first I was surprised. How come I didn’t know about this Ah Fook on River Street? The River Street I know is not a nice place to visit, in spite of its historic importance to the islands’ history. It’s a jumbled mess of Laundromats, flop houses that stink of human urine and a batch of loitering drunks trying to decide if they can be quick enough to pick-pocket you…
A quick Google search showed me I hadn’t been wrong. The restaurant doesn’t exist.
I suppose I shouldn’t be disappointed. Some authors opt for this fake restaurant routine but since everything else was so accurate in the story I felt a little robbed. I’d like to think of River Street as having a decent restaurant. In fact, I’d love to see River Street cleaned up.
Many of my books are set in Hawaii, most in Honolulu. I have a special love for Chinatown since it’s the oldest Chinatown in the whole of the United States, plus, it has survived plague, two fires (one whose origin is a mystery and the other set by the Department of Health in a misguided attempt to stem the tide of the plague).
It has survived World War II and the stream of military men who once crowded its streets to visit the 200 women on Hotel Street who serviced them. These women worked out of motel rooms turned brothels on the first floor of many of these once-cheap motels. Very few of the hotels are still there–but I found the Midway, on River Street ironically–though there is no marker, no indication of the history of these rundown places.
Chinatown has survived the loss of Wo Fat, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the US. So special was this place that Jack Lord, the original star and producer of Hawaii Five-O named his perpetual nemesis and the show’s lingering bad guy after it.
Five years ago I went to Wo Fat for dinner not knowing it was on its last legs. The restaurant, once two floors and an entire block of bustling action, was reduced to one section of the second floor. A rock and roll band played during a Sunday afternoon dim sum seating. I had no idea then that just a little bit of dancing would have seen the thin floor crashing through to the ground.
I was too busy enjoying my chop sui (their spelling, not mine) trying to imagine how different it might have tasted in World War II. My ancient host claimed it hadn’t changed a bit so I savored the sense-memory and used it in two books; The Forbidden Island and Vagabond Heart.
The restaurant is gone but the sign is still there. It probably always will be. And if you stand long enough in front of it, I swear you will smell chop sui drifting out of the windows.
Chinatown was once the special province of a remarkable man called Detective John Jardine who sensed before anybody else in the islands that Chinatown was a den of thieves. In the forties and fifties, when he was the top criminal investigator, Asian bad guys swamped the islands with their shell games, drug dealings, tattoo parlors, opium deals…you name it.
I read his autobiography and could identify with Jardine’s passion for the place in spite of its problems. A lot of the things he wrote about are still there. And that’s why I love Chinatown and urge anyone reading this to visit.
First and foremost are the Buddhist river temples few guidebooks talk about. Many have been there for decades and they are a spiritual respite from the workaday world.
If you are lucky, you might meet one of the tour guides geared towards Asian visitors who will take you to the underground caves once used for drug smuggling!
And, if you are looking for an authentic, fresh flower lei and/or island flowers at bargain prices, look no further than King Street. This street is small but bursting with tiny lei shops where the women hand string their leis on cotton the way they have in the islands for centuries. King Street is possibly the island of Oahu’s best-kept secret.
If you want fresh fish, the Oahu Market has an astonishing array of fish you have never heard of. I went a couple of years ago and made a list of the stuff they had packed in ice. Then I Googled them. Some were parasitic fish that adhere themselves to sharks and whales…I never heard of such a thing and the teeth on these babies were frightening. No wonder we’ve seen an increase in shark attacks. These sea critters are pissed!
These fish found their way into my Waikiki Vampire series since they are often referred to as vampire fish…
For unusual fruits and vegetables, the markets on Maunakea Street all the way down toward River Street have been there for over a century. I love knowing that the veggie stands Detective Jardine once frequented are still there. Some of the fruit is doggone weird but hey, you can buy cheap flip-flops and back scratchers while you’re at it, so it’s all good in the hood.
Though there is much gentrification going on with old ginseng shops being turned into art galleries, the pavements of Chinatown are the same. So are the exteriors of the buildings.
My passion/fascination for River Street goes back to the time when a river really ran through the area. Now it’s blocked by a bridge, but it’s there. Back in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, Chinese housewives and freed sugar plantation workers bathed, washed their clothes and drew water from there. Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century was so overcrowded and sanitation so poor that the plague broke out thanks to escaping rats docking from trade ships. The photos of the local men gathered in the city’s center, naked, as their meager possessions are burned by the state officials still haunt me.
In April, I visited Chinatown with my writing partner, Serena Yates. We ate dim sum at Legends seafood, immortalized in my entire Phantom Lover series. I was thrilled that ships still dock at the nearby Aloha Tower, though I didn’t see any half-naked girls wading out to sea with leis and ukuleles to greet them.
Maybe, like me, they were too busy eating toasted taro balls.
Serena was as taken by Legends as I was…I hope her visit there stirred her senses and her creative juices. I know it did for me.
It is with a sense of nostalgia for time and times I never knew but wished I had that I return to Chinatown again and again. As the Hawaiians like to say, “They were days that were days indeed…”
And if you should go to Chinatown and notice a man standing under the art deco lampposts watching you from his hiding place of cigarette smoke and the brim of his fedora, it’s probably the ghost of Detective Jardine. He died a long time ago but was only inducted to Hawaii’s hall of fame in the year 2000.
I’ve seen him myself. Watching me. Watching his town. He’s gone, but still loves Chinatown. He is there, just beyond the rainbow, watching us all…as we each in our own and very unique ways, find Aloha.