- Special Projects
Since 1989, Diana Paik’s family has owned Million Restaurant, located one block away from Keeaumoku Street in the heart of urban Honolulu.
Over the years, Paik has seen the area change as more and more Korean restaurants, bars and stores came to the neighborhood.
Now, Keeaumoku — or as some call it, Korea-moku — is known as Honolulu’s informal ethnic Korean neighborhood, a place to get delicious bibimbap from Sorobel restaurant or pick up gochujang at Keeaumoku Supermarket.
A bill introduced by Rep. Sharon Har of West Oahu would set aside money for the state to officially designate the area near Kapiolani Boulevard and Ala Moana Shopping Center as Koreatown.
The House committee on cultural affairs is meeting on Wednesday morning to consider the measure, House Bill 2062, which would appropriate an unspecified amount of money to the state Office of Planning to create the special district.
Har thinks that the proposal would stimulate Hawaii’s economy by highlighting a destination for Korean tourists and others who enjoy Korean food, products and culture.
More than 100,000 tourists from Korea visited Hawaii last year, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the islands’ economy.
And immigration from Korea has grown substantially since the first 7,000 Koreans came to Hawaii to work in the sugar plantations between 1903 and 1905.
The state Department of Business, Economics and Tourism estimated in a 2010 census report that more than 24,000 Koreans lived in Hawaii. The report also found that Hawaii is home to nearly 49,000 people who identify as at least part Korean, most of whom live in Honolulu.
Har’s idea has been in the works for a while. In 2007, the city explored the idea of creating Koreatown as part of a study on establishing a Korean cultural center. Four years later, 3,800 people signed a petition circulated by the United Korean Association of Hawaii supporting the creation of Koreatown.
Two years ago, Har put forward a resolution asking the Office of Planning to study the possibility of establishing Koreatown.
The office surveyed 2,000 people and found that many liked the idea of establishing the special district in the Keeaumoku area. Advocates for Har’s bill say that a formal designation would go a long way toward celebrating Korean culture in Hawaii, in addition to giving the state an economic boost.
One of the proponents of the measure is Amanda Chang, vice-president of the Hawaii Korean Cultural Center. The nonprofit organization was formed in 2007 with the goal of establishing a cultural center similar to those for Japanese, Okinawan and Filipino communities in Honolulu and Waipahu.
But seven years later, Chang’s group still hasn’t succeeded in raising enough money to achieve their goal. Chang hopes that designating part of Honolulu as Koreatown could help highlight the organization’s efforts as well as create a central location where Korean culture can thrive.
Not everyone thinks establishing a Koreatown is a good idea.
And there are practical issues to consider, too.
Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning, said that it’s the job of the city, not the state, to designate special districts.
Curtis Lum, spokesman for the city Department of Planning and Permitting, said DPP Director George Atta did not want to comment on the concept until he read the report on Koreatown from the Office of Planning. He said it’s hard to say how much creating a new special district would cost because it depends on whether or not the city hired outside consultants. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Lum hadn’t responded but he in fact had left a voicemail in the afternoon.)
But in 2012 when Har put forward her resolution to study the idea of Koreatown, the DPP opposed the concept and estimated in its testimony to the Legislature that hiring consultants to implement the idea could cost the city as much as $400,000.
Honolulu already has seven special districts, including Chinatown and Waikiki, which come with special design rules and often have historic significance. Chinatown is the only ethnic-specific district, which grew organically through the long-term presence of Chinese merchants.
Creating an eighth special district would likely entail coming up with an extra layer of design guidelines for the buildings, which would require support from property owners, former DPP director David Tanoue said in testimony against Har’s resolution.
The Senate companion bill to Har’s proposal failed last week after many people testified against the measure.
Jung Sang, a manager at Keeaumoku Supermarket, said he’s lived in several cities that have Koreatowns, including New York City and Los Angeles, but shook his head at the idea of giving Keeaumoku Street the same name.
“I don’t know what ‘Koreatown’ is meaning,” he said, adding that it is the first he has heard of the proposal.
Members of the Hawaii Korean Chamber of Commerce are also skeptical about whether adding the label ‘Koreatown’ would actually help businesses in the community. One board member, Myong Choi, questioned whether there is enough of a critical mass of Korean shops for this proposal to make sense.
“Just having a couple of markets, a couple of restaurants doesn’t necessarily make it a Koreatown,” Choi said.
Part of the issue is that the neighborhood is already home to big chain stores like Walmart and Ross, and Korean establishments — while plentiful — aren’t necessarily very prominent.
It’s a world away from Koreatown in New York City, which is lit up at night with dozens of brightly colored signs advertising Korean venues.
Some of the many Japanese tourists to Hawaii might be disappointed when they compare the area to Tokyo’s version of Koreatown, Shin-Okubo. That neighborhood has stores filled with photos of Korean pop stars that overflow onto the street and Korean music blaring out of restaurants and bars.
On Keeaumoku Street, big-box stores dominate the scene, making some wonder whether the label would end up inflating expectations.
But Har argues that the presence of non-Korean businesses on the street is a boon rather than a drawback.
The large stores bring foot traffic, she said. And they don’t necessarily detract from the “Korean” feel of the place.
“What if Walmart added a sign saying ‘Walmart’ in Korean?” she suggested. She added that there are many non-Chinese businesses in Honolulu’s Chinatown that manage to fit in with the character of the neighborhood.
Yet some business owners who are leasing their property worry that the ‘Koreatown’ label could give landowners an excuse to raise rent in the neighborhood if the area becomes a new tourist attraction.
A few property owners fear the opposite effect, saying that designating the area as an ethnic district could drag down property values.
Brian Sakamaki, who owns a condo unit one block away from Keeaumoku Street, said he thinks carving out a special district would amount to catering to a single group instead of doing what’s best for the whole community.
Another property owner, Donna Walden, agrees.
“I would not have purchased the properties we did in this area had I known it would eventually be designated Koreatown,” Walden said.
And others worry that government-sanctioned ethnic districts could be more divisive than desirable.
Ann Kobayashi, a Honolulu City Council member representing District 5, argues that designating Koreatown goes against Hawaii’s sense of multiculturalism.
Koreatown “would be the first government-established ethnic district in the State of Hawaii,” she wrote in her testimony opposing the idea. Moiliili, which is part of Kobayashi’s district, previously considered establishing Japantown but changed its mind in the spirit of inclusiveness, she said.
“Continue to keep Hawaii the crossroads of the Pacific,” Kobayashi urged.