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New York City and Honolulu aren’t all that different, when you think about it.
For example, New York has an ABC store, an art gallery called the Agora, a Mercury Bar, Marco Polo building, and Turtle Bay. If you go there during any of the three months out of the year when the weather feels Hawaiian, you might get confused about where you are.
Just kidding – I don’t know enough about Manhattan yet to understand the deeper similarities between these islands.
But, I will say that last week, my colleagues and I took a work trip to New York to meet the people who run the Huffington Post mothership. We’d all picked a wonderful time to go — mid-February, when Canada reaches down and slaps everyone in the face with its brutal, wintry exhalations.
I saw New Yorkers stop in the crosswalk to congratulate each other on crossing the street, that’s how cold it was.
On one snowy night, I stepped into a bar called Kinfolk in Brooklyn to order a drink. I’d quickly assumed I’d just been drugged, because standing near the DJ booth looking like he owned the place was none other than Mark Chittom, with Mitchell Anicas, Farley Rossiter, and Timo Lee — former Honolulu DJs, musicians, artists, bar owners, producers, writers or combinations thereof, and nearly 10 other Hawaii artists and expats talking and dancing as if the entirety of 2014 didn’t happen and we were still upstairs at Gelareh Khoie’s thirtyninehotel dancing to Ross Jackson’s Kaleidoscope party.
It wasn’t a mirage, but the aftermath of an exodus. Now, back in Honolulu, I wanted to hear why they left, and what, if any, reflections they have about leaving Hawaii behind to join the madding crowd.
Here, Timo, Chittom, and Khoie told me why they answered the beckoning call from the other end of the brain drain (a mode of transportation that I realize now isn’t nearly as evil as I once thought it was).
Timo Lee lived in Hawaii for 14 years, and worked as a DJ, promoter and manager at thirtyninehotel until she and bartender Christian Self opened Bevy in Kakaako in 2013. She relocated to New York about a month ago, and last weekend found an apartment in Prospect Heights. While she plans to split her time between Honolulu and New York, Lee still remains active in Bevy and says she hopes to bring a New York approach to musical trends in Honolulu when she visits and performs throughout the year:
“I’ve been wanting to move to New York for many, many years. The first time I came to New York was in 2008, or ’09, and I just fell in love with the city. There’s just so much happening. It blew my mind. Especially the music scene, because I’m a DJ. I feel more motivated. There’s lots of parties; different DJs come to New York and you get to go see them, see what’s going on. It’s a bigger scene for the stuff I like – house, disco, electronic music. That’s one of the main reasons I decided to come: I wanted to feel motivated and challenged.
“In Honolulu, you almost feel like you reach a point where you can’t go further anymore. The feeling – Bevy’s great and I get to DJ there and stuff, and I really enjoy DJing with the Asylum crew too, but it’s limited. I was definitely craving a bigger scene. Honolulu just doesn’t have a big audience. I started to feel unmotivated a little bit. I wanted to do more, and further my music career, but in Honolulu, I was getting too comfortable.
“It’s been a pretty stressful month and a half, because I’ve been looking for an apartment, and this city’s very fast paced. It’s not like Hawaii and laid back. You have to be on the go, go, go, go — you have to make decisions very fast. I’m definitely adjusting to all that. I’m from Taipei, so I miss this type of fast-paced city life.
“I’ll still fly back and forth to Honolulu, because I’m still involved with Bevy, and I’ll try to avoid the winter here. This year’s was really painful! It’s getting colder and colder. I love Hawaii — I was born there actually, and will stay involved with Honolulu. I really want to go back. I miss my friends.”
Mark Chittom wrote the Honolulu Weekly column, “Clubbed To Death,” for five years, threw many parties and recurring shows at thirtyninehotel and other clubs throughout Chinatown, and covered and contributed to Chinatown’s transition, what he calls its “shift from crackville to nascent artist community.” Chittom moved to New York in 2009, returned briefly in 2011, and moved back to New York permanently in 2014:
“I moved out here for the first time in 2009 and it was mostly because I felt like, as a DJ, there’s really nowhere else for me to go. I loved it at thirtynine, but I just felt like it was getting a little repetitive for me. I just wanted to go where it was bigger – it’s like, if you want to be a big wave surfer, you go to Hawaii. If you want to be a DJ, you go to New York or LA, or someplace like that. You go to a place where it’s the cultural center of that thing. That’s pretty much why I left.
“For Honolulu to be what I’d need it to be, it would just have to be more. But Honolulu’s not going to get bigger. The people who are doing it – I think a lot of them are doing great. But, with the Weekly closing, and thirtynine closing — for a long time I felt that, if it weren’t for thirtyninehotel, I don’t know if I would have been able to live there. Thirtynine was a community that I could be a part of, where we all had a common purpose of just making it happen. So it was cool like that, but you had to work so hard for such little reward. I’m not even talking about money, I’m talking about people showing up and having a good time. It was really difficult. And so it got demoralizing after a while.
“There’s a really cool community of Hawaii people up here who are doing things, people who are really active in the disco community, and it’s all from stuff they learned in Chinatown.” — Mark Chittom
“Let’s take, for example, an official arts community like the Honolulu Museum of Art. They’re only going to have a new big show every six months or so, and you can go to it and then you have to wait another six months. Things happen so slowly in Hawaii that it’s hard to keep your attention focused on it, whereas in New York, it’s like you’re never going to be able to do everything that’s new, much less see all the established things. There’s just so much more. To me, that level of stimulation is what I prefer. I certainly think Pow Wow is great. The projects that Wei Fang does with the Agora space and Interisland Terminal is all really awesome. And obviously the Hawaii International Film Festival is great. But to me, there’s just never quite enough going on to keep my level of stimulation high enough to have an impact on my life.
“It can be really cold in New York. I’m not crazy about the weather today — I’m literally counting the days to spring. And if spring is still cold, I don’t know what I’m going to do! But, you deal with it. I’d rather deal with harsh weather than deal with a lack of stimulation. It’s weird. I don’t want to disparage Hawaii, because it’s very stimulating in a lot of ways, but in the particular things I’m interested in, it stopped doing it for me after awhile.
“Another reason I moved: There’s a really cool community of Hawaii people up here who are doing things, people who are really active in the disco community, and it’s all from stuff they learned in Chinatown. These are original people around when Chinatown made this shift from crackville to nascent artist community. It’s not like we’re just up here trying to make our way in the big city. It’s like we have a community of people who speak the same shorthand; we go way back. And now we’re finding new people who want to be a part of our community. It’s really good and that makes living here a lot easier and a lot more rewarding. In some ways, it’s like you still get to have a lot of what’s cool about Hawaii, which is the people, and there’s a bunch of them up here. That makes it a lot better.”
Gelareh Khoie opened thirtyninehotel in 2004 to give artists, DJs, bands, and creative bartenders a place to gather, work, create and party. An artist herself, she featured large pieces by herself and many contemporary artists on the evolving walls of her club, but after awhile, the nightlife scene took its toll. Whereas thirtyninehotel was a centerpiece in the art community for 10 years, a dispute between Khoie and her landlord, combined with constant battles with what Khoie considers systemic, prohibitive problems in city government, she closed the club in 2014 and moved to Red Hook in upstate New York to “get away from all things Hawaii.” In a few months, she’ll move to Berlin to start her next act: open a mixed use gallery and studio where everything is free, and she can focus on her art again:
“I just needed some time and space to be completely alone. I moved to Hawaii from San Francisco, so I already did that whole thing prior to coming to Hawaii. When I arrived in Hawaii, creating that similar dynamic vibe became my obsession, really. And I think that I obviously did that, I helped to manifest that type of San Francisco/New York kind of vibe. I don’t know how to explain it, just that there would be options in terms of art and music, and that creativity is thriving. That’s what people look for when they leave Hawaii. I moved upstate, because I feel like there was so much pressure on me for such a long period of time. And when I left Hawaii, I didn’t feel like I needed to go and access more things. I didn’t really feel like I had missed out on anything – I needed a little bit of peace and quiet.
“The pressures came in the last couple of years. Specifically, my landlady was pressuring me a lot about the permits, and I’m not a businessperson. I never really was. I’m an artist. At thirtynine, even though it was really popular, I was always in the red. She was always breathing down my neck about that, being aggressive with me. Her energy was slowly eating away at me, at my ability to maintain hope and maintain joy. The kind of things you need when you run a space like thirtynine, which was all about giving love to the community through art and music. But I slowly felt that love drain out of me. I don’t think she really realized that’s how it was, but I’m not a tough skinned businesswoman, and I don’t respond to that kind of energy. Then after nine years of business, the Department of Planning and Permitting wanted me to spend $80,000 to put in a sprinkler system. So you know, oh my God, to be treated in this way after 10 years of business in transforming a derelict neighborhood into a thriving economic center, it broke my heart. And I wanted to get as far away as possible from everything Hawaii.
“The move has been good for me! I quit drinking and smoking three weeks after I got here. I’ve become vegetarian and meditate. I’ve completely said goodbye to the party life, and perpetuating that level of love of disco just hasn’t been important to me. Mark Chittom and Timo, they’re still really enamored of it, and still wanting to perpetuate the thirtynine thing in New York City, which is great. The party will always continue to live. I needed some space from all that.
“Look at what happened in Chinatown: they’re not even closing the streets anymore for First Fridays. That was a decade-long run, and there was no support from the government.” — Gelareh Khoie
“I’m moving to Berlin in a couple of months, opening a new thirtynine there. It’ll be a really minimal version of it, and I’ll work on a new method, where everything is free. It’ll be a DJ space, but no bar. I think there might be free coffee and maybe people can bring their own beer. It’s just going to be art and music, and I’m going to do it myself, probably live in the back. I’m really interested in experimenting with this idea, trying to get out of the financial rat race, experiment with this sort of free economy. I’m going to see if the universe will provide, and I’m calling it 39berlin.
“Thirty nine (the original address of the Chinatown location) has just become a significant number in my life and now I have a glimmer of inspiration again. I think that, I don’t know how to say this without offending people, but I would love to interact with civilized people who just acknowledge reality. Hawaii’s a beautiful and amazing place, because you can just run on 60 percent ambition and be perfectly fine. You don’t have to really try that hard and you can dream your life away. And that’s totally fine. But, particularly for artists, that kind of laissez faire attitude can become stifling and boring. And when you do try, nobody really comprehends. You start to think that you don’t need to try that hard.
“OK, you know how thirtynine was a place where artists and writers and poets and musicians used to hang out and it was like a cool hive where people could interact with one another and bounce ideas — that’s how it was for a while. Chinatown grew to have some really quite lovely potential. But that died at one point. It was stifled. A little mediocre status quo jumped on the bandwagon and the raw creative energy dissipated. Because, in Hawaii, there’s no need to work hard, and maybe there’s no reward for the intellectuals. There’s no ultimate reward for going out of your way and trying to do something a little bit above average. So you just give up.
“It’s a low ceiling, but we accept it and try anyway because we love living there — it is lovely to live there. You get lulled into a sense that it’s great, and then one day you hit this wall. You say, OK, I can’t take another moment. You wake up and go, oh my God, my whole life can pass me by if I don’t make a move now. It’s too bad, because I think there’s a lot of things that the government, in concert with the various landowners, could do to support and encourage intellectual energy and community.
“Look at what happened in Chinatown: they’re not even closing the streets anymore for First Fridays. That was a decade-long run, and there was no support from the government. They did nothing but hound anybody, as far as I know. They wouldn’t spend any money beautifying, so it stayed crappy. Visionless.
“I love Hawaii, and I think it will always be a part of me and have a special place in my heart. For the actual place and the land and the people, I have nothing but love. But for the trolls running the government, I have only contempt.”