- Special Projects
Many attractions for tourists on Oahu stultify visitors with their predictability: an “authentic” luau on the beach, a stroll through fake villages at the Polynesian Cultural Center or exhausting multi-stop bus rides around the island.
But in Honolulu’s Chinatown each morning, adventurous visitors and local residents have a fascinating new option: a walking tour through one of the most successful entrepreneurial business districts ever launched in Hawaii — the red light district of World War II.
The tour is a kind of wacky wildlife expedition; a chance to learn more about the wild life that flourished during the war: the tattoo parlors, bars and sex houses where a hard working prostitute could service up to 12 customers in an hour, up to a hundred men a day.
Seattle transplant Carter Lee Churchfield created the historic stroll she calls “Honolulu Exposed: WW II Red Light District Tour.”
Churchfield charges $30 per person for the mile-long guided walk to see former brothels called “boogie houses,” which made their owners small fortunes during the war. Amazingly, almost every building, which housed a Chinatown brothel more than 60 years ago, is still standing today.
Churchfield, who is short and wiry with pierced eyebrows, her red hair tightly bound in braids, meets us in front of the Hawaii Theatre to begin the 90-minute stroll. Her website warns the attraction is not for everyone.
“This is a tour of the booze, tattoos, and prostitution in WWII Hawaii, and F-Bombs do fly. If you think your kids’/mother-in-law’s/pastor’s tender sensibilities will be shocked, they might want to stay home. Tell them you’re going golfing or something.”
Churchfield says she was inspired to start her business after visiting Honolulu’s Chinatown with her boyfriend on their vacation from Seattle.
The beauty of the buildings amazed her and she says she was intrigued by their colorful past.
“It is a treasure trove of the kind of history that you don’t learn about in school.”
Churchfield was already an experienced tour guide, having led more than a thousand walking tours in downtown Seattle.
As she leads us down the Fort Street Mall, she explains that red light districts are nothing new to Hawaii, which in the last century experienced a disproportionate number of men to women when 20,000 laborers, most of them single men, first came to work on the plantations and then again, during World War II when thousands of military servicemen flooded into the islands.
Churchfield estimates that during WWII, there were 375 men for every woman in Honolulu.
“This opened up the door for the oldest profession in the world also known as ‘The Sisterhood,’” says Churchfield.
The first red light district was in Iwilei near the present location of Costco. But by the time of World War II, all the action had moved to Chinatown.
Wartime sexual businesses were strictly regulated. Then Honolulu police chief William Gabrielson made sure each sex worker was photographed and fingerprinted and paid $1 in annual registration fees. Prostitutes were officially listed as “entertainers.”
Gabrielson enforced a strict set of regulations, which became known as “The Ten Commandments” — each rule carefully crafted to marginalize the prostitutes, making them second-class citizens with limited rights.
A prostitute was prohibited from visiting Waikiki Beach or any other beach except Kailua. Kailua was deemed acceptable for swimming for prostitutes because it was quite far away.
The rules stated: “She could not patronize any bars or better class cafes. She may not own property or an automobile. She may not have a steady boyfriend or be seen on the streets with any men. She may not marry service personnel. She may not attend dances or visit golf courses.”
And the most ridiculous was: “She may not ride a bicycle.”
Prostitutes were prohibited from working independently. They had to live and toil for madams in regulated brothels. They could not be out of the brothel after 10:30 at night and were not supposed to drink alcohol or use narcotics.
In his essay in the Hawaiian Journal of History, “My Experiences in the Red Light District,” Pearl City engineer Ted Chernin wrote, “One could say that, except for their profession, the women lived almost like nuns.”
As we turn a corner on the tour, Churchfield says, “Welcome to Hotel Street. This is where the soldiers and sailors came to get stewed, screwed and tattooed. This street caused headaches for Honolulu’s Social Protection Committee for decades.”
Honolulu moralists who formed the Social Protection Committee disapproved of prostitution yet at the same time they grudgingly tolerated it as a way of keeping randy servicemen away from their daughters.
Hotel Street and surrounding streets were where most of the 20 downtown brothels were located.
Churchfield says, “Any place on Hotel Street, even though it had the word ‘hotel’ in front of its name, was not a hotel. “
The houses of prostitution also had names like Bronx Rooms, Camp Rooms and Ritz Rooms to make them seem like rooming houses.
We walk by Smith’s Union Bar, which is filled with rowdy drunks even though it is 10 in the morning. After peeking in the bar’s door, we continue down the street past the now vacant Club Hubba Hubba.
We turn a corner on to Smith Street to stop in front of a mural to memorialize the tattoo artist Sailor Jerry, and then we move in closer to check out an innocuous door at 1033A Smith Street, which Churchfield informs us was formerly the entrance to a brothel known as “The Eagle’s Nest.”
Chinatown brothels were usually on the second floor of buildings.
Essayist Chernin wrote, “a euphemism used when suggesting a visit to one was ‘let’s go climb the stairs,’ because almost all were in upstairs locations.”
Service men visiting brothels usually followed a set routine: get drunk in one of the many bars in the area on rotgut booze with names like Five Island Gin, visit a brothel and celebrate afterward by getting a tattoo.
When ships came into the harbor, hundreds of men could be lined up in front of a brothel’s door.
Churchfield gives us the lowdown on how a typical Hotel Street brothel operated.
She says a bouncer, usually a tough Hawaiian woman, guarded the front door, prohibiting entrance to anyone the bouncer thought was too drunk or who might cause trouble.
A client was allowed to enter, paid $3 for a poker chip and was taken to a room to undress. The prostitute came into the room, collected the poker chip and manually inspected the man for venereal disease before washing him. He was given 3 minutes to do his business before he was whisked off into another room to wash and get dressed.
Churchfield says “if I man could not accomplish what he set out to do in 3 minutes, he was given a ‘rain check’ to return.”
Rachel Kyle, one of the guests on the tour says, “Now, that’s what I call customer service.”
Kyle of South Orange, California, has brought five of her friends on the tour with her.
Most brothels used an assembly line system known as the bull pen to make money fast off of large numbers of customers. By switching from room to room, a prostitute could see as many as 100 customers a day. She kept $2 out of each $3 she was paid and gave the madam $1.
Churchfield says a prostitute could earn as much as $25,000 a year, which was a lot of money when the women workers at that time were making an average of $2,000 a year. Madams could make $150,000 a year.
Prostitutes routinely worked 20 days each month, taking time off when they had what was called “their flowers” — their menstrual periods.
They were required to be medically examined every week for venereal disease.
We walk next to 121 North Hotel Street, across from the Maunakea Marketplace, to the former location of a brothel called the New Senator Hotel, once home to 15 prostitutes and a madam.
Author James Jones in his novel “From Here to Eternity” featured a brothel called the Congress Hotel, which Churchfield says was based on the New Senator Hotel. A fight scene in the film made of the novel was shot in an alley here.
To get her information, Churchfield, a Bryn Mawr College graduate, says she spent two months reading news reports, academic journals and books such as “The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii,” by Barnard College professors Beth Bailey and David Farber.
She offers me a reading list after the tour.
Churchfield says about half of the people on her tours are visitors and the rest local residents. She says some locals want to know more about the Chinatown they remember as kids as a mysterious, vice-filled area unsafe for regular folks.
I can vouch for that. When I was in high school at Punahou, Chinatown both frightened and attracted me.
My friends and I created a game we called “Red Light, Green Light.” I would drive my station wagon down Hotel Street at night. As part of the game, everyone except me had to get out of the car when I stopped at a red light. Then, when the light changed to green I would drive away, leaving behind anyone who didn’t have time to jump back into my car.
Of course, I always returned after a few minutes to rescue my friends. By then, they were nervously laughing on the sidewalk by the Swing Club or Club Hubba Hubba, shyly shrinking away from passing drunken sailors and occasional streetwalkers.
Such was our thrilling brush with the downtown dens of iniquity.
Douglas Zellmer, a visitor from Anaheim, California, on the tour, told me Honolulu’s former red light district also intrigued him when he was young because of the scary and wild stories his uncles told him about their nights carousing in Chinatown when they were sailors during WW II.
“They would tell me stories that would make my hair curl,” says Zeller.
Chinatown seems so tame now with its trendy clothing boutiques, mixology bars and fancy restaurants.
It is touching to think back to red light district World War II when it pulsated with life, peopled by hundreds of prostitutes.
In their way, the ladies of the night were united in the single purpose of the war like everyone else on Oahu.
The prostitutes invested thousands of dollars in war bonds. Of course, says Churchfield, the bonds were a safe bet to protect their hard-earned cash from confiscation by corrupt cops.
Churchfield tells us many boogie houses offered shelter and comfort to the displaced and wounded after the Pearl Harbor attack with the prostitutes doing their best to nurse the injured until they could be transferred to the overcrowded hospitals.
“They did this because they were good people. They saved lives. If you remember nothing else, please remember what I have told you on this part of the tour.”
I am sure most of us will remember a lot more. When I walk down Hotel Street now, I expect to occasionally late at night feel the ghosts of the strangers who once slammed together for 3 minutes of sex in the now lifeless rooms above the bars I pass.
The plain doors leading upstairs will never seem the same.