Jason Cutinella started Nella Media Group in 2009, operating out of a dingy 200-square-foot office in Honolulu’s Chinatown. He rented the space for $800 a month and threw parties at the neighborhood’s hip bars, like Indigo and Bar 35, to cover his rent.
Originally the publisher of a single newspaper about the Chinatown district, Nella Media Group has since grown to produce eight publications for corporate clientele. It’s still based in Chinatown but in a much larger office.
Dusty Grable worked as a wine steward at Bar 35 back when Cutinella threw his rent parties. Today, Grable co-owns two restaurants, Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern, and The Tchin Tchin! Bar in what is now a hub for Honolulu’s foodies.
Grable and Cutinella are among a group of young entrepreneurs who have set up shop on the Diamond Head side of Chinatown east of Smith Street, sometimes referred to as the arts district.
“We welcome that type of business,” said Alvin Au, chair of the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board. Au, who grew up in Chinatown, said the new businesses are replacing “x-rated bars” that once crowded the area’s century-old buildings.
“The beauty about being down here is that everyone’s a small business owner.” — Jun Jo, co-owner of In4mation clothing store
The arts district is distinct from the community of open-air produce and meat sellers, Chinese acupuncturists and herbalists who fill storefronts from Smith to River streets.
The historic district’s charm and relatively low rents are integral to the success of these startups.
“We owe a lot to this community,” said Jun Jo, co-owner of In4mation, a streetwear shop based in Chinatown that features designs by local artists.
Now that they’re established in Chinatown, some of the business owners are trying to help transform it.
They’ve created a group called ACME — Arts, Culture, Merchants, Etc. — that meets about once a month to discuss how they can address Chinatown’s growing population of homeless people, among other issues.
The area’s high concentration of social service organizations and people in need – whether poor, homeless, drug addicted, or mentally ill – create a turbulent climate for business.
The same challenge faces the traditional businesses on the Ewa side of Chinatown.
“You don’t want to lose that,” Cutinella said of the immigrant community. “This isn’t SoHo, Manhattan.”
Young business owners love Chinatown for what it’s not: a strip mall.
The neighborhood’s architecture retains some of its history, and the walkable district has a grittiness that makes it feel like a real city.
“The grit, the grime,” Grable said of Chinatown. “I love it all.”
Some of the area’s new businesses renovated old buildings, proudly exposing redbrick walls as a testament to the buildings’ past.
Cheaper rents than commercial shopping centers like Ward or Ala Moana provide an opportunity for small, locally owned businesses to get off the ground, said Marie Owens, owner of Owens & Co., a boutique on Nuuanu Avenue.
“The beauty about being down here is that everyone’s a small business owner,” said Jo.
Camaraderie trumps competition for some of the owners and employees of these niche businesses.
“My success is their success,” Grable said. He recently walked with a reporter into The Manifest, a café and bar on Hotel Street, and knew everyone from the artist installing a painting on the cafe’s walls to the barista serving salted caramel lattes.
When Nella Media Group opened, Cutinella had a hard time getting corporate clients, like hotel or airline executives, to meet with him in Chinatown.
Today, he said, the neighborhood’s stigma has been replaced by intrigue thanks largely to the rise of restaurants.
Chinatown’s well-known issues persist. People living on the streets sleep on the doorsteps of bustling businesses.
The passage of the sit-lie ban in Waikiki incited Jeff Mull to become involved in efforts to make Chinatown more business-friendly.
Mull’s advertising studio, Onward Creative, operates out of Real Office Centers, a shared office space in a former noodle restaurant. A California-based company revamped the building in the last three years and is now selling it.
Waikiki has the Hawaii Tourism Authority to advocate for business needs, Mull explained, Chinatown businesses don’t have a parallel organization.
He and other business owners started ACME after participation dwindled in a previous group, the Arts District Merchants Association.
At ACME meetings, young professionals like Mull, Owens, and Jo discuss community issues. Members have taken small steps so far, like organizing community cleanups and painting over graffiti.
ACME members attempt to connect homeless people with the appropriate social services. They say they know almost all of the people who live on Chinatown’s streets.
Their collective mission is to get more people to Chinatown to shop, dine and play.
“Chinatown has the potential of being the food, beverage, entertainment destination of Hawaii that isn’t a mall,” Grable said.
They see their community presence as a force deterring illegal activity, like drug dealing.
“Chinatown has the potential of being the food, beverage, entertainment destination of Hawaii that isn’t a mall.” — Dusty Grable
When they started a weekly basketball game in Smith-Baretania Park, Jo said they “activated” the space and discouraged drug dealers from coming to the park. He’s since noticed more kids playing on the playground.
Twice a year, Cutinella’s media group publishes Chinatown Now, a magazine that showcases the area’s businesses and aspects of Chinatown’s alternative youth culture.
“It’s all about the people, and the people pioneering Chinatown,” Cutinella said.
Events are another way these businesses are attracting visitors.
During the recent Holidaze Market, a city-sponsored event, parts of Nuuanu Avenue and Pauahi Street closed for a craft fair and block party.
The monthly First Friday art walks feature open galleries and restaurants with live music.
This year’s Hallowbaloo Halloween festival brought thousands of people to Chinatown.
Terry Kakazu, who operated a bar for 25 years in the Chinese Cultural Plaza and now owns HASR Bistro on Pauahi Street, thinks nighttime events sometimes attract the wrong crowd and lead to public drunkenness.
Grable, however, thinks that creating more venues for tourists and locals to dine and shop will also bring more awareness to the ever-present issue of homelessness, visible just outside his restaurants’ large glass windows.
It’s easy to say Chinatown business owners should be compassionate toward people sleeping at their doorstep. It’s more difficult to offer advice on how to maintain a business and attract customers when your doorstep is blocked by a sleeping homeless person.
“It’s different when you’re the person who needs to pick up shit,” Owens said, referring to the neighborhood’s sidewalk defecation problem.
She’s had to deal with people “crazy high on drugs” who enter her store. There’s a methadone clinic three blocks away.
When the sit-lie law was expanded to parts of Chinatown, Mull said it was a “tremendous” and “visible” help.
Mull supports River of Life Mission’s services, but is among the business owners who would like to see the organization’s soup kitchen relocated to an area with fewer small businesses.
Their outlooks vary, but they’re all affected by the poverty on the streets.
“To open up a business down the street from any one of those and then complain that there’s people in need around you is ridiculous,” Grable said. He urges the business community to support social service initiatives to help the poor.
During Cutinella’s early years in Chinatown, his friends rarely passed Nuuanu Avenue. Today, though, farther down on Smith Street is what he calls a new “safe zone” where the artsy, up-and-coming Chinatown meets the immigrant businesses on the community’s Ewa side.
He foresees Maunakea Street one day becoming a distinct divide between the arts district and Chinatown.
Some say it’s a peaceful symbiosis, that the two communities help each other.
Owens sees ACME’s efforts as beneficial to all of Chinatown.
First-generation immigrant business owners might not know how to voice their grievances to city and state officials, she said, but ACME members do so regularly.
Jo doesn’t feel so easy about the district divide. He said it can feel segregated, and wonders what the immigrant business owners think of the encroaching influence of young urban professionals.
“Are we their Starbucks?” Jo asked, referring to his community’s aversion to corporate chain businesses.
Shu Cong Wu doesn’t think so. Wu grew up near Chinatown and now owns Domo Cafe, a sushi and bubble drink restaurant on Maunakea Street.
Wu acknowledges the separation between the two sides of Chinatown, but said the new breed of businesses enriches the area. They make the entire area more attractive to visitors, he said, and increase foot traffic around his shop.
Jimmy Mar, who owns a small produce store near Maunakea Marketplace, agrees. Even though the new restaurants get their produce wholesale, many buy herbs from Mar’s store, Chinatown Hawaiian Market, for specialty cocktails.
Wu and Mar say they aren’t worried about being priced out of the neighborhood.
They don’t yet eat at the neighborhood’s new restaurants, which Wu labeled “fancy,” but admit they’re interested in checking them out.
“We definitely welcome their presence,” said Jessica Lo, owner of Good Health Pharmacy, where Cantonese is spoken as much as English. “Even though we don’t mingle now, maybe eventually we will.”