Opening or expanding a business during a pandemic might seem like a bold move, especially setting up shop in an arts and dining district where many businesses are closed and there’s a burgeoning population of homeless people.

But that’s exactly what Mahina Paishon-Duarte is doing. The social entrepreneur behind the Waiwai Collective co-work space on University Avenue is opening a new Waiwai annex on Nuuanu Street in Chinatown. It will be upstairs above Arts & Letters, a gallery and bookstore founded by arts impresario Wei Fang and Maile Meyer, founder of Native Books and Na Mea.

There’s a sense of optimism fueling her move.

“Hope is what’s going to pull us through these tough times, very tough times,” Paishon-Duarte said.

As hard as things are, she said, “It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop connecting.”

Wo Fat Building located in Chinatown.
While Honolulu’s Chinatown is suffering economically like the rest of the state, there are continuing signs of hope, including the ongoing plans to convert the Wo Fat Building into a hotel and restaurant. The developer hopes to start construction early next year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

And Paishon-Duarte isn’t alone. Chinatown is undergoing a metamorphosis amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

And it’s not all bad. Some existing businesses are hanging on, but with effort, thanks to a solid base of local customers. Others, like Paishon-Duarte’s are expanding into the neighborhood.

Down the block from Paishon-Duarte, fashion designer Roberta Oaks has relocated into a big corner space. And Paishon-Duarte is encouraged by other independent businesses she says are planning moves nearby: Morning Glass coffee and Mori by Art + Flea gift shop.

Others remain bullish on Chinatown. John Davenport, managing director of The Mighty Union hospitality company, said the developer is moving ahead with plans to convert the historic Wo Fat Building into a restaurant and boutique hotel.

“We hope to be under construction in the first part of next year,” he said.

In another time, such movement might be part of the natural ebb and flow of commerce. But the COVID-19 crisis has been characterized mostly by ebb. An estimated 25% of Hawaii’s small businesses have shut down, and more could follow, Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, told a Hawaii House of Representatives committee on Monday.

Chinatown is no exception. In fact, few neighborhoods have been harder hit, says Chu Lan Shubert-Kwok, founder of the Chinatown Business and Community Association. Prominent spots like Little Village Noodle House, which brought scores of diners down to Smith Street nightly, are reduced to doing take-out only. Even Senia, the critically acclaimed restaurant, is closed but offering high-end take-out dinners three times a week.

Meanwhile, Shubert-Kowk says, there are more homeless people on the streets, and not what she calls the “benign” folks who mostly left others alone before COVID-19.

“Now we have the criminal elements,” said Shubert-Kwok, who is also a member of the Chinatown Neighborhood Board. “The violent aspect, the attacks and assaults, has increased a lot.”

In this context, new businesses are unusual, and Shubert-Kwok is happy to see people moving in.

“These shops that are opening on Nuuanu – it’s very encouraging,” she said.

Customers sit at social distanced tables inside Fete Restaurant located in Chinatown during COVID-19 pandemic. October 26, 2020
At Fête, outdoor tables and an upstairs overflow room enable the restaurant to enhance its business despite the limitations created by Honolulu’s social distancing rules. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But it’s hardly a renaissance. In fact, the street atmosphere in Chinatown is noticeably different than before the pandemic, when patrons going to bars and restaurants filled the sidewalks. On a recent Saturday night, there were none of the pre-COVID crowds. In fact, to Shubert-Kwok’s point, there seemed to be more people loitering, presumably homeless, than strolling to eat or drink or listen to live music.

Still, a number of places were brimming with customers – at least as much as a business can brim in a time of social distancing. Take Fête, a restaurant on the corner of Nuuanu and Hotel streets.

Fête had customers seated outdoors at sidewalk café tables, indoors in the main dining room and upstairs in an intimate, den-like overflow room with a handful of tables and a wall of books. The rooms were alive with the murmur of conversation and the tinkling of glasses and plates.

The extra seating allowed Fête to generate about 60% of the business it would before COVID-19, says Chuck Bussler, the restaurant’s co-owner.

That’s not great, Bussler says, but “it’s survivable.”

Bussler said he’s grateful that the city has allowed sidewalk dining for the first time. But he said he wished the city would do more to help businesses, to focus less on following bureaucratic processes than reaching objectives.

“How can we get our political leadership to engage more on getting things done?” he said.

The Manifest Honolulu
The Manifest has pivoted to make better use of its kitchen and serve more take-out to generate extra revenue beyond the sale of alcohol. But it is still a struggle. And other businesses are closing. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2020

Business owners certainly seem to be doing their part to adapt, to stay open and get things done. A few doors down from Fête on Hotel Street, the atmosphere at The Manifest was what might be called “COVID busy,” which is to say it was fairly full and lively, but with tables spaced far apart and parties limited to a maximum of five.

The Manifest normally has a capacity of 100, but the city’s COVID-19 rules reduce that to about 30, said Nicole Reid, who owns and operates The Manifest with her husband, Brandon. It’s nice to have people filling seats and generating some revenue, Reid says, but it’s hardly ideal – nothing close to full strength.

“This ‘COVID busy,’ as you say, is like coming off a ventilator for us,” she said.

The Manifest hasn’t had to pivot as much as some. It has an impressive bar of craft bourbons and single malt Scotches, but it also has a kitchen, which is key to being able to stay open as a café under city rules. And it serves coffee, sandwiches and light fare during the day and into the evening, enough, Reid says, to meet requirements that at least 30% of revenue come from something other than booze.

Like many businesses, The Manifest has expanded its takeout menu. And it’s come up with a creative solution to use its adjacent game room, the Royal Arcade Room, which can only operate at 25% occupancy since it has video games and a pool table. Rather than trying to police the occupancy rate, The Manifest rents the room for $5 an hour for a party of up to five.

“We’re pivoting in a sense,” Reid said. “But it’s less of a neck whip for us.”

The question is how long places like The Manifest, and others that are worse off, can hang on with restrictions that limit their business and revenue.

“We’re seeing many of our best friends close down,” she said.

Masked person waits with his shopping cart along Hotel Street in Chinatown during COVID-19 pandemic. October 26, 2020
Shuttered businesses and a growing homeless population have made Chinatown less hospitable for small businesses and their patrons, but entrepreneurs continue to invest in the neighborhood. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

This makes it all the more notable that businesses like the Waiwai Collective are moving into the neighborhood.

On Thursday, the space will hold its first event: an Awa & Art event featuring Manu Boyd, the kumu hula, activist and Grammy-nominated recording artist. Although limited to five people in person, the event will be streamed live on Facebook, Paishon-Duarte said.

It’s a small start, she says, and one adapted to COVID-19 restrictions. But it’s a start nonetheless.

“We’re going to have smaller gatherings,” she said. “But it can be just as impactful.”

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