Denby Fawcett: Frustrated Businesses Say It's Time For Action In Chinatown - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The column you are going to read here is not the one I started out to write.

Initially I intended to criticize a website called for its nasty and hateful comments about the most vulnerable homeless people living on the streets in Chinatown.

But after spending time in Chinatown this weekend, including a walk with the website’s co-founder, I decided to amplify my scope and write about the larger issue of Chinatown’s dystopian decline during the pandemic.

I see this small historic area as the perfect place for Mayor Rick Blangiardi to use as a visible symbol that he means business when he promises to improve life in Honolulu.

With fewer people going to Chinatown during the pandemic to dine out and visit the bars, the graffiti, drug dealing, filth on the streets and anguish of the homeless community are in-your-face more than before when there was the distraction of crowds of visitors.

In his State of the City address on March 15, Blangiardi said he wants to make a “new Chinatown” of which we all can be proud.

“We believe Chinatown is a hidden gem with so much potential that has been terribly neglected,” he said.

Interestingly, Honolulu mayors like the “gem” analogy: his predecessor Kirk Caldwell called Chinatown “a cultural gem.”

And every recent Honolulu mayor from Jeremy Harris, to Peter Carlisle to Mufi Hannemann to Caldwell has promised to make the “gem” of Chinatown better.

A campaign sign still up in a Chinatown windows says “Mufi Will Improve Chinatown- Mayor Mufi- A Strong Tested Leader in Tough Times.”

Person sleeps at the entrance to the parking at Chinatown’s Smith Beretania Parking structure.
Business owners in Chinatown have grown frustrated over what they see as increasingly hostile behavior of homeless people in the area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

For Blangiardi to be different he will have to make permanent systemic changes in Chinatown, not just hold occasional news conferences to announce superficial changes like new street lights in what’s become a crime corridor — an increasingly difficult place to live and work.

But first I want to say more about the website that reflects growing exasperation from Chinatown residents and business owners.

Anonymous contributors post videos and photos of homeless people on with captions calling them names like “disgusting mahu” or “homeless idiot.”

They also show people at their most vulnerable moments such as having psychotic meltdowns, wandering around naked, flashing their buttocks while sleeping on the sidewalk or sitting in urine with their genitals exposed.

I showed the website to Dr. Chad Koyanagi, a street psychiatrist who has been working for the past six years to bring mental health treatment to homeless people in Chinatown.

“I can understand the business peoples’ frustrations with the homeless when they have been going through their own struggles during the pandemic, but it is disturbing. So morally questionable, so hateful to dehumanize the most disenfranchised, mentally ill and incapacitated people in our society. I can’t see any good coming out of it,” Koyanagi said.

Private security personnel make their rounds across the street from the River of Life Mission located near Pauahi and Maunakea Streets.
Private security personnel make their rounds across the street from the River of Life Mission in Chinatown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Oren Schlieman and his wife Fran Butera created the website three years ago, he said, “initially to make politicians and the Honolulu police uncomfortable with what is going on here. The good side is it has also unified Chinatown neighbors into pushing harder for change.”

He said comments on the website were not as mean-spirited in the beginning but grew snarkier as people became more frustrated.

Oren Schlieman.
Chinatown businessman Oren Schlieman discusses his concerns about the growing presence of homeless people. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Schlieman, who grew up in Honolulu, has been doing business in Chinatown for more than 30 years. He owns the black lava rock building at 1152 Maunakea St. from which he and Butera run a graphics company called Info Grafik Inc.

Butera defends the captions on the site: “If you walked out of your store every morning and found excrement on the threshold and were confronted with people screaming the F word at you 30 times or dealing drugs in front of you, you might write such comments yourself. We are past being polite.”

Butera said she manages the website but doesn’t contribute to the collection of photos that are posted and captioned by anonymous donors.

But after we talked, she said she would put a banner at the top of the website to remind contributors to be more civil.

Community advocate and founder of the Chinatown Business and Community Association Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock said she regularly contributes photos to, calling it “our plea for help.”

“It has been a terrible time. People are afraid to come to Chinatown for good reason,” she said.

Part of the reason for more aggressive and sometimes violent behavior on the streets recently was because of the Hawaii Supreme Court’s mandate that kept many misdemeanor offenders out of jail to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic — a mandate that was lifted on Friday.

Another reason for more dangerous and psychotic behavior on the streets is that care providers for homeless people are having a difficult time getting courts to mandate involuntary treatment for the most seriously mentally ill among them under the state’s Assisted Community Treatment law.

When I walked through Chinatown with Schlieman on Friday, we stopped on Maunakea Street to talk to lei seller Tina Nguyen.

Nguyen showed us shards of glass from a broken vase she said a homeless person grabbed and purposefully smashed in front of her store in the morning.

The homeless are more hostile. They are not scared anymore because they know the police cant do anything. It is making life miserable for all of us. We are afraid to say anything for fear they might retaliate,” she said.

Across the street, lei seller Mei Mei Say told us about a woman who grabs flowers from vases in the store, then throws them out on the street.

Chinatown Lei shop owner MeiMei Say shares that people walkby her shop damaging flowers and vandalizing her property.
Chinatown Lei shop owner MeiMei Say shares that her property has been vandalized. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

She said another homeless person came in the store, shoved her and had to be chased out by her husband, who waved a broom at him.

“Some of my customers are afraid to come here,” she said.

One of the goals of the chinatownwatch website is to urge the Honolulu Police Department to start patrols on foot 24/7. As I walked around the area on Friday and Saturday, the only signs of police were patrol cars circling through the streets.

“The officers are missing most of what is going on,” said Schlieman.

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in a emailed statement that Chinatown has four to six officers patrolling on foot from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, depending on availability and that HPD is working with the community to address challenges in the area.

She did not specify what the challenges are or answer why officers don’t patrol on foot from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. or why, if HPD officers are walking around, we did not see them.

New Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm said he is dedicated to making Chinatown and the Kalihi area safer by reinstating the successful Weed and Seed program he initiated when he was U.S. Attorney for Hawaii in 1994-2001.

“I am confident we are going to make a big difference in Chinatown,” Alm said in a phone interview Saturday.

His initial Weed and Seed program reduced crime in the Kalihi-Chinatown area by 70% over three years by having police officers weed out criminals by arresting them, then having prosecutors seek geographic restrictions as pretrial release and probation conditions to keep the suspects from returning to the areas of their alleged crimes.

Alm said Chinatown with its bars, restaurants and dark corners “creates a dynamic that allows crimes to happen,” and that many of the perpetrators from outside frequent the area for the criminal opportunities it offers.

“Seed” is the part of the program that is created by community members who come up with ideas for programs and activities to keep young people in the area from being attracted to lives of crime.

Alm said his goal is to roll out the new version of the Weed and Seed program by the end of May.

HPD patrol car and officer near the Chinatown HPD substation.
Chinatown business people want the police to increase patrols in the area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The area covered in the new version will stretch from the Kokea Canal near Honolulu Community College in Kalihi to Bishop Street downtown, and will cover the Fort Street Mall, which he said has become increasingly dangerous since Hawaii Pacific University moved its primary operation to the Aloha Tower.

“A lot of people don’t think government can get anything done. It absolutely can when you bring everyone together, the residents, the police, the businesses. When we work together, there is very little we can’t do. There is a lot of pent up support to help clean up Chinatown,” Alm said.

Butera said that would be her dream, the day when she can close down because it isn’t needed anymore.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

People don't see the bigger problem, like what happened to the 10 year program for housing homeless ppl? Several "non profit org.s have mis appropriated the grants and donations monies meant to help ppl. Instead employees and ceo's and even mayor's have benefitted . It seems like the state of hawaii makes it almost impossible to get monetary help if you are homeless. A person should go directly to the federal govt,because the state depts don't give it to All homeless . I was homeless and I accepted all false hope lies and did what I was told, to get housed. It took way too long 2 and 1/2 yrs and only then because a new worker recognized the mistreatment I was receiving. I do believe many many homeless , myself included , have legal issues that if a lawyer or ACLU would represent against the state employees , hpd, parks & rec employees etc...that violate constitutional rights of humans and state and federal laws. It's too hard for ppl to make a living, just having a job does not solve all the problems. Nor does giving criminals housing and no responsibilities. I've lost my respect for Hawaii because it has given me , NONE.

jillypuntigam · 2 years ago

Give chinatown back to the public. Take away the resource centers from Chinatown, locate them at IHS area. They don't have much energy to go too far away from where services are offered and given. Then numbers beget more numbers and chase away the public and this begets less public visits and less business for our hardworking Chinatown merchants It has progressively gotten worse especially with covid, downtown became a ghost town with only homeless seen out and about. 

Cyo · 2 years ago

It's interesting to see the numerous comments from people who think that addressing the homeless situation in Chinatown shouldn't just involve adding more police officers to do foot patrol duty. It should also involve offering services to address mental health & substance abuse problems. It should involve some kind of a triage/clearinghouse, where people are given the tools to stand up on their own 2 feet again, with placement assistance for jobs & housing. Sounds sensible, right?What I would like to ask these folks is: Where were you when IHS needed you last year, when they planned to open up a center to assist the homeless in Chinatown, but was ruthlessly chased out by area merchants who thought that an IHS office would attract more homeless people. Connie Mitchell & her org sure could have used your voices in support of facilitating outreach services.The funny thing is: despite the successful efforts to keep IHS out, the homeless problem there is getting worse anyway. When, oh when, will the Chinatown community get it through their head that police presence alone will not solve the problem?

KalihiValleyHermit · 2 years ago

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