Boutiques and other stores installed buzz-in systems with the onset of the pandemic and decided to keep them as traffic returned to the area.

Chinatown is known for its open-air markets, bright colors, tasty restaurants and boutique shopping.

The upcoming closure of Walmart’s Fort Street Mall store and pharmacy, though, has raised concerns that the area will have fewer visitors and another abandoned building, which are “magnets for crime,” according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Local stores and boutiques in Chinatown began keeping their doors locked during business hours as the coronavirus pandemic began. Many are now using a doorbell system, which allows a worker to buzz in shoppers while keeping others out. 

Roberta Oaks, president and designer of Roberta Oaks Hawaii, remembers not being excited about a Walmart coming to Chinatown at first. But as a business owner, she now realizes it was useful to have the building occupied.

“Empty buildings attract vagrants, so if it’s going to close, I hope that someone else can make something happen there,” Oaks said.

On Oahu, larceny is the most common crime, according to the Honolulu Police Department’s crime map. Robbery, larceny and overall crime rates were higher in 2021 than in 2020 for District 1, which comprises the Downtown Honolulu and Makiki areas including Chinatown, according to HPD’s yearly reports.

“It’s a two steps forward, one step back sort of thing,” said Oaks, who has had a business in Chinatown since 2009. “New businesses push things forward. Business owners calling and reporting things push things forward, as do the efforts of the neighborhood board, the representatives.” 

Roberta Oaks says she installed the buzz-in system at her Chinatown boutique after the pandemic started and has kept it in place as she likes being able to control who can come in and out. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Oaks installed locks in her boutique after coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. The downtown area was quiet then but has picked up pace with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. 

“I kept the buzz-in system in place, because I realized how great it was to be in complete control of who is coming in and out,” she said, adding that it eases the pressure of having to call police and report things.

“But, it gets exhausting, too, and takes me away from other aspects of my job and of running the business,” she said.

Ginger 13, which has been in Chinatown for almost a decade, is owned by Cindy Yokoyama. She said her boutique also locks its doors during business hours.  

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Chinatown “was my stomping ground when I was younger,” Yokoyama said. “It felt right to come here … I like that it’s still kind of like that small-business vibe, and you can have your own personality and your own store and create your own shop. It’s a nice community.”

Yokoyama said she installed the daytime locks during the Covid-19 shutdowns. “I was scared to come to work at that time,” she said, “I don’t think it should be like that.” The lock is a way for Yokoyama and other store owners to keep themselves, shoppers and employees feeling safe.

“It just made sense to do it during the shutdowns,” she said. “So when I reopened, I also had a way to also control the crowd in there because of the people that we had to limit.” She added that her shoppers don’t seem to mind. 

“I don’t think (customers) are going to be like, this is strange,” she said. “Why are they all locking their doors? I think if anything, people appreciate it more.”

Yokoyama said she “still feels safe knowing that I have my lock, and if I’m also working in the back or helping a customer, I know that somebody is just not going to come in and just like go ransack the office or whatever.”

Chinatown stores security locked
Cindy Yokoyama says locking the doors of her Ginger 13 boutique during business hours provides a sense of security for staff and customers alike. (Margaret Cipriano/Civil Beat/2023)

Hound & Quail, another boutique in the area, does not lock its doors during business hours, said employee Brian Linares, who also lives in Chinatown. 

The store “has cameras, but we’ve never locked the doors unless we are running to the bathroom or going to go out for some food,” Linares said.

When he encounters a person in his business that might have malicious intent, he said, “I’m literally following them, engaging with them, trying to ask them questions about what their interests are, what drew them to the shop. … It’s like martial arts. It’s a dance.” 

More public security in the Chinatown area would be helpful and warranted, Linares said. 

“If they want businesses to thrive here, and they want equal opportunity, then provide that equal opportunity security,” he said.

Lexi Bradley, a Chinatown resident, frequents shops in the area that lock their doors during business hours but also thinks it deters people from enjoying the shopping experience. 

“People might be confused (that the doors are locked) and they might just walk away,” Bradley said. “I’d feel more welcomed if the doors were open.” 

Of the businesses that lock their doors in the immediate Chinatown area, most have been around for a handful of years and have set roots in the urban and artistic neighborhood.

“I have been here almost 10 years, and you know, I’m not planning to leave,” Yokoyama said. You have to be really strong and tough. I think if you are a small business owner.”

“It’s part of the job. Something as simple as (a lock) can make you feel more secure, you’re going to do it,” she said.

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