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Chinatown

Kung Hee Fat Choy: Happy Lunar New Year

New Year's good luck charmGau: new year's cake

Tomorrow officially begins the new lunar year, 4706 The Year of the Rat. Here on Oahu the festivities began early in January, and culminated publicly over the weekend with three days of partying in Honolulu's Chinatown. We caught the tail-end of the parade and the beginning of the street party on Saturday. We must have have missed the firecrackers, or perhaps there was a rain delay because it was quite wet in town all weekend. Despite the weather, hundreds of brave folks lined Hotel Street to watch the parade and stroll along the fest tents on Nu'uanu Street to sample fresh-cooked meat skewers, noodles, jai (also called monk's food, a vegetarian rice meal filled with good luck symbolism), fried rice, plate lunches, dim sum, and the hot fried-food-of-the-night "jin doi," crispy, hollow sesame-covered rice balls with a smear of sweet bean paste inside (far right photo below). Dad was looking for a remembered treat from Manila that he called "tikoy" turned out to be Gau (photo above), the super sticky brown-sugar and rice-flour "cake" that is available all over Chinatown and much of Oahu this time of year. For such simple ingredients, it's quite an addictive treat.
Hotel Street after the paradeMaunakea Marketplace CourtyardVendors preparing fresh jin doi
We only caught the last 2 entries in the parade, including this gaily decorated, if slightly water-logged, lion and his stalwart handlers.
The last lion wneds his way down the damp parade routeLion pauses for a feeding during the parade
After the parade, the lions go their separate ways to visit shops and other businesses in the area. People vie to "feed" the lions since doing so will bring good luck for the coming year. Many folks try to entice their youngsters to bring their "food" to the lions, but with their energetic dancing, and flashing bright eyes, the lions could be a bit intimidating for the little ones, too. First-timers are often carried by their parents. After receiving their monetary meal, the lions often bow in front of the donor and sometimes wag their tails!
A lion approachesLion awaits its feedingLion bows its appreciation to its youngest benefactor
Dad made his offerings to one of the lions one for Nikko, one for Kenji, and one Masato. I couldn't catch them both still, one was always in motion (Dad moves fast for a senior citizen!).
Dad and the Red LionThe Lion gets a second


More about Honolulu's Chinatown:
Part I: Come see what you've been missing
Part II: Best buys

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Honolulu's Chinatown, Part 2: Best Buys


Next Thursday, February 7th, is the start of the year 4706 in the Chinese calendar and, as my niece's new T-shirt points out, is also called the Year of the Rat. People born in the Years of the Rat (1924, 1936, 1948. 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996 and this year) are said to be intelligent, just, balanced, orderly, and honest in personal relationships, or so says our all-knowing wall calendar! (Were you born in a Year of the Rat?) Festivities to welcome the new year are well underway in Honolulu's Chinatown and other Chinese communities around the island, but key festivities still remain (see side bar at bottom). Streets are festooned with colorful lanterns and signs bearing wishes for prosperity and long health; dragon-like lions wend their way through shops, banks, markets, and malls; and the air cracks with sharp reports of firecrackers to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. If you need a reason to venture into Chinatown, these last few days leading up to the New Year are a great time to visit this historic district at its prettiest and liveliest. Shops and restaurants are filled with special foods, prices can be even more competitive than ever, and there is just an air of celebration and anticipation.

As far as we're concerned, though, T and I think any day is a great day to be in Chinatown. As outlined in the earlier post,
Honolulu's Chinatown: come see what you've been missing, we visit a couple of times a month for the freshest local produce, noodles, seafoods, smoothies (see Summer Frappe post) and ready-cooked meats, dumplings, and other goodies. Locations and some parking options were also covered earlier. Here we highlight some of our key finds.


Goji berries, aka wolfberries (Fructus lycii). We've used this medicinally for several years, but within the last year include wolfberries in our weekday daily breakfast oatmeal. Generous 1lb. packages retail between $4.50-$8.00 -- perhaps a third to half the retail cost we've seen elsewhere.


As mentioned in earlier posts, we prefer to shop for produce here because the turnover is so high that freshness is almost a given. We frequent many of the vegetable vendors, but our first stop is always a stall in the Kekaulike Mall marketplace called Cheap Market, Kahuku Farmers (right photo) for our leafy greens watercress, choy sum, Chinese broccoli, baby bok choy, dill, herbs, and gai choy but they have many others as well.


Kitchen tools I love: The julienne peeler (left), allows you to make julienne slices as easily as peeling a potato ($7-8), from Hong Fa Thai market on Maunakea/Pauahi. A Laotian rice steamer for sticky rice; the aluminum pot and bamboo basket are sold separately, and the assembly retails less than $20; also at Hong Fa. Vietnamese drip coffeemaker, a relaxing way to enjoy your favorite cup of joe on the weekend, with or without the traditional condensed milk accompaniment, retails less than $5 at most Vietnamese markets along King.

Kitchen collectibles: I have a weakness for wood kitchen articles, old and new. These antique mooncake molds and hand-grater are from Guan Hua (Chinese antiques and reproductions) on King.

For newer mooncake molds, check out Bo Wah on Maunkea. If you're discerning about hair care and insist on a boar-bristle brush, consider also using a wood, rather than plastic, comb. Wood is said to be less likely to pull (and therefore, weaken) hair; and to provide a massage-like feeling on the scalp to promote blood circulation. I love them the top right 3 are mine, I have one at home and one in my purse, and one in my backpack; all the others are gifts for family. All the models shown retail less than $6, except for the 2-tone one which starts at $18 (depends on size and type of wood used). Available at the Americomb House on Maunkea/King it's hard to miss with a giant wood comb in the window!

Char Hung Sut Manapua Factory's hand-made selection includes sweets and savories for every taste. Go early, things start selling out by mid-morning.

The selection of roasted chicken, char siu, pork, duck, as well as various kinds of offal at the ever-popular Wing Loy's BBQ on Maunakea. We also frequent Hong Kong style BBQ at the Far Eastern Center on King, and Nam Fong, also on Maunakea.


Fresh local and imported fruit selections are unparalleled. Visitors and picnickers looking for a ready-made taste of the islands will find cleaned and cut fruit bowls ranging from $2-4, depending on the fruits included. Chau's Fruits (middle) at the Hotel St. entrance to the Maunakea Markets, Summer Frappe in the Maunakea courtyard, and several vendors in the Food Court have ice-cold fruit bowls from which to choose. It's the best way to try a new fruit, too, if you're unsure how to prepare or eat it everything from the common (in Hawaii) pineapples and mangos, to watermelon, rambutan, sapote, dragonfruit, jackfruit and durian (seasonal).

Here's a special find for connoisseurs of fish cakes. These are made daily from fresh spearfish/marlin at KC Meatball House, one of the stalls inside the Markets at Kekaulike Mall. KC also carries Asian-style (bound with cornstarch for a springy texture) pork meatballs that are one of T's favorites.

This factory on Likelike Mall produces hundreds of the thin, rolled rice sheet noodles in shrimp (tiny dried kind), plain and char siu flavors. Each roll is $1 or less, depending on the flavor. Recipe: Char-siu or Shrimp Funn with Chive Oil.

This small dark store-front on King Street, just ewa of Kekaulike Mall, belies the bustling noodle factory inside. Dozens of types of fresh-made wheat and egg noodles in varying thicknesses and forms, as well as wrappers for wonton, gyoza and mandoo are available. A price list is posted in the foyer just before you step down into the factory proper to place your order. Often there's a line here (but it moves quickly) so you may have time to peruse the list and make your selections before you get to the counter. Shown here are udon (left) and thick saimin noodles, both sell for $1.00/lb.


Ready for lunch? Dim sum at Good Luck Chinese restaurant at Mauna Kea/Beretania allows diners to select from dozens of steamed, fried and sauteed dishes from their traveling carts or off the extensive menu.

Pho 97 on Maunakea, near the Marketplace entrance, is our go-to stop for all Vietnamese meals: BBQ pork bun (left), Vietnamese mung bean crepe, or soups.

Want something faster than a sit-down restaurant affords? The food court at the Maunakea Marketplace has the most compelling assortment of Asian food stalls on Oahu: Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, Laotian, Filipino, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese vendors offer fully-cooked meals ready to take, as well as short-order items like noodle soups cooked to order. Of the more than dozen stalls here, almost half offer Filipino foods so if you've ever been curious about Filipino foods, this is the place to sample different regional styles.

This is in no way a complete list, just a few of our favorites. We've only been exploring for 2 years, so if we've missed your favorite haunt or you know we're missing out on a great product, please share it with us by leaving a comment below. And if you've recently visited this vibrant district yourself, we'd love to hear what your experience was like.



We missed some of the festivities over the last 2 weekends, but a few remain this coming weekend:

Friday, February 1
First Friday Arts at Marks
Chinatown Open House at Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Chinatown District

Friday & Saturday, February 1 & 2
Chinese New Year Celebration at Chinatown Cultural Place
Friday: 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Saturday: 9:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fireworks and lion-dances

Saturday, February 2
CMA Parade - 4:00 p.m.
Night In Chinatown - 9:00 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.

Thursday, February 7
Chinese New Year

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Honolulu's Chinatown: Come see what you've been missing

Lions greeting visitors to the Maunakea Marketplace Main entrance to Maunakea Marketplace
It's with great sadness that I read the growing number of reports about problems with foods and products made in mainland China. It gives one pause and certainly makes me look twice and thrice at labels. But I know I should do that anyway, regardless of where I buy something, whether it's a supermarket or an small ethnic grocery.

Many people we know have also told us they are wary of going to Chinatown here because they've heard it's scary or they've seen things on TV about high crime there. We heard the same thing about Boston's Chinatown when we lived in that area, and London's too. We didn't find those things to be true in those places either. I think it's a matter of being smart and careful, just as you would in any part of a large metropolitan area.
Colorful fruit stand at the Hotel Strret entrance to Maunakea Market Looking down Hotel Street toward River St. From Oahu Market, looking uptown
So I'd like to share the Honolulu Chinatown that we know and love. It's a terrific place. We try to go every couple of weeks for fresh produce, fish and seafood, bakery items, and a few dry goods. If you're interested in learning more about some of the unfamiliar items you might find on the store shelves, I highly recommend Linda Bladholm's
The Asian Grocery Store Demystified.

Where is it? Where do you park?
Chinatown is located Downtown Honolulu and is roughly bordered by Nimitz Highway to the south, River Steet (west), Beretania Street (north), and Nuuanu Avenue (east). Caveat: all these streets, except Nimitz are one-way. (
See a map from mapquest.com showing one-way streets) The street signs in Chinatown are pretty distinct, as they're written in both English and Chinese script.
Chinatown's unique street signs

Street parking is limited and 1-hour slots only (free Sundays and holidays), but there are municipal garages (pay half-hourly) on Smith (near Nimitz), Maunakea (near King), Nuuanu (past King), and Maunakea (near Beretania, at Chinese Cultural Plaza). Our favorite place to park, though, is at a private lot at the corner of Nuuanu and Nimitz (weekend rate, $4 all day til 5pm). We've been known to get to Chinatown for breakfast and not leave until after lunch so this is a good deal for us.
Philippine vegetable stand Freshest vegetables available Roasted and barbequed meats at Wing Loy
Where to buy:

  • Seafood: we go to the Troy Enterprise fish market (corner of King and Kekaulike Marketplace) for fresh whole moi (sweet white-meat fish) and Dungeness crabs (they will gut and scale the fish for you on request), and Da Kine Seafood (Maunakea, b/w King and Nimitz) also for Dungeness and for frozen seafood (they carry froglegs, French escargots — with or without butter, and crawfish tail meat if you're looking for such exotics); The Oahu Market (across Troy Enterprise) also has several different fish and seafood vendors; Wah Wah Seafoods (King/Keakaulike) has fresh fish and live frogs and eels; Seven Sisters (inside Maunakea Mktpl) has fresh local sweet shrimp
    • Fresh meat: market stalls at the Oahu Market and in Kekaulike Marketplace, and Maunakea Marketplace: you can find whole oxtail and other cuts of beef, sides of pork, fresh chickens
    • Produce: the market stalls on King, and in and around Kekaulike Marketplace can't be beat for price and selection (the early bird gets the best choices, they start opening around 6:30am)
    • Fresh noodles: we go to Yat Ting Chow Noodle Factory (King/River) for saimin, udon, and wonton, gyoza and mandoo wrappers; and Look Funn for plain, char siu or shrimp rice noodles
    • Chinese BBQ and roast meats: Eastern Food Center
    (King/Kekaulike Mkt), Wing Loy (Maunakea/Hotel), and Nam Fong (across from Wing Loy)
    • Pastries: Chinese (Lee, on King; Ruby's on Hotel; ) and Filipino (Pelio on Hotel); many dim sum houses will also carry pastries you can order for take-away
    • Chinese dry goods: There is the venerable Bo Wah (Maunakea/Hotel), but of course many many others throughout the area
    • Vietnamese dry goods: many along King Street between Kekaulike Mktplace and River St), 555 Market (King/Kekaulike Mkt)
    • Laotian: (Pauahi/Smith)
  • Thai: Hong Fa Market (Maunkea/Pauahi)
    • Manapua: Char Hung Sut (Pauahi/Smith); most bakeries will also carry different types of manapua
    • Cookware: China Arts on King/Maunakea has both carbon steel and stainless steel woks in a large range of prices and sizes, and other professional grade cookware and utensils; as well as tea sets, and serving and dinner ware
  • Acupuncture/Herbalists: as you might guess, there are quite a few in this neighborhood; we visit the acupuncturist at "Acupuncture and Herbs from China" (Nuuanu/Pauahi); she accepts certain types of insurance (unfortunately not ours), and can provide a receipt for insurance or FSA purposes
Entrance to acupuncture shop Entrance oto Summer Frappe smoothies shop Fresh fish market in the Troy Enterprise Bldg.
Where to eat: Where to begin? This area has quite a trove of dining opportunities and has something for every budget. You'd expect all flavors of Asian restaurants, but there are also Indian, Cuban, Mexican, a French bistro and others too. These are talked about elsewhere in the local press and blogosphere. Since we are rarely in Town in the afternoon, much less after dark, I can only tell you about our favorite breakfast and lunch locales. (Our rule of thumb when scoping out restaurants in an unfamiliar locale: look inside to see who eats there.)
  • The Maunakea Marketplace food court features Singapore, Malaysian, Filipino, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Laotian, Vietnamese and Indian stands. The first four are also open for breakfast, serving not only typical meat-egg entrees, but also warm noodle soups and rice porridges (congee, or arroz caldo at the Filipino stands). In the Maunakea Courtyard, fresh fruit smoothies are the real deal at Summer Frappe (see our post here)
  • The Eastern Food Center is a sit-down BBQ house that also opens early for breakfast, serving traditional breakfasts, but also succulent roast meats and warming congees.
  • There are many Vietnamese pho houses, but our go-to place is Pho 97 (Maunakea/entrance to Marketplace). Their Vietnamese crepe (made with mung beans and coconut milk), spring rolls, bun with BBQ pork, and pho have never disappointed. (Be prepared to wait at peak lunch hours)
  • Finally, there's Good Luck Dim Sum (Beretania/Maunakea). I was weaned on the glorious dim houses in San Francisco so I have to be able to choose my dumplings from a rolling cart, or I feel kind of cheated out of the dim sum experience. You get that full experience here, though the space is a bit small. Of course, you can also order anything off the extensive regular menu. We often order take-out from here, as dim sum makes great picnic food for an afternoon at Foster Gardens.

What else is nearby?
Don't miss Foster Gardens (Vineyard/Maunkea)! There's also an auction house (Nuuanu/King), Chinese antiques (Smith/King), art galleries, the Aloha Tower marketplace, and Fort Street mall shops. We often walk to the Hawaii State library and adjacent Iolani Palace grounds (King/Punchbowl), but that is probably a mile or so away. A nice walk when it's relatively cool out.

Coming soon:
Our favorite treasures from Chinatown (of course, most of them are edible ...)


It took longer than I hoped, but just in time for the Chinese New Year celebrations:
Best Buys in Chinatown
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Our favorites: Summer Frappe smoothies

Sadly, we found Summer Frappe abruptly closed with no notice about a new location or any explanation, just a few weeks before we left Oahu. If Summer Frappe has re-opened in another location, please leave a comment below or email us and we will post the information.


Owner Summer Chau
One of Honolulu's best-kept secrets? Has to be Summer Frappe at the Maunakea Marketplace in Chinatown. Hands-down the best fresh fruit smoothies in the islands. No artificially-flavored powdered smoothies here. Owner Summer Chau uses recipes and techniques learned in her native Vietnam: adding only the freshest fruits in her smoothies, and no fillers, ice cream, yogurt or artificial flavors — just fruit, a little ice, a touch of sweetener (if needed) and enough water to blend. Mrs. Chau prepares each smoothie to order, and if the fruits she finds in the market don't meet her exacting quality standards (not ripe enough, not sweet enough, too stringy), she won't offer that flavor on a particular day. (The saddest news I can get from her: avocados not good today)

The prices here are crazy cheap ($3-4) for the ratio of fruit to ice & water in your smoothie. What you taste is fresh ripe fruit. Flavors include: fresh mango, papaya, pineapple, soursop, jackfruit, honeydew, durian(!), and avocado. There is also fresh orange and watermelon juices, and fresh lemonade.
Individually prepared smoothies Fresh fruits for your smoothie
The refrigerated shelves in this clean and cheerful shop are stocked with the beautiful blemish-free fruits used in the smoothies. You will also find prepared fresh fruit bowls that make a perfect take-away treat, and are great value.

Summer Frappe's newest offering: fresh-pressed juice, gotu kola, a.k.a. pennywort. Gotu kola has been gaining popularity in the West for its health benefits, including reducing hypertension and boosting the immune system. Mrs. Chau says she has regular customers in the Vietnamese, Thai, and Laotian community who drink this fresh-pressed juice daily as a health tonic. She recommends sweetening the juice for first-time drinkers, but prefers it unsweetened herself. We both found the lightly sweetened drink very pleasant and grassy, although T admits his first impression was of lake water (he grew up swimming in Maine's fresh-water lakes). Since gotu kola tends to grow in wet marshy areas, this makes sense. We've tried the canned "pennywort drink" that's available in many Asian groceries before, and the fresh juice drink tastes very different.
Fresh_pressed gotu kola (pennywort) Fresh gotu kola

The ever-popular “bubble tea” drinks with the large chewy tapioca balls floating in various tea, coffee, and fruit flavors are also available at Summer Frappe. The bubble teas
do not have fresh fruit. But you can request tapioca "bubbles" for your fresh fruit smoothie for an extra 50 cents.
Avocado smoothie -- the best! Entrance to Summer Frappe
In Maunakea Marketplace Courtyard, Chinatown
(On Maunakea, between Hotel and Pauahi Streets)
Entering from the Maunakea Street entrance, it's to the right as you enter the courtyard
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