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Ghosts of Chinatown’s past

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    Tyler Tanabe and Tracy Okubo.

The Chinatown fire of Jan. 20, 1900, dislocated 4,000 people, destroyed 38 blocks of downtown Honolulu, and left nothing standing but Kaumakapili Church, the structure that fused the conflagration, and the building that housed the firefighters who lost control of the blaze. Yet it killed no one.

That doesn’t mean the fire did not leave a lot of ghosts behind. A new play, "Ghosts in the Plague Year," by UH drama professor Dennis Carroll and presented by the Kumu Kahua Theatre, breathes new life into these characters.

"Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown," a 2005 book by historian James Mohr, provided a major part of the inspiration for the play, Carroll said. "It took a few years to percolate," he said.


A play based on the Chinatown fire of 1900

Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.

When: Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.; August 26-Sept. 26

Cost: $5-$20

Info: 536-4441 or

Note: The play contains adult language and content.


He credits Bob Okazako, who collaborated with Carroll on the storyline, for the idea of setting it in a brothel. … and then he wrote the script.

The play is set in a haberdashery shop run by Akira, who has come from a plantation on Maui with wife Mieko. They want to run a legitimate business, but are using the proceeds from prostitution to get there. Their interactions with employees, clients, and public officials make up the bulk of the play.

Meanwhile, an outbreak of bubonic plague is working its way through the community, and public health officials, who appear in a spotlight as if pronouncing a verdict, decide to burn any building where someone has died from the plague. This drives an already shadowy business further underground.

Carroll said he was struck by how the public health directors "took over" in that era, unilaterally making and enforcing decisions. The characters in the play are drawn from the actual members of the territorial Board of Health at the turn of the century. "These people basically had total control over the city," he said.

Director Harry Wong said he hopes the play helps resurrect memories of an important era in local history, which Chinatown was often the target of powerful forces on the islands. People might know about the damage and chaos caused by the fire, but don’t know about the policies that led to it, he said.

While the play features living characters, Wong said the titular "ghosts" refer to the hopes and dreams of the Akira family and other Chinatown residents who have to leave old ways behind.

"These are former plantation workers, farmers and immigrants," he said. "Even though it’s just a territory, the United States is offering them a chance to better themselves, so … they have to escape their ties to the past. … Because of what’s being offered to them, they have to sever those bonds."


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