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.
He credits Bob Okazako, who collaborated with Carroll on the story line, for the idea of setting it in a brothel. Carroll then wrote the script.
The play is set in a haberdashery shop run by Akira, who has come from a plantation on Maui with Mieko, his wife, business partner and confidante. They want to run a legitimate business but are using the proceeds from prostitution to get them past the financial hurdles. They also are dealing with past problems and barriers. 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.
‘GHOSTS IN THE PLAGUE YEAR’
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Actor Tyler Tanabe, who plays Akira, says his character is "torn between the old world and new world. He obviously has some past baggage and unfinished business from Japan … that’s kind of holding him back from making any progress."
The plague, Tanabe said, "is just another obstacle because it’s obviously bad for business."
Tanabe, who relates that coincidentally he wrote a report about the plague when he was in high school, sees some parallels between the campaign of fear used to justify the burning of Chinatown structures and current political events.
"The government always finds ways to do stuff," he said. "It’s like that with the whole 9/11 thing. After the planes went into the building, people don’t know what the h– is happening, how did people hijack a plane. … Basically government took (advantage) of that."
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," Carroll said.
Director Harry Wong said he hopes the play helps resurrect memories of an important era in local history, during 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 not 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."
"Then, in the same way that you have ghosts of the past, you have ghosts of the present," Wong said. "Ghosts are created whether you succeed or fail, and then especially they’re created by the plague."