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Interactive app seeks to redefine Chinatown experience in Hawaii, community leaders say

  • COURTESY HONOLULU CHINESE JAYCEES
                                The group Chinatown808 seeks to support the Chinatown community by developing an interactive app that highlights the area’s history and businesses. Chinatown808 held its first event in February, coordinating Chinese New Year food pickups to promote and support Chinatown businesses.

    COURTESY HONOLULU CHINESE JAYCEES

    The group Chinatown808 seeks to support the Chinatown community by developing an interactive app that highlights the area’s history and businesses. Chinatown808 held its first event in February, coordinating Chinese New Year food pickups to promote and support Chinatown businesses.

When COVID-19 restrictions prevented the Chinatown community from gathering in person for Chinese New Year festivities, Leonard Kam and a group of community leaders pooled their resources to find a way to still celebrate their most important cultural holiday.

Earlier this year they formed a new group dubbed Chinatown808 and launched their first effort, a new website, chinatown808.com, where people could order Chinese New Year food pickups and support the neighborhood’s restaurants.

The website soon gained traction, and the Chinatown808 group continued using it to grow support for the entire Chinatown community.

Now, on top of coordinating next year’s Chinese New Year festivities, one of the group’s biggest projects is developing an app that would feature self-guided tours, scavenger hunts and interactive maps of Chinatown’s history and businesses. By working with community leaders, organizations and business owners to develop the app, they hope it will help redefine the Chinatown experience into a more authentic one for locals and visitors.

Although in the very early stages of development, the goal is to debut the new app in time for Chinese New Year 2022, which starts Feb. 1.

“Many people don’t know what’s available in Chinatown, and a lot of times people don’t want to go into Chinatown,” said Kam, president of the United Chinese Society of Hawaii, a community service nonprofit. “We could help (locals and visitors) with finding parking, and, if businesses have the technology, we can hopefully expand their reach, not just to people coming into their stores, but also with (online shopping). It would give them more exposure.”

Kam also volunteers with the Chinatown Merchants Association, which hosts the popular Night in Chinatown festival. He said the app would be the first of its kind for the community, providing a platform for people to visit Chinatown virtually, which will hopefully inspire them to visit in person and use the app’s interactive maps to walk through the neighborhood and shop and dine at local businesses.

Sarah Young, past president of the Honolulu Chinese Jaycees and a member of Chinatown808, also had the idea of adding a scavenger hunt through Chinatown, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as a fun way to explore the area while learning more about its rich history.

The group also plans to work with the Chinatown community to gather historical information and with store owners to link their websites to the app.

Now more than ever, they said, the area’s businesses need support. All of the Chinatown shops suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there have been reports from store owners about increasing crime and homelessness, which the city said it’s trying to address with police foot patrols.

Chinatown businesses also had to fight the stigma caused by misinformation circulating about the coronavirus and fears about the “Chinese virus,” which kept many people from visiting the area. More than a year later, the food and flower stores seem to be slowly recovering, but Kam, a contact lens salesman, said other shops that rely on close-contact services, such as acupuncture practices, are still struggling.

“We’re trying to raise awareness that there are businesses that are struggling. They’re part of the local community, and they have a lot to offer,” said Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii President-elect Jon Cook, who volunteers with Chinatown808 and works as an internet marketing consultant. “And it’s not just shopping. It’s a community and a place of bonding. We want to grow that even more.”

Young, who works as operations manager at Ameriprise Financial, pointed out that Chinatown808 is a joint effort, pulling resources and volunteers from the United Chinese Society of Hawaii, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, the Chinatown Merchants Association and the Honolulu Chinese Jaycees. That collaboration will be vital moving forward, she said.

“Our hope with this app is it will make Chinatown a more fun place to go and learn about the historic value and the good businesses there,” she said. “That would definitely repaint the way Chinatown would look like. It all adds up together to create a better neighborhood in Chinatown.”

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Jayna Omaye covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member with Report for America, a national serv­ice organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under­covered issues and communities.

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