By Rosemary McClure
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 24, 2008
For the celebrations welcoming the Year of the Rat, thousands of visitors descended upon this 20-square-block area. And most continued to party long after dark.
Today, Chinatown is a vastly different place from what it once was, and the crowds are different too. In the past, this one-time red-light district was primarily known for its high crime rate, drug dealers and deteriorating buildings, and was shunned by tourists and locals alike, especially after dark.
Now, the historic district has been cleaned up and is luring a new generation of diners, clubgoers and shoppers. Visitors can see cutting-edge art, gawk at live eels and pigs' heads, buy a ginseng tonic from an herbalist, get a tattoo or stop in at a Buddhist temple.
Drawn by ethnic restaurants, funky galleries and hot clubs, locals and tourists alike now pack the colorful streets, lining up in front of popular restaurants such as Indigo (1121 Nuuanu Ave.,  521-2900) and Little Village Noodle House (1113 Smith Ave.,  545-3008) during the early evening. Later, the twenty- and thirtysomethings take over, queuing up in front of Bar 35 (35 N. Hotel St.,  537-3535), thirtyninehotel (39 N. Hotel St.,  599-2552) and Next Door (43 N. Hotel St.,  548-6398).
The revitalization of Chinatown didn't occur overnight. The local arts community helped salvage the once-scruffy neighborhood in the last decade or so, with help from community groups and the city, which increased foot patrols by police officers and improved lighting and signage.
Preservation efforts have helped retain the lively atmosphere and character of the 140-year-old neighborhood. The result: More than 50 restaurants, scores of shops and dozens of galleries now fill storefronts and exhibit centers. It's an authentic urban alternative to Waikiki.
"It took a lot of work to bring out the wonderful architectural quality of the buildings and publicize the potential of the area," said Rich Richardson, creative director at ARTS at Marks Garage, a community exhibit and performance space.
Chinatown offers visitors a wealth of opportunities. Early in the day, most of the action is at the markets, where bargain hunters can see a lei being strung, buy exotic fruits and vegetables or watch mah-jongg players.
Maunakea Market Place (1120 Maunakea St.) is a gathering place for residents; the open market behind the food court offers such delicacies as live eel, chicken feet and pigs' heads. At the 104-year-old Oahu Market (King and Kekaulike streets), blocks of stalls offer fresh fish, tripe and roast pork. Or stop by the Kekaulike Market (across from the Oahu Market between North King and Hotel streets) for fruit, poultry and other items.
The area's largest crowds, short of the Chinese new year celebration, turn out on the first Friday of each month for a gallery walk (appropriately called First Friday). The event, established about four years ago, has evolved into a huge street fair, complete with strolling musicians and other entertainment and drawing 5,000 to 10,000 people on a single night. More than 50 galleries and other art venues participate, along with shops and restaurants.
Another big drawing card in the area is the Hawaii Theatre Center (1130 Bethel St.,  528-0506, www.hawaiitheatre.com), a 1922 Art Deco architectural fantasy that was a showplace for vaudeville, plays, musicals and silent films until it fell into disrepair and was abandoned.
After extensive renovation, it has been reopened as a 1,400-seat, multipurpose performance center. Hourlong tours are offered for $5 on Tuesdays, but the best way to see it is to buy a ticket to a performance. Many Hawaiian musicians are featured, but there also are acts as diverse as Korean R&B and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
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