(waves lapping) ♪ (splashing) NARRATOR: Minutes from Waikiki Beach lies another Hawai'i.
I'm fourth generation Chinese in the islands, and my community has long been part of the fabric of Hawai'i.
But the COVID pandemic put even our Chinatown on edge.
♪ CHU LAN KWOCK-SHUBERT: There was some racism.
Anytime we are Chinese-looking, people kind of stay away from you, like "Ugh, you're diseased," you know?
NICHOLAS LEE: It seemed like a very desperate time.
People didn't want to come into Chinatown.
There just wasn't a lot of foot traffic or retail sales.
WOMAN (on phone): Put that in there... Every phone call was like, "I'm sorry, we, we have to shut down, event canceled."
Week one, the flowers were in the refrigerator.
Week two, the flowers were in the refrigerator.
And my mom was just so heartbroken.
She couldn't believe that we had to throw it away.
She kept thinking that, "Oh, next week will be better.
Next week will be better."
And then we had to, like-- when we closed the doors, that was a big... a big hit.
(cars passing) NARRATOR: The pandemic hit Chinatown harder than other parts of Hawai'i.
With fewer people going to Chinatown, longstanding housing and mental health issues became more apparent on the streets.
NICHOLAS LEE: Homeless is a lot more visible.
I'll probably file five to 15 police reports, like, in a given year, just having to do with some kind of vandalism.
- Hi, Cindy's Lei Shop.
WING TEK LUM: In the evening, a different community takes over.
Some of it has to do with drugs, and some of it just has to do with people who want a place to sleep.
KWOCK-SHUBERT: I would call myself an advocate for Chinatown... (women laughing) ...who wants people to respect our Chinatown.
MEI MEI SAY: Ms. Chu Lan, she do very good work at Chinatown.
Without her, I tell you, like I lost, you know.
- (laughs) - She do a lot for the... yeah.
- Thank you.
- I very appreciate it.
♪ (sparking) NARRATOR: My family has a building in Chinatown where we hold Chinese New Year banquets every year.
The building bears my great-grandfather's name, C.Q.
He was the founding member of my family in Hawai'i and a prominent businessman.
It was in reading his autobiography that I learned about an earlier pandemic that hit Honolulu Chinatown.
In December 1899, the bubonic plague arrived in Hawai'i.
The first plague victim was in Chinatown.
The next day, the government imposed an exclusive quarantine on Chinatown, locking down the neighborhood.
(distant marching) LUM: "We are guarded day and night "by those who have complained that we cling together too much, "like grains of sticky rice.
"Now they will not let us out, fearing our lice and our fleas.
"It is true that gray rats scramble beneath our floorboards "and peer down at us from our rafters.
"Our cockroaches are the largest in the four seas, "enough for a man to make a meal of, or so they say.
"But this giddy disease has also claimed others elsewhere.
"It is just that they wish to believe "that we like to wallow in our own pus, "and believing it is so, they will never allow us outside to live or to work like they do."
I think there were very hard feelings that were generated because of the really strong militaristic measures.
And they took very drastic measures to mandate that if someone died in a particular building in Chinatown, the survivors were put in detention camps, and that specific building was burnt to the ground.
(flames crackling) NARRATOR: My great-grandfather wrote... C.Q.
YEE HOP (dramatized): The authorities deliberately ordered certain sections of the city set afire to burn out the plague disease.
Unfortunately, a shift in the winds caused the fires to rage uncontrolled, and the downtown area, including Chinatown, went up in flames.
At the time, I was outside the quarantine zone.
I stood helplessly beside the barricades erected to keep the citizens away and watched with alarm, fear, and dismay, as our market burned to the ground.
It was a disaster.
We lost everything.
♪ LUM: If you walk around Chinatown, all of the buildings, none of them are before 1900.
You kind of put that together, that something happened that basically obliterated whatever was there before in Chinatown.
NARRATOR: Two years after my great-grandfather watched his market burn to the ground, he co-founded a new market, which grew into one of the biggest supermarkets in the islands.
(indistinct crowd chatter) It's that resilience that characterizes Chinatown then and now.
NICHOLAS LEE: We had lot more talking with other lei stands and florists, you know, just to get a pulse on how things are.
And even compare notes to kind of like share like some insights on just how to navigate this a little bit better.
KAREN LEE: The lei is such an essence of our lifestyle.
You know, the lei is like... in everybody's story.
Birth and anniversaries and deaths and any momentous occasion.
And so, the product stayed strong.
NARRATOR: A year into the pandemic, the city began responding to the problems in Chinatown, launching programs to bolster a safer community.
STEVE ALM: We have developed this program that I'm really excited about, to get the homeless folks assessed and into treatment.
The vast majority of the chronically homeless have mental health and-or drug and alcohol problems.
So in order to have long-term success, we need to both arrest some people in Chinatown that are there to cause trouble, but we also need to help the homeless and get them into treatment so they can get their lives back.
(brakes screeching) NARRATOR: My family was also contacted by businessman Eddie Flores, as my great-grandfather had been selected as one of 14 people to be honored in a new archway.
Honolulu has one of the few Chinatowns without an iconic arch.
EDDIE FLORES: The purpose of arch is very simple-- it's the pride of the Chinese community.
This is one way for us to promote Chinatown, to invigorate Chinatown, to help us, you know, bring tourists in.
This is where I do all my shopping in here.
And that's my cousin working.
My two cousins from the same village in China.
(Speaking Chinese language) - Hello!
(conversing in Chinese language) Here in Chinatown, you can buy anything.
Look at this-- dried fish.
So we're excited, because we want to clean up Chinatown.
We want to bring it back to what it used to be, to promote businesses.
And this to me is very important.
♪ KWOCK-SHUBERT: Chinatown can be a shining jewel.
If there are more people involved in realizing how special a place it is.
And I hope everybody has more of a civic-mindedness to give some time to help.
♪ NARRATOR: Honolulu Chinatown rebuilt after the 1899 plague and fire, and I'm hopeful for better days after this pandemic, when I can bring my children to see their great-great-grandfather's name on the archway and learn of the legacy of this place.