The Gathering Place

Hard to imagine today, but ‘A‘ala Park was once the bustling, gritty epicenter of Honolulu’s immigrant communities
Story by Curt Sanburn. Photos by Francis Haar.

Louis Roehl calls himself “Angel,” and so do his buddies in downtown Honolulu’s venerable ‘A‘ala Park, that somnolent bit of green on the other side of Nu‘uanu stream from Chinatown, not far from the harbor.

The park has been Angel’s preferred hangout spot for the past twenty-four years, ever since he left Chicago. “I’m a boarder,” explains the fit, blue-eyed 55-year-old, referring to his passion for skateboarding and the hallowed skate facility in the park. A divorcé and Army vet, Angel tells me he raised three children in ‘Ewa Beach, but right now he’s just hanging out with friends. He’s chatty, so we sit down in a shady spot on the low stone wall that runs along the edge of the Nu‘uanu stream embankment.

I gaze into the sunny expanse of empty lawn that dominates the triangle-shaped park. Around the perimeter, old monkeypod trees muffle traffic noise and cast dappling purple shadows. Above them, two beige apartment towers and a construction crane spike the sky. Clatter from the concrete skateboard park echoes across the lawn as twenty-odd urban cowboys swoop, leap and scrape its ramps, walls, rails and boxes.

I’m in the park because it’s the only vestige of the place called ‘A‘ala, a now-vanished cosmopolitan crossroads and point of origin for many modern Hawai‘i families, for thousands seeking better lives during the past 150 years. Its story, I suspect, will show some of the complexity behind the sunny opacity of Honolulu.

Throughout its 150-plus year history, what is today known as ‘A‘ala Park has had many faces and hosted many communities.

The embankment where Angel and I sit forms the seven-acre park’s south side, while two parallel boulevards, King and Beretania streets, barreling out of down-town and swinging northward, converge to form its sides and acute north end. Just beyond it: the car-choked crossroads long known as Pālama Junction, where the two big roadways meet two others, Dillingham Boulevard and Liliha Street. Several of Honolulu’s oldest neighborhoods likewise converge here: Iwilei with its wharves and canneries; Kalihi and Pālama, where many folks first rented or owned homes; middle-class Liliha at the run-out of Nu‘uanu valley; greater Chinatown; and ‘A‘ala itself, in the middle, with its park.

“Everyone meets here,” Angel from Chicago says expansively, cheerfully. “All cultures, all people!”

“Like who?” I ask. Vietnamese hang out here, he says, rich Chinese over there. Samoans right here, where we’re sitting. Homeless folks over there, in the park’s southwest corner, where there’s a restroom and a pergola with classical columns and graffiti—“TOWN$IDE HUSTLE,” reads a scrawl.

A few park vagabonds cruise by and greet Angel by name. “Yeah, I know everybody down here,” he says. He clearly loves his park, which, he reports, “is in the best shape that it’s ever been. What you’re seeing, what I know, is that there’s a beautiful story with this old park. It’s a place with a lot of aloha,” he says.

According to Place Names of Hawai‘i, ‘a‘ala means “fragrant,” and the section, park, street and lane were so named because of the sweet-smelling, outdoor Chinese laundries that operated in this water-logged purlieu 150 years ago. An older naming story has it that the area’s fragrance came from a grove of hala trees, a remnant of the streamside Hawaiian fishing settlement named Kou that disappeared under the mid-Pacific port town in the early nineteenth century.

By the mid-1950s, when this photo was taken, a local newspaper columnist counted six pool halls on one block and likened ‘A‘ala to an aging tomcat dreaming of better days.

That century saw the rise and collapse of both the sandalwood trade and the whaling industry, then the rise of “King Sugar” as Hawai‘i’s dominant business by the end of it. Intense sugar cane cultivation on all the islands demanded thousands of workers, who disembarked at Honolulu Harbor in waves to work the giant lawns of cane. Starting in 1852, workers came from China, 55,000, all told; then Japan, 180,000; Portugal, 16,000; and last, beginning in 1907, from the Philippines, 126,000. Eventually, many sought better jobs and better lives in Honolulu, the Islands’ only real city. At the same time, many Hawaiians, dispossessed from commonly held fishing villages and farms, crowded into Honolulu to find sustenance.

The hastily built environs directly north and west of downtown Honolulu bulged with new urbanites. Narrow lanes and alleys laced the flats, stitching together wooden houses and two-story tenements, garden patches and piggeries, small shops, temples and pool halls. In the middle was Nu‘uanu stream; its vigorous freshwater flow carved the big gap in the reef that became Honolulu’s harbor. Nearby reef flats, islets and shallows were made useful to the busy port by a patchwork of earthen causeways, one of which connected “the Reef” (O‘ahu’s prison, built on its own little island in 1857) to the stretch of King Street that now borders ‘A‘ala Park. Called Prison Road, that causeway is now Iwilei Road. At the same intersection, on filled land, the Oahu Railroad & Land Company laid out the Honolulu terminal for its (nearly) round-the-island railroad in 1889. Weekend after weekend for generations, crowds of field workers from O‘ahu’s plantations and, later, at-liberty servicemen from its military bases disgorged at the depot. Streetcars and taxis took them into town and to Waikīkī. With the advent of the automobile, all car and taxi rides from west and north O‘ahu funneled in and out of Pālama Junction.

The official park opened in 1902 at about half its current size, running east-west along the stream between the bridges at King and Beretania streets. Two baseball diamonds and a fenced playground were installed.

Following a cholera epidemic that killed sixty-four in 1895, a local charity petitioned for a park to be laid out on filled land near the train station, at the mouth of the stream. “There is moral value in beauty,” clergyman Frank W. Damon argued in a letter on behalf of the group. By 1899 the stream’s massive stone embankments were in place; the park opened in 1902—at about half its current size. The simple, three-acre quadrangle ran east-west along the stream between the bridges at King and Beretania streets. Two baseball diamonds and a fenced playground were installed.

At that time, the northern half of the current park was occupied by the “‘A‘ala Triangle”—a densely packed warren of mostly wooden commercial buildings with second-floor tenements. The agglomeration—pool halls, markets, cafés, a drugstore, a pawnshop, two theaters—organized itself around a short block of ‘A‘ala Street, now gone, that ran between Beretania and King. The Triangle was the atmospheric hub, the essence of the ‘A‘ala district. Nevertheless, a line of ironwood trees was planted to try and screen it from park-goers.

As a stage for athletics, entertainment and politics, the park was an immediate success. Ethnically defined baseball teams set up the Riverside League in 1906. Dr. Khai Fai Li organized the first Chinese team and named it ‘A‘ala. The first Japanese nine were called the Excelsiors. Two games were often played at once, especially on Sundays. Rivalries were fierce, and the teams none too fastidious about maintaining ethnic divisions—a good infielder was a good infielder.

After the war the many Chinese and Japanese families who had thrived in ‘A‘ala moved on. It became a favorite city spot for single Filipino men, plantation workers who came in from the fields on weekends to grab a bite to eat or play games in the park.

Local showman Eddie K. Fernandez brought the world’s most famous wrestling bear, John Brown, to the park “to meet all comers.” The Royal Hawaiian Band impresario Henry Berger wanted a bandstand to benefit the area’s “seething cosmopolitan masses.” Concerts staged in front of the train depot had drawn big crowds, he argued, “But the people have to crowd about the streets and curbs and are half the time in danger of being run down by hacks and street cars.” He got his bandstand, which attracted political crowds, too: In January 1905, Japanese residents rallied en masse to celebrate news that Russian forces had surrendered to Imperial Japan at Port Arthur, Manchuria. In 1916 two visiting Chinese speakers sparked a disturbance when they reported Japanese agents interfering in the affairs of the infant Chinese republic. Japanese and Filipino plantation workers staged the first major sugar strikes there. The Democratic Party, perpetually in opposition to the ruling Republicans throughout the territorial era (1898-1959), held regular rallies. In 1934, US President Franklin Roosevelt came to the park to join three thousand citizens of the territory for an international lantern parade to ‘Iolani Palace.

All around the park, two-story shops, hotels, theaters, dance halls, taxi stands and tenements sprouted to service the emerging urban hub. Enterprising Japanese and Chinese fish sellers and grocers established the open-air, harbor-oriented Aala Market in 1918, with thirty food stalls under its big double roof. On the same block of King Street, Japanese merchant families pooled resources and opened Aala Rengo (union), a sidewalk strip of dry goods and department stores geared to the domestic needs of the district’s then-predominant Japanese customers. On the other side of the park, along Beretania, a row of family-run hotels included the Saikaya, the Shinshuya, the Kobayashi, the Nakamura and the Yamashiro. As detailed in Michael M. Okihiro’s 2003 history, ‘A‘ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawai‘i, these hostelries catered to mostly Japanese visitors, both local and foreign, at a cost of about $1.25 per night.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Riverside League pitted ethnically defined baseball teams against each other, while the surrounding neighborhoods were largely home to Japanese and Chinese families.

A bustling district by the 1920s, ‘A‘ala weathered the Depression well enough and arguably had its heyday in the late 1930s. But then came the trauma of Pearl Harbor and World War II. Some of ‘A‘ala’s Japanese merchant-leaders were interned. The movie houses switched to second-run Hollywood pictures. Goods were scarce. The park gradually shed its baseball focus but maintained a reputation for sporty loitering, especially among broke and/or drunken servicemen and the urban indigent. The popular Johnny Noble song “Manuela Boy,” circa 1938, had this lyric: “Manuela boy, my dear boy/You no more hilahila [ashamed]/No more five cents, no more house/You go ‘A‘ala Park hiamoe [sleep].”

After the war the many Chinese and Japanese families who had thrived in ‘A‘ala moved on. It became a favorite city spot for single Filipino men, plantation workers who came in from the fields on weekends. It remained so into the 1960s. Banding together at the park, these newest immigrants celebrated the Philippine holidays, played checkers and kicked around sipa-sipa balls, a traditional game with a small rattan ball not unlike hacky sack. The ancient cafés of the Triangle replaced mochi, tofu and saimin with Filipino favorites like pancit-guisado, pinakbet and balatong paria.

In the early post-WWII era all roads, it seemed, led to Pālama Junction, where King and Beretania streets converge.

Newspaper columnist Cobey Black sketched a portrait of the exhausted precinct in 1956. The little block lay, she wrote, “in the heart of Honolulu like an old tom in a busy kitchen, cat-napping, tooth-less, content, dreaming of the days it sported on the tin roof. Life leans over a back stairway in Aala Street. It sprawls on an iron cot in a rented room … it raises its voice in the laughter of children lost in the labyrinths behind the shops, in the shouts of the pool players, and in the ancient hawking of the old Japanese woman in the knitted black cap who has sold newspapers on Aala Street longer than she can remember. … Life has not stopped on Aala Street, but it has paused.” At the time, Black counted six pool halls on the block.

Two years after statehood, in 1961, the city declared the ‘A‘ala Triangle a slum and leveled it soon thereafter. All told, the Honolulu Redevelopment Agency cleared two hundred-plus acres near the park, including King Street markets and Beretania hotels. Public-housing projects of varying quality took their places. Only the forty blocks of central Chinatown, tightly bound between downtown office buildings and the stream, survived the bulldozers. In 1973 this smaller Chinatown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The ‘A‘ala district, Honolulu’s Japantown and its Filipinotown, simply disappeared.

The Aala Market first opened in 1918 and was part of a thriving business district up through the 1930s. With the start of World War II and the internment of many of the area’s Japanese merchants, ‘A‘ala began a slow decline.

Still, the “beautiful story” Angel promised me was, in fact, true, and it’s at least memorialized in three shrines poised scenically along the Nu‘uanu stream embankment, within spitting distance of the park: a plaza and statue of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, who studied in Honolulu as a youth; a plaza and statue of José Rizal, the Filipino martyr whose writings stirred his oppressed people and whose execution incited a full-scale rebel-lion against Spanish rule; and, last and most striking, the Izumo Taisha Shinto Shrine, originally built to serve issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants, to Honolulu. Advantageously, the bronze of Rizal gazes directly into ‘A‘ala Park.

Hopeful ideas for the park’s revival have come and gone. In 1960 architect Alfred Preis proposed it as the site for the new state capitol building. In 1971 the Honolulu City Council voted six to two to rename it ‘A‘ala International Park, but the pretension didn’t fly. In 1990 Mayor Frank Fasi erected a large partitioned tent there to house sixteen homeless families. Two hundred families cycled through the shelter before it was disassembled two years later.

More recent efforts include staging kids’ softball games, regular park cleanups and outdoor movie showings. According to Honolulu Parks and Recreation director Michele Nekota, a pet products company called PetSafe is backing a push for a fenced dog run in the park. In his 2017 State of the City address, Mayor Kirk Caldwell proposed shrinking the park back to its original size and leasing the northern half, the former home of the ‘A‘ala Triangle, to developers as the site for ninety affordable housing units. Nekota says the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting is assessing the proposal.

Not long after statehood, the ‘A‘ala Triangle was declared a slum and leveled. A variety of efforts have been made to revive the area since then, with more plans currently under consideration.

I’m drinking with an old acquaintance, Jon Okudara, in a Chinatown bar when he tells me about how his Okinawan grandfather came to Honolulu alone in the 1930s and how he wrote letters to his family telling them about the wonders of ‘A‘ala Park. It was where everyone gathered, he told them, promising that someday he would show it to them. “So, when the family finally saw it,” Okudara relates, “my mom, his daughter, goes, ‘Eh, what’s so great about this place?’” He chuckles. “I guess it didn’t look like much, even back then.”

I ask the Farrington High School grad—and, at 72, a still-busy political lobbyist—to tell me more about his grandfather. Ryosei Aka was a teacher, a sensei, who eventually ran a Japanese-language school in Honolulu. “As a result of that,” Okudara says, “he got interned during the war in Jerome, Arkansas, and then at another camp in Montana. Then my two uncles signed up and served as translators with the MIS, the Military Intelligence Service, in the Pacific theater. “Imagine that,” he says, shaking his head and lifting his glass, “having his sons in the war serving, while he’s in a camp.”

Any other memories of ‘A‘ala? “Well, I remember growing up in Kalihi, and there was a big store there, Aala Pawn Shop. I used to like walking around in there because the stuff in that shop was just so fascinating … just stuff … big store. A lot of old Filipino men used to go and fly kites in the park. Not the simple kind you can buy for a few cents. They made them, and I thought they were really pretty. Their kites used to go up so high, people were saying you have to stop that because it was in the approach to the airport!” HH