It’s just past noon on a Saturday, and Chinatown shop Barrio Vintage already is filled with customers who are sifting through piles of clothes, jewelry and bags as they sip mimosas. Outside, the crowd spills onto the street, where Barrio Vintage has stocked additional items for a sidewalk sale.
“It’s been busy,” says Jonathan Saupe, who co-owns the shop with Bradley Rhea, in between ringing up customers and pouring a new batch of mimosas.
Down the road at Louis Pohl Gallery, it’s a similar scene. The sidewalk fronting the gallery is lined with handcrafted pottery for sale.
“I have had 50 people walk in here since 10 a.m. Fifty people!” says gallery owner Sandra Pohl. “If I get 15 people here on a Saturday, I am so ecstatic. Except for where they’re selling produce, (typical Saturdays) are slow. It’s dead.”
Today, though, the entire neighborhood is very much alive — in addition to Barrio Vintage and Louis Pohl’s sales, there is live music, popup art exhibits, trunk shows, hands-on arts and crafts and more at venues throughout Chinatown. Like Pohl, other area business owners agree daytime on the weekends typically is fairly quiet, but today marks the inaugural
DiscoverArt. Sponsored by Creative Arts Experience, Honolulu Culture and Arts District, Aloha Graphics and City and County of Honolulu, DiscoverArt was launched as a way to target new customers, while re-emphasizing Chinatown’s art scene and supporting local businesses.
“Downtown Chinatown is magical to me,” says Miki Lee, a volunteer and senior community builder with Honolulu Culture and Arts District. “And there are so many people who are a little timid about coming down here, or they have an opinion about what the place is … Not enough people know how much positive change has happened recently.”
While Chinatown has undergone major change over the last couple of decades, some business owners have found that many people still have a negative perception of the area. But Lee asserts that it likely is holdover from the neighborhood’s past. DiscoverArt, she says, is a way to show people that Chinatown has changed. While existing initiatives have been successful on that front, the reach of events like First Friday can be limited.
“We wanted to reach more people,” Pohl says.
“It’s a way — and a new reason — to bring people down to visit,” Lee adds. “I just want (Chinatown) to be a place that people want to come to — where they feel safe, they feel happy, they feel inspired.”
Held during the day — from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the second Saturday of each month — DiscoverArt aims to bring people into the neighborhood in a safe, mellow setting that is accessible to all ages. The Feb. 13 DiscoverArt had a total of 14 area merchants participating, and for future events, organizers seek to involve additional area businesses.
As the title suggests, a key part of Discover-Art will be, of course, the art. Organizers — primarily Lee, Pohl and artist Su Atta — selected second Saturdays to have it in conjunction with Hawaii State Art Museum’s existing community arts events on that day. And like the HiSAM events, DiscoverArt will feature hands-on activities — especially those that target young families.
The ARTS at Marks Garage was a center of a lot of the day’s activities — with water-color painters and live music on its front lawn, and arts instructor Christie Knoll leading young artists in making sock monkeys. ARTS at Marks also has existing improv and slam poetry on second Saturdays — and is working to integrate those into DiscoverArt.
“We wanted to engage people in doing art,” Pohl explains. “People go, ‘Oh, I can’t do anything artistic.’ So this is kind of an initiation that’s low-key, no commitment. You are going to make something, take it home and feel good about it.
“There is a hunger for people to do that, to express themselves,” she adds.
DiscoverArt also serves as a showcase for artists. The Pegge Hopper Gallery displayed a pop-up shop with artist Roy Venters’ signature glass hearts, while ARTS at Marks had a photography exhibit and artists from its recent exhibit, Thresholds, were on site.
“All we can do is keep getting our arts community involved and giving them a platform to do what they like to do and see what happens,” says ARTS at Marks executive director Rich Richardson.
The goal, as Pegge Hopper Gallery manager Melanie Yang sees it, is to “re-emphasize that there is an arts presence” in Chinatown. That aspect of the neighborhood, some business owners say, often is not quite as visible as the nightlife. But the arts, Yang feels, still have a strong presence — “just not necessarily in a formal arts space,” she says.
“It’s not just in the galleries,” Yang continues, “but in the shops and restaurants, too. If you are open to just sort of meander, you will find artful events.”
While Chinatown’s nightlife has been thriving, busy nights might not be enough to equal a successful business.
“I think maybe on the weekends, (Chinatown) is not the first place people think of,” Lee says. “But it should be.”
“Locally owned businesses can’t survive without people knowing that they are there,” Lee continues. “So it’s all about making it economically viable for the little shop, the little artist, the little person who took that chance to open up a (business).”
DiscoverArt, organizers and participants hope, also can be a way to bolster area business — turning those slow weekend days into a flurry of activity.
It seems to be working. “I’ve noticed a lot of people who go across the street (to Barrio Vintage and ARTS at Marks) coming over here and checking out our store,” says In4mation sales associate Kai Miguel.
“It’s definitely increased the traffic through here,” agrees Madre Chocolate manager Carley Miller.
While Saupe isn’t sure he can credit all of the day’s crowd at Barrio Vintage to DiscoverArt — their big sales always get a lot of traffic — he says there has been a notable difference: He’s getting a number of customers who say that they hadn’t been to Chinatown in a while.
“That is what I think the biggest thing is — we are getting tons of tourists these days, but our local customers who haven’t been here in a long time are coming to the neighborhood and finding something totally different,” Saupe says. “(DiscoverArt) helps facilitate an awareness of the neighborhood. Just in the seven years that I have lived here, there has been tremendous change, there really has.”
As if on cue, a man comes up to Saupe and tells him it’s his first time in Barrio Vintage — he had no idea the store was there. He had come all the way from Haleiwa and being in the shop, he says, “made the drive worthwhile.”