Hawaii’s Chinatown

Honolulu’s Chinatown is a blooming art district anchored by the historic Hawaii Theatre (built in 1927). The neighborhood is filled with an eclectic mix of galleries, restaurants, bars and boutiques. Each month, the trendsetters of Hawaii flock to the Hotel Street area for the festive First Friday art walk, which is a great thing to do in Oahu. Despite the gentrification of new businesses, the neighborhood has retained a slightly seedy and nefarious feel. 70 years prior, Chinatown used to be called “Hell’s Half Acre,” for it was filled with brothels, bars and tattoo parlors. And no “lady of the night” was better known than Jean O’Hara, a woman who changed a city.
O’Hara arrived in Honolulu by ship from San Francisco in 1938. At 5’4″ and 120 pounds, with jet black hair and dark eyes, Jean O’Hara was good looking and extremely ambitious. Unlike a lot of the other “working women,” O’Hara did not have anyone manage her money and she did not use drugs. Fiercely independent, she had an iron will. Not content to take orders, Jean O’Hara transformed herself from mere tart into Chinatown’s most infamous madam in a few short years. It wasn’t just her attractiveness or business savvy that made Jean O’Hara notorious. It was her contempt and utter disregard for the rules of the Honolulu Police Department’s Vice Squad, which regulated the brothels with a heavy hand. Although prostitution was illegal in Honolulu, the women still had to pay taxes on their “business.” And it was big business, as the local papers estimated it to be a $5 million a year industry. The epicenter was Hotel Street, which was littered with brothels known as “sporting houses.” All the brothels were located on the 2nd floor, so men would climb the stairs where they would pay $3 for 3 minutes. It wasn’t unusual for a woman to make $200 a day, and they could make as much as $4,000 for the month.
Yet for all the money the women earned, their lives were made miserable by Honolulu Police Chief William Gabrielson. He ruled the brothels with an iron fist, laying down a set of 11 laws that made the women second class citizens. These rules served to isolate and humiliate the women, since they were not allowed to visit Waikiki Beach, attend dances, or live outside of Hotel Street. Should a woman break the rules, she risked a beating or possible expulsion from Hawaii. Around 500 prostitutes worked in Honolulu during World War II, and every month the Vice Squad would collect an unofficial tax of $30 per girl from the brothels. From the moment O’Hara arrived in 1938 she continually broke Chief Gabrielson’s rules. Fined, imprisoned, and finally beat black and blue, O’Hara filed a $100,000 lawsuit in 1941 against the Police department for her two broken ribs and black eyes. The lawsuit was dropped, but not before The Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported the story. As the U.S. was plunged into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, “sporting houses” became even more popular for the morale of soldiers. Business grew and so did the animosity between O’Hara and Gabrielson as they continued butting heads. O’Hara wrote and published My Life as a Honolulu Prostitute in 1944. Her book, later republished under the title Honolulu Harlot, exposed the corruption of Chief Gabrielson and his Vice Squad. Soon after the red light district of Honolulu closed, proving that the pen is mightier than the sword.

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