Honolulu, Hawaii: Life cycles of the city

Kerry van der Jagt takes to the streets on two wheels for a look at one of Honolulu's hippest new hoods.

We prop our bicycles against a wall in Kaka'ako near downtown Honolulu, pausing at an open-air gallery to admire a painting by Scribe, one of America's most respected muralists. The piece is of mechanical fish with the artist's trademark rhinoceros (Rumpus) inside its stomach.

On another wall there's a giant mural of King Kalakaua, painted by California-based artist Madsteez and the London-based Roids.

Together, there are more than 60 vibrant, freshly painted murals by names such as Katch 1, Reach and Know Hope.

"But it's all temporary," says my guide, Brandon Reid. "The buildings with street art are marked for demolition."

Hemmed between Ala Moana Shopping Centre and downtown Honolulu, Kaka'ako is a gritty industrial district of just nine blocks, a short bus ride from the song and hula dance of Waikiki Beach. Earmarked for redevelopment into a mixed community of housing, green spaces, cultural precincts and retail, Kaka'ako is set to become the artistic and social epicentre of Honolulu.

To learn more, I've joined a cycling tour with Reid, owner of Holoholo Bicycles based in Chinatown. "It's an ambitious project by the legacy landowners, Kamehameha Schools," says Reid.

"They plan to roll the development out in stages over the next 15 to 20 years."

While the planners continue to scratch their heads and stare at blueprints, the artists have moved in, bringing colour and energy to this industrial wasteland by painting warehouses, hosting exhibitions and organising POW! WOW! Hawaii. The POW! WOW! graffiti festival, held over the Valentine's Day week, is part of a movement that aims to celebrate culture, art and music by bringing together hundreds of artists from around the world.


"This newfound energy is attracting even more creative entrepreneurs, who, in turn, are bringing their poetry sessions, organic cafes, night and farmers' markets and music events," says Reid. "Kaka'ako is becoming the hippest neighbourhood in Honolulu."

Our tour starts in Chinatown, at the chilled Manifest bar, which is also owned by Reid. Part cool cafe, part whiskey bar, part bicycle shop, Manifest, which is housed in the former space of an "adult" bookshop, is indicative of the buzzing bar scene Chinatown is becoming known for.

As we get sized up for our seven-speed "computer bikes", Reid explains that Chinatown has undergone its own renaissance in the last two years. "It started with the young designers and fashion boutiques moving in," says Reid. "Which was soon followed by new bars and restaurants."

Peddling along the bus (and bike)-only Hotel Street, we pass one of the newer bars, Bar 35, which sits easily beside Smith's Union Bar, the oldest bar in the country and a wonderful relic of Chinatown's sordid past. The area is also famous for its street markets, noodle kitchens and "First Friday" of the month art events. From here we head straight to Honolulu Harbour and Aloha Tower, the 10-storey landmark which first greeted boatloads of immigrants to Honolulu.

"This area makes me nostalgic," says Reid, who is part Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Spanish, Portuguese and Hawaiian. "Most of my ancestors were processed through this harbour."

Reid gives an overview of Hawaii's wave of migration, which began in the mid 19th century, when workers were needed for the sugar and pineapple plantations.

And, like his ancestors, Reid also has big dreams, to turn Honolulu into one of the leading bike-centric cities in the world. "The city is flat, the climate mild, the scenery stunning," he says. Reid started his bicycle tours in late 2013, but this was just the first step in his master plan. "My goal is to reduce the traffic problems by introducing bike pick-up and drop-off centres all across the city." If plans for a monorail between the airport, downtown Honolulu and the Ala Moana Shopping Centre go ahead, Reid intends to install bike stations at each of the stops.

Riding along in the breeze, we soon reach the green oasis of Kaka'ako Waterfront Park. Built on reclaimed land that was once the city's tip, the park is an unexpected patch of rolling hills, water fountains and jogging tracks overlooking the surf breaks known as "Point Panic" and "Flies".

While we watch as an elderly Hawaiian man casts his line from the rocks below, Reid talks about the geological formation of the Hawaiian Islands, how the new volcanic land was colonised by insects, then birds and eventually Polynesians, who had travelled by canoe from as far away as the Marquesas Islands, following the seasonal paths of birds.

Leaving the paved promenade behind we hit the tarmac again for the short ride to Kaka'ako. Here photo stops come often as we pass a gallery of powerful images. From Hawaiian warriors to psychedelic abstracts, pensive portraits to pink and purple clock factories, this open-air gallery, with its backdrop of rampant weeds, dumpsters and crumbling concrete, packs a punch like no other.

"The best part of POW! WOW! has been the involvement of the local community," says Reid. "Emerging artists have had the opportunity to work side by side with international names." As a non-profit organisation the festival also supports local youth through its art outreach and educational programs.

Foodies are also getting in on the act, with pop-up restaurants and food trucks, such as Eat the Street, taking to the parking lots. We settle on Hanks Haute Hotdog truck, sharing a seat under one of the striped market umbrellas with workers from a nearby factory.

Sitting in the sunshine, it is difficult to believe this is all temporary, nothing more than a transition space. "The promise is that this concentration of creativity will transfer to the new development," says Reid. "If humans can follow a bird and find an island, we can do anything."

The writer was a guest of Hawaii Tourism Oceania and Hawaiian Airlines.





Hawaiian Airlines has a fare to Honolulu for about $1155 low-season return from Sydney including tax for the 9hr 45min non-stop flight. Melbourne passengers pay about $1176 and fly Qantas or Virgin Australia to Sydney to connect (or fly to Brisbane to connect with Hawaiian Airlines); see hawaiianair.com.au.


Shoreline Hotel Waikiki has rooms from $US209 ($230). The boutique hotel is two blocks from Waikiki Beach and close to the local bus or trolley route, see jdvhotels.com.


A two-hour cycling tour taking in Chinatown, Kaka'ako and downtown Honolulu costs $US52. See holoholobicycles.com.