Aloha. The International Marketplace, a Waikiki mainstay for more than fifty years, is being torn down and replaced by another mall. This has a lot of nostalgic people upset, but I suppose I see it more as one mall replacing another mall. While some describe the marketplace as some kind of Polynesian cultural, kitschy greenbelt of great shopping, I thought of it more as a mecca of store after cart after store, all selling the same cheap crap that you’d never buy in your local town, but do buy while on vacation.
My first trip to Honolulu in 2011 was not for vacation; it was for work. I’d have never chosen to go there on my own, having heard so many stories about the traffic, the crime, the homelessness, the racism, etc. I also wasn’t thrilled about the six hour flight every week either. And, my first few days in Waikiki were filled with a little disgust and disorientation for which I will chose to blame the Garmin for not taking the coning laws into consideration. Once oriented, however, I became drawn to the city, purchasing a residential condo just 560 days from the day I first landed at HNL.
I remember the first time I stumbled into the International Marketplace’s maze of street food, trinket carts, and even a few bars and restaurants. It was a bit surreal for me; I was surrounded by everything I hated – imported crap, tight spaces, and crowds of tourists. But somehow, something about it worked for me. I didn’t exactly frequent the place, but I enjoyed passing its entrances on both Kuhio and Kalakaua sides. I was fascinated by the number of people who, despite having day jobs, dressed themselves in silver paint each night for a few hours to collect a few hundred dollars from tourists wanting to pose with them. I enjoyed watching the hookers and pimps play out their roles on Kuhio, a subculture of crime that respected the culture of tourism. And I was amazed how this little area, which offered nearly nothing of interest to me, seemed to be solely responsible for the life and activity in Waikiki. The farther you were from the International Marketplace, the quieter it was.
The marketplace always struck me as an interesting setting for a book. It had all the right elements: transient visitors and vendors, big banyan trees offering places to hide, seedy-looking bars right alongside family restaurants, artificial waterfalls, and Tiki imagery throughout. Not sure if it would work as the only setting in any book intended for adults, but it might be quite interesting as a children’s book or young-adult fiction. It had a certain charm that was hard to describe – most likely that it wasn’t the sterile environment of a modern mall. It was dirty. It occasionally stunk. And it was worn down, perhaps decades past the useful lives of the termite-ridden buildings.
I’m excited to see what the new buildings look like, holding out hope that the developer will do something iconic and not just a repeat of the Royal Hawaiian Mall. Estimates on completion range from 2015 to 2018, depending on who you believe. Some of the vendors, particularly those with alternate locations, are expected to return to the new site when completed. I guess we’ll see.