Digging beneath Honolulu's Chinatown

By Kennedy, Joseph | Natural History, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Digging beneath Honolulu's Chinatown


Kennedy, Joseph, Natural History


In 1992 the city fathers of Honolulu elected to condemn and raze an old building in Chinatown in order to create room for needed low-income housing. The target for demolition was a two-story, L-shaped affair known as the H. Y Wong building. Built in 1906, it was the last remaining wood-frame structure in the downtown area. Before any construction could begin, however, state and federal historic preservation mandates had to be satisfied, and my firm was hired to carry out an archaeological investigation of the site. A check of land records showed that the twenty-thousand-square-foot lot upon which the H. Y. Wong building stood had encompassed open space, grass houses, and later buildings without foundations or basements that would have disturbed underground deposits. It was therefore a rare opportunity for archaeological exploration in a modern urban setting. An 1852 document with a simple map even showed a prehistoric fishpond on the site. This must have been filled in by 1879, when another map showed two European-type structures on the same piece of real estate.

After examining historical documents and maps, five of us had the unsettling experience of inspecting the premises, which now served mainly as a haven for drug users. The abandoned street-level storefronts on the property were infested with rats and cockroaches. Conditions in the forsaken upstairs apartments were not much better, although there was still a hint of what they must have looked like in the 1920s and 1930s, when ordinary working people lived there, and in the period between 1940 and 1980, when this neighborhood gained a reputation as Honolulu's premier red-light district. Soon after our visit the building was razed, and our archaeological work began.

Most of what is now downtown Honolulu sits atop a geologically recent reef formation. In most places this rock lies no more than three feet below the surface, imposing a limit on archaeological investigation. Here, however, the soils proved to be about twelve feet deep. This was thanks to the action of Nuuanu Stream, a meandering watercourse that discharges into the harbor. The stream had interfered with reef formation and worn away established corals within its reach, creating a swampy estuary where soils accumulated. The site was not only a favored habitation of the early Polynesian settlers of Oahu-who arrived more than a thousand years ago-but was also, in 1792, the landing place of the first Westerners on the island.

The task of excavation fell to a team that worked very hard in what had become a rather unsavory urban location. Artifacts found in the soil ranged from bone fishhooks and stone adzes in the lowest layers to pocket calculators and hypodermic needles near the surface. In between, the excavators gathered thousands of pieces of decorated pottery, hundreds of nineteenth-century bottles, and clumps of glass that had been fused and commingled with other items, no doubt during the firestorms associated with major Chinatown blazes in 1886 and 1900. Sticky, compacted, clayey soil confirmed the presence of the former fishpond.

The earliest excavated layers dated to a time before human occupation, roughly between 3,400 and 2,200 years ago, when the site was a shallow, saltwater-to-somewhat-brackish lagoon, the result of a five-foot rise in sea level that had occurred two thousand years earlier. By about 200 B.C., the sea had fallen to its present level and the shore as we now know it began to take shape. Pollen samples trapped by the emergent land show that an open forest of loulu palms and other dry-to-moist forest species dominated this section of the island.

The earliest evidence of human occupation at our site was a thin layer of clay loam that was deposited in standing water. This layer represented the base level of the fishpond, a low, spring-fed area that had been partly enclosed with a two-and-a-half-foothigh wall made of basalt. Fishponds such as this were created by Hawaii's Polynesian settlers and their descendants so that they could continue the practice of fish-farming. …

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