WWII Red Light District Walking Tours in Honolulu’s Chinatown

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Photo:  Honolulu Exposed.

Photo: Honolulu Exposed.

It’s not surprising to see people blush during Carter Churchfield’s WWII Red Light Tour. On her website, she unabashedly describes it as “a historical walking tour of debauchery and corruption.”

During the 1940s, drunken servicemen, transvestite entertainers and ladies of the night frequented 36-acre Chinatown, bordered by Nuʻuanu Avenue, Nimitz Highway, River Street and Beretania Street. Churchfield’s 90-minute tour revolves around that period and theme, and she gets into character, sharing a candid, eyebrow-raising narrative punctuated by occasional raw language. You’ve been warned: This activity is not appropriate for young children or adults who are easily offended.

From Here To Eternity

Several of the Chinatown buildings that once housed bars, bordellos, tattoo parlors and strip clubs still stand, including 121 North Hotel Street, which was a brothel with a distinguished name: New Senator Hotel. It was supposedly a favorite haunt of James Jones, who wrote the novel “From Here To Eternity,” the inspiration for the eponymous 1953 blockbuster that won eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Jones based the New Congress Club in his book on the New Senator Hotel.

Sailor Jerry Inspired the Popular Pin-Ups

Another interesting stop is Old Ironside Tattoo at 1033 Smith Street, where Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins set up shop. More than 30 tattoo artists were working in Chinatown back then, but, according to Churchfield, Sailor Jerry was the busiest because he was versatile and produced detailed work in color.

His designs ran the gamut—from snakes, swords and skulls to birds, bouquets and buxom hula dancers, cowgirls, mermaids and more. Those seductive images inspired the popular pin-ups from that era.

Oahu’s Oldest Watering Hole

Smith's Union Bar, at 19 Hotel Street.  Photo:  Wally Gobetz.

Smith’s Union Bar, at 19 Hotel Street. Photo: Wally Gobetz.

Opened in 1934, Smith’s Union Bar at 19 North Hotel Street is the oldest watering hole on Oʻahu. Seventy-plus years ago, its clientele was primarily sailors and stevedores eager for a brawl after downing too many drinks. These days, its reputation is much tamer, with regulars returning for the cheap beer, jukebox music and the chance to shine at karaoke. Hours are 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

Those under 18 are welcome to join this tour if they’re accompanied by an adult. Churchfield also leads the Devil’s Den tour, which focuses on the 1900 outbreak of bubonic plague in Chinatown and what happened when the fire that was deliberately set to contain it burned out of control. Reservations for both tours are required. For more information, call 670-7090, email info@honoluluexposed.com or check out the website www.honoluluexposed.com.

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