Tours Seeks To Bolster Chinatown Biz

Sitting at a booth in Downbeat Diner in Chinatown, Ed Korybski tells me that much of this area was set on fire to control the bubonic plague in 1900. At the time, Chinatown was cramped and had poor sanitation, so it was all quarantined off when the plague hit.

“There were debates about whether all of Chinatown should be burned,” he explains.

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Ed Korybski at Downbeat Diner, one of the stops on his tour CHRISTINA O'CONNOR PHOTO

Doctors decided that just the homes with plague victims would be burned. But when a controlled fire got out of hand, it spread quickly, burning a majority of the homes and businesses in the area. Many people thought that it had been set deliberately.

This is just one of the stories about Chinatown that Korybski can rattle off at a moment’s notice — a skill he puts to use in his new company, Hanai Tours, which offers a guided food and history tour of the area. Korybski previously had been executive director of Honolulu Culture and Arts District Association, a nonprofit that aimed to revitalize Chinatown. It’s that mission Korybski ultimately is continuing with Hanai Tours. He hopes the company can provide what he calls economic development tourism by bringing more visitors into Chinatown.

Korybski plans to expand the venture, but currently, Hanai Tours feature one tour that fuses food and history.

“I was kind of geeky about it,” he says of creating the tour. “I wanted the food to match up with the story I am telling at the time.” When he talks about the Chinatown fires, for example, he’s inside a Chinese restaurant.

It kicks off with an optional tour at Iolani Palace, followed by visits to restaurants including The Mandalay, Restaurant Epic, Little Village Noodle House and Downbeat Diner. Along the way, he tells about Queen Kaahumanu’s conversion to Christianity, opium dealings gone wrong and Chinatown’s decline and revival.

Korybski’s passion for community economic development dates back to his youth. He grew up in Patterson, N.J. — a place that he remembers as a dangerous industrial town. He watched as things only got worse and people started leaving the city.

“It was destroyed in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a whole economic downturn in urban areas,” he recalls.

“And I always wanted to be part of the other side of it — looking at how do you bring places back,” he adds.

After serving as a Peace Corps business volunteer in Ukraine, Korybski went on to work in micro-finance in Washington, D.C.

When he moved to the Islands to be closer to his wife’s family, he had a hand in revitalizing the Chinatown area with HCAD. Through HCAD, he helped establish the Arts District Merchants Association, put together a range of street festivals and renovated buildings.

In the last several years, Chinatown undoubtedly has seen a lot of improvement. (Korybski recalls when he first started promoting the Mardi Gras Carnaval Street Festival, people were reluctant to even walk down Nuuanu Avenue.) But some of Chinatown’s negative reputation persists — which Korybski hopes Hanai Tours can help change. The tours, he says, will familiarize more people with the area — and subsequently support local businesses.

Hanai Tours also offers customized tour options, and Korybski plans to launch a pau hana tour in 2015.

But other than driving business to Chinatown, Korybski envisions Hanai Tours as providing visitors with a better understanding of Hawaii history and culture.

“A lot of time, (visitors) come here and they’re trapped in Waikiki,” he says. “I just want them to appreciate the history.

“I want to get people to adopt this neighborhood as a food destination and come back to it,” he adds, “so I wanted to provide a more intimate experience and make it feel like (the neighborhood) is your own.”

For more information, visit hanaitours.com. Email hanaitours@gmail.com for kamaaina specials.

coconnor@midweek.com