The Chinatown Fires


1870s: Affluent families in Honolulu moved from the downtown and harbor areas to the city outskirts. Chinese laborers leaving the plantation life moved to the areas around Nuuanu Avenue and Maunakea Street. Eventually, 6,000 Chinese people would live there.

1880s-1890s: Chinatown, Honolulu, formed into a disorganized collection of dilapidated, ramshackle wooden houses, outdoor toilets, backyard cesspools, pens with livestock, and chicken coops. The stench of disintegrating garbage and sewage lingered in the air while rats, maggots, lice, flies, and cockroaches scurried around. These dirty living conditions harbored diseases and invited disasters.

1886: A fire started in a Chinese restaurant on the corner of Smith and Hotel streets. With the buildings built close together, the fire burned most of Chinatown for three days. Many people, including King Kalakaua (a former firefighter), fought the blaze. The fire destroyed eight blocks, which contained 7,000 Chinese and 350 Hawaiian homes, and caused $1,500,000 in damage, hurting mostly Chinese residents and businesses. After the fire, regulations were created to prevent future fires. However, the rebuilding of Chinatown ignored them and recreated Chinatown’s cramped conditions.

December 1899: An outbreak of the bubonic plague claimed ten victims. To quarantine the bubonic plague, the Board of Health isolated Chinatown residents, mostly Japanese and Chinese immigrants, and military guards restricted them from leaving Chinatown. The Board of Health cleaned contaminated areas by burning trash, cleaning buildings, filling cesspools, digging new ones, and setting forty-one controlled fires.

January 20, 1900: With four fire engines and all firefighters in Honolulu on standby, Board of Health workers ignited a fire at the corner of Beretania and Nuuanu. The wind spread it to the wooden roof of the adjacent Kaumakapili Church. Flames then spread to the wooden buildings in Chinatown all the way to the wharf. The Chinatown fire of 1900 would burn for 17 days, scorching 38 acres and 4,000 homes.

Aftermath: Many residents became homeless and moved to other areas. After Chinatown’s rebuilding, while many Chinese people went back to work at Chinatown, most of them did not live there.

Search Strategies
Look for articles on days during and after the fire (January 19, 1900 – February 1900).

Articles from Chronicling America
“A Deluge of Fire: The Greatest Conflagration ever Known in Honolulu”
The Daily bulletin., April 19, 1886, Image 1

“Baptism of Fire!: From Queen to Beretania and from Nuuanu to the River”
Honolulu press, April 19, 1886, Image 2

“After the Fire”
Daily Honolulu press, April 20, 1886, Image 1

“The Great Fire in Chinatown…”
Hawaiian gazette, April 20, 1886, Image 2

“What to Do About It”
Daily bulletin, April 21, 1886, Image 2

“One Death Reported: Four Probable Cases Treated”
Hawaiian gazette, January 19, 1900, Image 1

“Flames Run Riot”
Evening bulletin, January 20, 1900, Image 1

“Chinatown Fire-Swept: Thousands Driven by Flames from Their Homes”
Hawaiian star, January 20, 1900, Image 1

“Measures of Relief,” “Aftermath of the Saturday Fire,” “Dr. Wood Speaks of the Situation,” and “Big Citizens’ Meeting”
Evening bulletin, January 21, 1900, Image 1

“Ghouls Ready for Work,” “Clothing for Refugees,” and “Good Work at Kakaako”
Hawaiian star, January 22, 1900, Image 1

“Topics of the Day”
Independent, January 22, 1900, Image 3

“Fire Sweeps Away Almost All Chinatown: Attempt to Burn Block Fifteen Clears Many Blocks”
Hawaiian gazette, January 23, 1900, Image 1

“Losses by Fire: A Present Estimate is Impossible”
Hawaiian gazette, January 26, 1900, Page 2

“A Big Fire Saturday: Thirty Shacks on Six Acres Burned”
Hawaiian gazette, January 30, 1900, Page 3


2 Comments on “The Chinatown Fires”

  1. […] descendant of Kamehameha I lost his feather cloak in the Chinatown Fire of 1900. Solomon Lehuanui Kalaniomaiheuila Peleioholani went to court to claim compensation. The fire also […]

  2. […] Read about it in our topic guide. […]

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