Culture & Contrast: An Evolution of Art at First Friday

Culture & Contrast: An Evolution of Art at First Friday

Originally Appearing in "First Friday" (Abstract 1)
Text by Richard Melendez // Images by Raul Soria Jr. & Cheyne Gallarde


Walking through Chinatown is an exercise in contrasts. This neighborhood of historic stone facades comes up against the mirrored glass and steel of downtown’s business district. Its fish markets, dim sum stands, and medicinal herbs shops share blocks with trendy boutiques and wine bars.

Chinatown’s transformation from a den of prostitutes and drug dealers to a destination for tourists and locals has been slow, but is noticeable to anyone who is familiar with the area. And yet remnants of its seedier history continue to linger.

“When I first started coming down here 10 years ago, my parents were like, ‘Are you sure you want to go down there? Is it safe?’” recalls Miss Catwings, a promoter and artist who works at The ARTS at Mark’s Garage. “And I remember my friend lived in Kukui Plaza and I wanted to sleep over (at) her house and around that time there was a murder, like, right there.”

But the most regular and arguably the most popular of these events is First Friday.

Such anecdotes are not unique and go far to explain why Chinatown has the reputation it does. Many Hawai‘i residents still consider it to be the armpit of Honolulu. Hotel Street, a major bus route through Chinatown, was once lined with strip clubs and gambling dens. Now there’s Bar 35 and Downbeat Diner.

This recent transformation is due in part to the galleries and restaurants that popped up shortly after the opening of the restored Hawai‘i Theatre. Further contributing to Chinatown’s renaissance are the events the area has hosted. There are, of course, the popular block parties commemorating St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, and Cinco De Mayo. But the most regular and arguably the most popular of these events is First Friday.

The eponymously titled event occurs on (wait for it) the First Friday of every month, and is an opportunity for the neighborhood’s many galleries, restaurants, shops and bars to connect with a wider audience. It’s also an opportunity for musicians, entertainers, artists, and craftsmen to strut their stuff.

“First Fridays brought new visitors and a fresh customer base into an area of Honolulu that was previously off limits and/or off the radar. This stimulated business and gave visitors options,” says local artist and curator Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, who also serves as a commissions project manager at the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. “First Fridays became the cornerstone for a new generation of burgeoning entrepreneurs and creatives. It helped to create a vibrant and youthful center for Honolulu’s alternative-entertainment and nightlife."

The concept of First Friday is not unique to Honolulu; First Fridays have blossomed in cities across the mainland since the late 1980s. The ARTS at Mark’s Garage, a gallery and showspace on Nu‘uanu Avenue, had a big hand in introducing the First Friday concept to Honolulu.

Promoter and founding partner of The ARTS at Mark’s Garage, Tim Bostock, was there at the event’s humble beginnings, unsure that the event would be successful here. “I remember when we all gave away cheap wine, and were excited that more than 200 people showed up.”

An art-focused event (in Chinatown no less) was a new concept in Honolulu, where neighborhood festivals usually took the shape of ho‘olaule‘as and block parties. Goldberg recalls, “At the beginning, there was definitely a naïveté in the gallery visitors, which was exciting and welcomed. Not everyone who came down to Chinatown for First Friday were ‘art’ people, per se; these were not ‘party people’ either. These were everyday people, looking for something new to see and do. And Chinatown’s First Friday offered just that.”

Lauren Okano, a resident artist at Louis Pohl Gallery, remembers her early experiences with First Friday as “a social event, where I enjoyed buying a lei and sharing dinner with friends, being in various shows myself and just walking around downtown checking out the different galleries and getting inspired.”

“On an individual level, it's great for me,” says Tracy Shiraishi, a T-shirt designer and printer whose Roketo line of apparel has had a presence at First Friday for a several years. “The diversity of the crowd at First Fridays helps me find my audience—or my audience find me. I always end up having a few unexpectedly odd yet wonderful conversations with people who I would probably never be in a circumstance to chat with otherwise.”

Okano also finds that First Friday is a great opportunity to network and show her art. “Of course I have met interesting people and once even found out that one of my art cards was sent to Yoko Ono, and that she was looking for the original artwork! It was an I Love NY ‘kanji card’ that is sold at the (Louis Pohl) Gallery. But every week is a new and fun adventure that I look forward to. It is vital to have a dynamic art scene and this certainly is a part of that."

As First Friday continued to grow in popularity over the years, the area’s merchants ramped up their efforts to draw more business during the once-a-month event. Radio stations and other outside groups even got in on the action, adding their own loyal fanbase to the regular First Friday crowds. But with increased publicity and attention came controversy.

Concerns about safety and noise continue to make headlines.

For a while, there were a number of block parties that were held during First Friday, creating a situation where there was an event within an event. According to Miss Catwings these block parties brought in a different crowd than the crowd that normally comes downtown. “Not that that’s bad in general,” she says, “but the people who would normally enjoy First Friday come down here from 5 p.m. to enjoy pau hana, check out the galleries, go to the stores, and they kind of got turned off by this shift which introduced a much louder and rowdier crowd.” She adds that this newer audience wouldn’t leave the (block party) area. “People had no idea that anything else was even open, so that was a problem.”

Goldberg clearly remembers the effect that the crowds had on her own work as an art curator. “During art openings, as a result of the crush of bodies crammed into a space, art was damaged; drinks were splattered across the surfaces of delicate art pieces; crowds crushed and fell onto art objects, tipped over pedestals, rendered paintings askew; art was stolen and generally disrespected.”

This side effect that is understandably disheartening to Goldberg and the other artists who participated in First Friday. “Art slowly became a backdrop instead of a feature on the main stage of First Friday,”she says.

It was during this period that the residents and nearby businesses not affiliated with First Friday began to complain. As a result, the neighborhood board started to put pressure on the business owners, particularly the bars and restaurants, to be mindful of the noise and to ensure their doors were closed by 2 a.m.

“The merchants joined together in funding street barriers, portalua (port-a-potties), police and private security,” says Bostock. “Before the (involvement of the) police, and before the buses were rerouted, there were people all over the street and it wasn’t safe. The ADMA (Arts District Merchant’s Association) really took the initiative and sorted things out.”

The changes seemed to have worked for the most part, though concerns about safety and noise continue to make news headlines. I attended February’s First Friday, which had the distinction of sharing the night with the opening of Chinese New Year celebrations, thus bringing in a larger attendance than First Friday usual. What could have easily devolved into a chaotic situation felt pretty well organized, despite the noise and number of people present. An ample amount of police monitored the event, while traffic barriers helped keep the crowds contained and out of traffic.

Now, as First Friday enters its 10th year, some wonder whether or not it can maintain its momentum. Those who I spoke to feel that the crowds have shrunk, particularly over the last year or two. If true, this could possibly come down to a number of factors: Boredom perhaps being one of them, or perhaps people are distracted by other newer events.

As the art scene begins to take off in Kaka‘ako, and other areas host own variations of the First Friday theme (Third Friday in Kaimuki and Last Friday at the Honolulu Museum of Art), a sapping effect upon First Friday might be expected. In these tough economic times, people’s budgets and time are stretched thin and may not allow people to attend First Friday as often as they used to, or make them opt to take advantage of other events that may be nearer to where they live, or seem fresher.

Others have wondered if this alleged shrinkage is because of a lack of marketing and hype. The Honolulu Weekly no longer prints the map of Chinatown that points out the times and locations of First Friday events, which may have had an impact on the public’s awareness of First Friday. In fact, a number of people I spoke to who either live or work outside of the immediate downtown core didn’t know that First Friday existed, despite living here all or most of their lives and the event running consistently since 2003.

Miss Catwings is quick to point out, “Although the crowds have declined, it’s not like that there’s been a lack of events going on at First Friday.”

Okano agrees. “I think new gallery and creative directors are working diligently to bring in new people and I salute them (for creating) incentives to go down to First Friday with dance and art demos.”

“Right now a revitalization is going on,” adds Bostock, “with the many new shops and boutiques joining the fun with extended evening hours, trunk and clearance sales and happy hour deals. And the performers on the street are unpredictable but often excellent.”

“I like that Chinatown is flourishing with new initiatives and that it includes so many creatives, which contribute to and benefit from First Friday,” says Goldberg. “I like seeing new mixed-use spaces, which don’t have an emphasis on food service, like The Loading Zone and Andy South’s Atelier becoming part of the mix now.”

And I only need to walk the streets of Chinatown to see that there are several new additions to the ever-changing crop of venues and merchants. Lucky Belly, for example, and Downbeat Diner’s newly opened lounge. The courtyard at Mendoca Building recently began hosting its own event within the event, wherein vendors sell their wares, artists in the lofts open their studios to the public, and a DJ spins tunes to lure in and entertain passers-by. These businesses participate in First Friday or take advantage of the increased foot traffic of First Friday by staying open later than usual.

“Over the years, (First Friday) has changed—the vibe, the activities available, the range of things to do, the number of people, etc.,” says Goldberg. “ And change is good! Growth is good, diversity is good. First Friday may not be the place to present so-called serious, art-only functions or exhibitions, but it’s a wonderful, big, wide, open, welcoming platform where lots of activities can and should be presented and celebrated.”

And there may be more room for growth. “Bring in the food trucks,” says Shiraishi. “Maybe block off some streets from motor vehicle traffic. Films. Lectures. Pop-up galleries. The risk, I think is that (First Friday) will get stagnant.”

First Fridays gave people an indication that there would be enough support to make taking risks worthwhile.

While some continue to argue merits and impact, and even where the event should head in the future, there’s little doubt that First Friday has brought a spotlight upon the Chinatown community. And while the merchants reap in the benefits that come with the crowds, this spotlight has had a positive effect for the artists, too.

“There has always been talent here, but I think First Fridays gave people an indication that there would be enough support to make taking risks worthwhile,” says Shiraishi. “As a result, not only has it strengthened the art scene, the effects have filtered through to food, tech startups, etc. Maybe that energy would have emerged anyway, but I think this wave of cool new ventures we're seeing now has been bolstered by the undercurrent set early on by First Friday.”

Adds Miss Catwings, “If you make First Friday better, if you make any event in Chinatown better, the positive result that will come out of that is that people won’t just come to Chinatown for special events. They’ll start coming during the rest of the week. That’s really the intention of events like this.”

As she speaks, she points to the window behind me. “Look, there’s a trolley right there. That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. There’s a trolley that’s bringing tourists from Waikiki down here.”

A tourist trolley in the Chinatown arts district. Sunburned visitors amble about in this nexus of professionals, artists, and junkies. An apt symbol of the ongoing changes and inherent challenges that First Friday has brought. But maybe, just maybe, it’s these contrasts, these frictions big and small, which continue to fuel the ongoing renaissance and inspire the creatives who carve out a niche here. Change is good, after all. And Chinatown seems to wear it well.