The Photographer Captured Street Life in Honolulu’s Chinatown As It Began to Disappear
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Memory is a funny thing. It can be selective . . . as my wife often reminds me when I forgot to do a household chore. It can become dramatized into a fable — a story with a moral at the end. It can become bathed in golden light, as old-timers reminisce about a never-never land when they were young. It can be all of the above and also be more clear-eyed in hindsight than when the events themselves happened.
“Disappearing Honolulu” is an exhibit featuring photographs of the late Francis Haar at the John Young Museum of Art in Krauss Hall on the University of Hawai‘i’s Mänoa campus. Curated by UH art professor Gaye Chan, the show features primarily black and white photographs that Haar took in Honolulu’s Chinatown from circa 1965 to 1985. They were selected from the Francis Haar collection in UH’s Hamilton Library. The exhibit also includes old movie footage that Haar shot, and the equipment he used, as well as actual samples of his negatives, 16 mm film reels and contact sheets. There is an interactive screen that compares the same locations in Haar’s photographs with their current state, and a video running on a loop taken from Haar’s film footage.
The exhibit gives us a slice of life of a particularly colorful section of Honolulu taken from recent memory. Many of us, even myself, were alive back then, in various degrees of aging, certainly. Anyone who wandered through the Chinatown area in that period will immediately recognize the ambience, architecture and street life in the photographs, and will wonder, “Was that so long ago? Have things changed so much?” “Have some things changed so little?” I overheard a gallery-goer exclaim that she recognized a street and a building in some of the photographs, which elicited those golden memories of when she was young.
Haar practiced a style of photography called “street photography” in which the photographer wanders through an urban landscape and documents the teeming humanity interacting with the built environment. This photo style may have been developed in the 1920s by Gyula Halasz, known as Brassai. Brassai photographed the nightlife of Paris, the “City of Lights,” but he avoided photographing the rich and famous. Instead, like the painter Tolouse-Lautrec, he preferred to memorialize the poor people, the common people who frequented the bars and dance halls, the unscrubbed workers, the prostitutes, day laborers, the entertainers.
Haar, who was originally from Hungary, lived in Paris, the adoptive home of Brassai, and then in Japan and Chicago, eventually settling in Hawai‘i, where he taught photography at UH Mänoa until 1985. He worked professionally as a studio photographer and was a street photographer on the side.
Most of the photographs are black and white prints taken with Haar’s Mamiya C330 twin-lens reflex camera, a rectangular-shaped boxy film camera, which is on display, as well. For a photo buff like me, the sight of an old film camera like it prompts the same excitement that car lovers may have when seeing a rebuilt older model automobile on the road. Anyway, the prints are masterful lessons in the art of street photography, showing the eccentric architecture of that era’s Chinatown and the people going about their lives. Just as it is now, many of the human subjects living in Chinatown are first-generation immigrant laborers living spare lives, or lower income family members scraping together a modest but joyous and even raucous experience. For example, there is a wonderfully lit photo of someone washing clothes in a metal tub, old style. Haar seems to be looking down from the top of a staircase. Surrounding the washerwoman is hung laundry glistening in the sunlight filtering in from outside the building. Another depicts shacks made from recycled lumber leaning on each other, their crooked posts and beams creating a jumble of diagonal lines. The whole edifice looks about ready to fall apart if a leaf were to fall on the roof. There is a shot of a group of musicians singing in a street. And another of a senior citizen squatting down, holding what appears to be a glass of moonshine in his hand.
It’s hard to do candid photographs and capture the ambience of the scene. It is harder still to approach total strangers, ask to take their picture and win their trust. It takes a lot of gumption and social skills to make people trust you on face value. Haar managed to have done that apparently, because many of his photographs are of people close-up, some even taken in their tenement rooms, obviously with their permission.
The result is a loving portrait of a people, a time and a place that is within our own collective memory: Chinatown in the 1960s to 1980s. A time and a place that may have faded away in large part, but is also lingering here and there, for good and bad.
I was never a direct student of Haar, but I must have been influenced by him a very long time ago. When I was a child, my father had bookshelves stuffed with books for his and our own education. There were volumes of an encyclopedia (which I read from A to Z . . . there wasn’t much else to do in my Waialua plantation town other than go to the beach or ride a bicycle down dirt roads), Harvard Classics, Readers Digest books, and assorted odds and ends, including one of my favorites, a large-sized illustrated book of the wild life of Planet Earth. Also tucked among those books was a modest little book of photographs of Japan by Francis Haar. I would often gaze at the photographs, perhaps unconsciously absorbing Haar’s composition and lighting techniques, but also through repetitive gazing, embedding the sights of Japan in my mind. A heavy snowfall on a tiled roof. An elderly woman in kimono, walking on a pavement made of carefully placed rounded stones. The geometrical symmetry of the wooden slats of a window.
When I later spent a year in Kyöto as a student, somehow, out of all the places I had visited, it felt like a second home. Perhaps it wasn’t anything so esoteric as the hereditary echo in my genes of my family’s ancestral country. Perhaps it was just seeing the same visual patterns, buildings and people that Haar had so carefully photographed, which were ingrained in my visual memory as part of my childhood days.
Good art, like good writing or any other outstanding creative work, will do that. It will take you through the artist’s eyes and show you how they see a place, a time, a world. Francis Haar was never my direct teacher and yet, like good artists, he actually did teach me, through his photographs and his slim book of photographs taken in Japan.
“Francis Haar: Disappearing Honolulu,” photographs by the late artist and UH photography instructor are on display through Dec. 6 at the John Young Museum of Art in Krauss Hall (2500 Dole St.) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Fall semester hours are Sunday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m., closed holidays. Admission is free, but there is a fee for campus parking. For more information, visit https://hawaii.edu/johnyoung-museum/.
Wayne Muromoto is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. He teaches digital art and digital photography at Leeward Community College. Wayne also continues to pursue peace through a bowl of tea as a practitioner of Urasenke tea ceremony.