No Vacancy: Gelareh Khoie on Closing Thirtyninehotel

It wasn’t the first gallery in Chinatown, but it was one of the most affecting and enduring. Thirtyninehotel opened in 2004 when there wasn’t much else on Hotel Street but a “colorful array of drug addicts, dealers, and prostitutes,” owner Gelareh Khoie told us over the phone. “We called it Meth Mondays, it was pretty funny.” Needless to say, Hotel Street, and the rest of Chinatown, is quite different now—you can still find some shuttered windows here and there, but they’re outnumbered by art galleries, boutiques, and thriving nightlife. Certainly, thirtyninehotel played a huge part in this evolution. It was at the front end of the Chinatown renaissance, a multimedia space focusing on live disco music—Khoie loves her some disco—with good sound delivery that doubled as a gallery for local contemporary artists and fashion shows. Thirtynine’s monthly music showcase Kaleidoscope gave many local bands their start, as did the many themed dance nights for DJs. Since late 2013, rumors have been going around that Khoie would close the spot for New York, and she made it official by announcing her decision today on Facebook. There’s no official word yet on what replacement business will go up at 39 N. Hotel St. Below is an edited interview with Khoie.

“Thirtyninehotel as we know it is finished. We closed the doors on Saturday night and that was our last night. Somebody else will take over the space, and I think it will be a bar, but I don’t really know. I think it’s going to be a bar.

“It feels good, you know. I’ve been sort of preparing for this for a while. I’ve sort of known that the end is coming for three months, but specifically, our lease is over on Jan. 31 and our landlady gave us a deadline to finish a renovation project. We had been working on getting that renovation project off the ground for a while; we’d been working with Department of Planning and Permitting to get all the permits in order—the DPT said we needed to put sprinklers in there in order to be legal, but the sprinkler system was going to cost $70,000. My mom and I didn’t really feel that comfortable spending that much on sprinklers, which was two-thirds of our renovation budget. It became untenable. The landlady would have been happier to offer us a longer lease if we decided to go forward with the project, but it was like a lot of things happened simultaneously. I’ve been feeling bored and uninspired, just not really 100 percent committed. It’s been 10 years and I’ve come to the end of the whole thing, accomplished what I set out to achieve. At this point, I feel like I’m repeating myself creatively. As an artist, you know it’s always tricky for artists. You start to feel bored and uninspired with what you’re doing.

“My dad decided to sell our house in Kahala during the summer, so that was sort of the first big thing that happened. Then we got the news of the sprinkler system, and it felt like an aggressive wind of change blowing in my hair. Initially, I had a bit of resistance to it—that’s natural when changes come. It can be a bit scary. It’s interesting, too because right around this time my best friend called me from LA and said she wasn’t really happy in her career either, said maybe it was time to go back to school to get our Masters degrees. So suddenly it was like, let’s move to New York. Let’s start a new life, try something new. It all happened as one big change of perspective.

“Between Timo, Christain Self, and Mark Chittom, all of whom are a part of my management team, Mark started feeling antsy, too, and when Christian and Timo branched out and got their own space—Bevy, in Kakaako—I felt like my inner family got out and moved on. I felt like maybe it was time for me to do the same.

“My passion was to create a space for artists, musicians, dancers, and collaborators to create an open and welcoming space for good parties and good sounds, camaraderie and friendship, creative expression and fulfillment. A space that wasn’t just mine, it would have been everybody’s. A community space for the people who want to do things that are less commercial. People with visions and ideas. So I wanted to be a facilitator for other people’s artistic dreams. I think I achieved that. I didn’t set out to populate Hotel Street; that was just a fortuitous circumstance. I never expected it, because when we moved in there was nobody anywhere. You’d have people on their cell phone going, Where is this place? I want to get off the street. As Chinatown evolved, we were happy and privileged to be a part of that transformation. But in terms of the creative vision for thirtyninehotel, it was to be a place of artistic expression. And I hope that people will agree that we sort of demanded a higher level of commitment. We didn’t just go to the status quo.

“I’m taking the concept to New York, but I’m not going to have a license to sell alcohol. I’m not going to do that again. I’m going to use the new space in New York as part of my graduate studies. Hopefully! If I get accepted, I’m hoping to offer the space to my fellow students as a sort of interdisciplinary project space, and continue with the disco maybe every other week. It’s going to be more of quintessential version of thirtynine. I’ll get rid of the stuff that I didn’t always really believe in. I mean, I loved the bar and everything, but that was more of Christian’s thing, the high-quality cocktails.

“We are moving to Hudson Valley because it’s a little bit outside of New York, about 40 minutes away. My mom and I are going to set up our home base there. I’m going to need to get out of the city on a regular basis. I don’t want to lose my peaceful feeling, my inner peace that I have in Hawaii. Once we set up a home there for ourselves, once school starts, I’ll be moving probably to Brooklyn with my best friend, Maryam. She’s my best friend since I was in Iran, since I was a kid. I applied to Pratt, Columbia, and Bard, and I find out if I’m accepted in about a month. I’ll be a going for Master of fine arts in painting.

“One of the reasons we’re getting there so early is so I can start getting settled. With Hotel, it took me four years to sort of discover it, the actual space itself. It was a long journey from when I started as a local artist in town, just throwing local art parties here and there. The space itself is perfect for my vision, so what I’m hoping is I’ll search and search all over both Manhattan and Brooklyn and see if we can’t find the perfect space that calls my name. My goal is to have it up and running by September, but you know, I don’t know how 100 percent, yet. It’s a matter of—when I started thirtynine, it just happened really easily, like it was just meant to be. I have a feeling with this new place like it’s calling me. If my intuition is correct, it should be relatively simple and I’ll probably find the perfect space. I’m setting myself the goal of September.

“I love Hawaii; I don’t ever want it not to be a part of my life. I’ve spent 18 years here and it’s the longest I’ve been anywhere. It’s a part of who we are now. We’ll be visiting regularly. And I hope to keep my ties with some of the DJs, promotors, and artists—I always wanted to build a more sturdy bridge between the arts in Hawaii and the mainland, so I think that by having a space there it’s really going to let me showcase what Hawaii has to offer in New York. I’ll keep our Facebook page and do updates and stuff on there to keep everybody in Hawaii abreast of our progress.”

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