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The baker in front of his shop
Image: Courtesy Otto Cake

Chinatown No Piece of Cake

Otto Cake locks doors, still baking

Otto Cake is open. But the door is locked. And the front windows spell out a single word in bright red, rough-edged letters: “H-E-L-P.”

Customers now have to call ahead or knock for admittance at the popular Chinatown cheesecake shop because of a Feb. 29 confrontation with an alleged drug dealer outside the shop at 1160 Smith St., which left the baker-owner rattled, bleeding and almost arrested.

Inciting incident

The Honolulu Police Department (HPD) cautions that it is dangerous for members of the public to confront people who are suspected of engaging in criminal activity. They should call 911 instead. But, in his frustration, Otto (who uses but one name and doesn’t share his age) disregards this advice.

In an interview with The Weekly, Otto was unfailingly polite, soft-spoken and even good-humored, sounding completely unlike a guy who would provoke an attack.

On the day of the incident, Otto saw a man trade “a small packet” for cash one door down from his shop. Otto says the man saw him watching and began yelling. “You’re yelling at me because I saw what you did,” Otto answered incredulously. At which point, Otto later told police, the man punched him and began choking him. “I had to fake passing out to get away from him,” the baker says.

He ran into his shop to call the police, who questioned those in the street, before telling Otto he was the one under arrest. “They said everyone outside was saying I attacked the guy,” he says.

Officers had read him his rights and were pulling out the handcuffs when another officer came in to say the man in the street had decided not to press charges. “Then I want to press charges,” responded Otto.

Tales of too much

Otto’s stories of life on Smith Street pour out: Last September, one of his employees was attacked. One time, a little girl sitting at a window table interrupted her mother’s conversation with Otto: “Mommy, I can see that guy’s peepee,” as a man urinated on the sidewalk.

A big hub of activity is–ironically–the Christian TV station next door, Trinity Broadcasting Network. Several factors have made it a draw for the homeless and those involved in illegal activity: a wide, shadowy doorway; the fact that the TV studio is upstairs and the lobby downstairs is empty with no one to observe what’s going on; and a no-parking zone right outside is available to customers who can pull in for a quick deal. “It’s like a drive-through drugstore,” Otto says.

Otto knew the area was “a little rough,” when he opened Otto Cake in 2009. “Everyone knows,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, well. That’s Chinatown.’ I’m sick of it. I’m sick of having to say that.”

A Blind eye

So he’s saying something else instead; he’s telling people what he’s seen, including Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, to whom he addressed a multi-page open letter last week. But Otto says no one seems to want to talk much about it, including merchants at a recent meeting where police representatives were among those discussing how to improve First Fridays.

He also tells offenders that he’s paying attention. “I try to get them to move away, to stop what they’re doing,” he said. “I try to be polite about it but I want it to stop.” He has called the police several times.

While declining to comment on Otto’s specific case or any other incident, HPD issued this statement: “The Honolulu Police Department is aware of the problems in Chinatown, and we are working hard to provide a safe environment. We have increased foot patrols and are continually working with the HPD Narcotics/Vice Division and plainclothes unit to generate drug investigations in Chinatown.”

About half Otto’s customers are visitors who have seen him on the in-room hotel channels or read about him in travel guides. “I feel like I’m baiting these people, bringing them down here but not telling them what could happen,” he says.

He says, not facetiously, authorities ought to do one thing or another: Enforce the law or publicize the fact that they’re not able to do so, broadcast warnings.

“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Otto says hopefully, “but everybody’s gotta care.”

You can still knock on his door most days between 10am and 5pm or call 834-OTTO for specific hours.