WHERE is America's oldest Chinatown? New York? San Francisco? Wrong. It's in Honolulu. And quite possibly this is also the world's best organised Chinatown, for it has recently set up a visitor centre which doubles as an educational and a tourist attraction. The centre's manager, Cheryl Tok, says that Chinatown is the only designated historic district in Honolulu. Located in Maunakea Marketplace, and designed like a turn-of-the-century Chinese store, the centre hands out maps and videos, and supplies visitorswith cassette tapes and players for their self-guided tours around the 15-block area. ''We present actual voices of people who live and work in Chinatown, and integrate them with historical characterisations.'' said Ms Tok. ''For instance, there is a Mark Twain description of what he saw in Chinatown in 1866, and a cook talking about what it's like there today.'' The founding of Honolulu's Chinatown goes back to 1788, when a number of Chinese sailors working the sandalwood run jumped ship. Immigration began in earnest in 1852, when Chinese began to arrive to work the plantations. Eventually, many left the fields to open their own businesses, and Chinatown grew up on a 10-hectare area on the bank of the Nuuanu Stream. The district has twice been razed to the ground by fire - the first time accidently when a cooking fire destroyed eight blocks, the second time when buildings were deliberately torched to halt the advance of the bubonic plague. The blaze, however, ran outof control and burned for 17 days. For the interested visitor, history and literature go side by side in Chinatown with the fragrance of incense and the movie theatres showing Hong Kong-made Golden Harvest productions. Dr Sun Yat Sen founded his original revolutionary movement here. Dr Sun had been a student in Hawaii in the 1870s, before returning to Hong Kong to complete his medical studies. After the defeat of China by the Japanese in 1895, Sun became convinced that the Manchu Dynasty had to be overthrown. Back in Honolulu he worked through secret societies and with overseas Chinese to launch what later became the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, which in turn led to the founding of the Republic of China in 1911. A statue of Dr Sun now stands by the river. Another famous real-life Chinatown figure was a detective named Chang Apana, who inspired author Earl Derr Biggers to create the 1920s character Charlie Chan. Equipped with one of the visitor centre cassette tapes and maps, a walk through the sunny streets takes a pleasant three hours. Starting from the river end, there is the last wooden building of its kind in Chinatown, the Wong Building. Dating from 1905, it is now a popular snooker hall. Nearby is Oahu Market, with its piles of exotic fruits and vegetables, and Fook Sau Ton, a herbal shop which stocks more than 1,000 kinds of plants, twigs, bark, roots, fungi, snake skin and bones. Hotel Street was, and remains, notorious. In the late 1800s this had become a raucous area of bars and legal brothels, and for many years sailors from nearby Pearl Harbour decanted into its honky-tonks by the bus-load. Considerably less frenetic these days, Hotel Street still has a number of sleazy bars and peepshows. But the main attraction now in Chinatown are the restaurants. New ones are opening all the time, but there can also be found Honolulu's oldest restaurant,Wo Fat, an unmistakable pagoda-roofed structure on the corner of Hotel and Maunakea. Originally founded in 1882, it fell victim to both the great fires. The present building dates from 1937. It seats 850 people, is a favourite venue for weddings and banquets, and has a fascinating collection of old photographs. There are some who say that Chinatown is becoming downright trendy these days. In Nuuanu Street's Ramsay Cafe, couples savour champagne and caviar while conversing over chess. Upscale galleries such as the Bakkus, Buntyn and Gateway operate out of renovated buildings. Famed island artist Pegge Hopper has a Nuuanu Avenue loft, and Honolulu photographer William Waterfall sells objects d'art out of a bluestone structure dating back to the turn of the century. Although surrounded by the glass and chrome towers of Honolulu's business district, Chinatown still has an antique quality and a charm which will never be lost - that is unless someone burns it down again.