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In Baltimore's forgotten Chinatown, a new festival will celebrate Asian-American history and culture

A once-bustling section of downtown will come alive again Saturday with the Charm City Night Market, a block party celebrating Asian-American and Pacific Islander culture in Baltimore.

That’s the hope, at least, of the Chinatown Collective, a volunteer-run organization of young Baltimoreans that created the first-ever event. Located in the city’s historic Chinatown along Park Avenue downtown, the festival aims to remind attendees of Baltimore’s Asian history and culture while showcasing the work of restaurateurs, artists and vendors, said organizer Marisa Dobson.

“The goal is to bring people around a space and a neighborhood that I feel has been somewhat neglected and forgotten,” Dobson said, “and make it feel alive.”

Scheduled to take place 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the 200 block of Park Ave., the Night Market will feature live performances, both traditional (Samulnori, a group of Korean drum players) and contemporary (the Baltimore Dance Crews Project, a duo of Filipino-American hip-hop dancers, and headlining singer/songwriter Grayson Moon). Local food and drink vendors such as Ekiben and Dooby’s will be on hand, too, as will visual artists, jewelry makers and more.

Coinciding with the Lunar Mid-Autumn Festival, the Night Market was inspired by popular street markets in Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, where visitors stroll, taking in the sights, sounds and foods, Dobson said.

The larger point is to present a minority segment of Baltimore’s population with nuance and pride, Dobson said.

“It does all of us a disservice not to provide space for other expressions of cultural identity,” said Dobson, who is part Japanese.

The Night Market’s concept began with a meeting between Stephanie Hsu of the Chinatown Collective and Katherine Chin, a 90-year-old Timonium resident who spent most of her adult life in Baltimore’s Chinatown.

Born in Washington, Chin moved here in the late 1950s, and went on to teach Chinese cooking classes inside the Chinatown grocery store she owned with her late husband, Calvin Chin. The neighborhood was vibrant then, with restaurants, shops and the offices of the Chinese Merchants Association, she said.

A decade later, though, many Asian-American families started to move to the suburbs, in part because of rising tensions during the civil rights movement, said Chin, who cited the city’s 1968 riot in response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as a turning point. But the Chins stayed, and in the ’80s, they hoped to revitalize and rebrand Chinatown as Asiantown, an inclusive area for residents of all Asian backgrounds, she said. They envisioned a museum, medical center and a colorful pagoda on Park Avenue that would serve as a neighborhood entrance.

For the Chins, the ambitious idea was a way to bring visibility to a population they felt was often overlooked.

“Because in Baltimore City, there’s so many different diverse communities — where are we? Nobody knows where we are,” Chin said. “My husband always said, ‘We have to be recognized, too.’ ”

The Chin family’s dream to revitalize Chinatown resonated with Hsu. She began gathering friends monthly to discuss goals and ideas, including the Night Market. Now, the Collective has eight members — all in their 20s or 30s — of Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese descent.

This generation’s desire to connect to the past doesn’t surprise Karthick Ramakrishnan, University of California, Riverside professor and director of the National Asian American Survey.

In recent years, as Asian-Americans have entered adulthood, they’ve shed an “ambivalent sense of identity during adolescence,” he said. This “more stable sense of self that appreciates aspects of their parents’ generation” mixes with American mores to create a point of view informed by both sensibilities, he said, as seen in the Chinatown Collective’s efforts.

This hybrid of cultural expression has become more visible in U.S. cities as millennials choose to live in high-density areas rather than the suburbs, he said.

“It’s not just about being a bridge between the old and the new, or the parents’ generation and American culture, but the creation of new kinds of culture,” Ramakrishan said. “That’s where you see a lot of excitement.”

From 2000 to 2010, more Asian-Americans moved to Baltimore’s downtown than any other ethnicity — up nearly 350 percent from the previous survey, according to U.S. Census data. (Just outside of Baltimore, strong Asian communities have emerged too, such as in Ellicott City, where dozens of Korean-owned businesses have opened over the past decade on a stretch of Route 40, designated “Korean Way” by state officials.)

Downtown Baltimore, which includes Chinatown, had approximately 1,300 total residents in 2000 and 3,700 in 2010, said Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership, a sponsor of the Night Market. He estimates at least 7,000 living there now.

“This is the fastest-growing neighborhood in the entire city,” Fowler said.

Fowler hopes attendees take notice of the neighborhood and consider its potential for businesses and other uses. Some of the properties where the festival will be held are owned by the city, and incentive programs are available for qualifying business owners, he said.

“Perhaps we can return to that historic Chinatown that we had in the last century,” Fowler said. “But this is a first step, and we’re hoping it’ll be successful.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh said in an email she applauded the Chinatown Collective for putting together Saturday’s event.

“This celebration of music, food, art and culture is an ideal way to bring people together in one of the most historic corridors of Baltimore,” Pugh said.

The timing for the Night Market feels right to Phil Han, too, owner of the Mount Vernon restaurant Dooby’s. These days, some of the country’s most celebrated fine dining restaurants are Asian, the 32-year-old Korean-American said, and consumers of all backgrounds are more willing to engage with ethnic foods and drinks, such as the soju-based cocktail he’ll serve at the Night Market.

“If you tried to do this five or 10 years ago, it wouldn’t be so easily accepted,” Han said. “But I think now you have this younger, millennial audience that’s maybe traveled, or gotten more exposure to the world … and I think it’s great they’re certainly more curious about things than ever before.”

Factor in the smash success of the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” this summer, and it feels like the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community is having a moment, Dobson said. And as U.S. citizens increasingly embrace their cultural identities, there couldn’t be a better time for this wide-ranging community to come together, she said.

“I think Asian-American people might be waking up a little bit to their political power, and to the fact they need to be good allies and activists,” Dobson said.

Despite palpable momentum, Baltimore — whose Chinatown pales in comparison to those of New York, Philadelphia and Washington — has plenty of room for growth in promoting Asian culture and traditions, Han said.

It has to come from “more than just the events — it’s about education and exposure,” Han said.

So the Night Market will showcase more than just food and dance. There will be illustrations by artist Derrick Quevedo on display, along with works inspired by the Filipinx-American experience by Timpla, the sister duo of Katrina and Kristina Villavicencio. Soy candles made by Elizabeth Hecht’s EKOH company and wellness goods by Priya Means Love will be for sale.

“In the first year, we’re not really sure who’s going to show up, so it goes back to inclusivity as our guiding light,” Dobson said. “We wanted lots of different entry points.”

If things go well, the Night Market will become the Chinatown Collective’s premier annual event, with smaller gatherings scheduled throughout the year, Dobson said.

The team behind Ekiben, the Asian fusion restaurant in Fells Point, will be on hand, selling sandwiches and making sure the event’s food program runs smoothly, said co-owner Steve Chu. He said festivals like the Night Market are much needed in the city.

“Hopefully it’s a very educational and eye-opening experience for people in Baltimore,” Chu said. “I’m sure it’s going to be like something they’ve never seen.”


If you go

The Charm City Night Market will take place 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday at 200 Park Ave., downtown. The event is free with online registration. VIP tickets ($45) are available and include access to a lounge. eventbrite.com.


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