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Origami cranes on display for the Joy Luck Club experience at the 2018 Charm City Night Market.
Origami cranes on display for the Joy Luck Club experience at the 2018 Charm City Night Market. (Joe Portugal)

If you’re not one of the thousands of people who packed Downtown Baltimore for last year’s Charm City Night Market, then you missed a tour de force of delectable eats and compelling arts and music. But more importantly, you didn’t get to learn about and a unique window into the region’s dynamic yet largely overlooked Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Welp, now you’ll never know ... Just kidding! You’ll get another chance on Saturday, when the Charm City Night Market returns with a takio drum’s bang.

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No matter your enthusiasm, don’t head into the fray before you read these answers to questions you didn’t think to ask because you were dreaming about food like this:

Traditional pork BBQ skewers from Kuya Ja in Rockville, Maryland, at the 2018 Charm City Night Market.
Traditional pork BBQ skewers from Kuya Ja in Rockville, Maryland, at the 2018 Charm City Night Market. (Jennifer Hausner)

Yummmmm, meats...

Ahem, didn’t you have some questions?

Oh yeah, my bad. Well, what exactly is the Charm City Night Market?

The Charm City Night Market is an open-air festival that celebrates Greater Baltimore’s APIA communities.

API-what?

That’s an acronym for Asian Pacific Islander American. The designation, as well as similar ones like Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Asian Pacific American (APA), broadly refer to United States and other North American countries’ citizens who trace their ancestry to Asia and the Pacific Islands. The U.S. Census Bureau includes countries as disparate as China, Pakistan, Japan and Vietnam within its definition of “Asian." People native to Hawaii, Guam, Micronesia and other lands between Asia and the Americas generally fit under “Pacific Islander.”

Interesting. I didn’t know Baltimore had a significant APIA population. I mean, so many conversations around race in Baltimore revolves around black and white.

Right, and with good reason: most Baltimore city residents are black or white. Same with the surrounding counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

But these perceptions overlook how other factors, like immigration and economic shifts, altered the way this city, area and state looks. Maryland is home to more than 400,000 APIAs, according to the Governor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.

In the city, which is 2.6 percent Asian American, APIA millennials’ population percentage grew in recent years as Baltimore shrank overall. Several members of this cohort formed the Chinatown Collective, the group that created the night market.

What’s the Chinatown Collective’s deal?

They’re a group of eight to 10 volunteers collective member Stephanie Hsu said—that organized last year’s Night Market and other prior pop-up events. Despite its name, the group’s members represent various APIA backgrounds.

“Before Night Market, [the collective] was more just about creating the platform, and creating visibility, centering in historic Chinatown," said Hsu, a Taiwanese American who grew up in Ohio.

Back up: there’s a historic Chinatown in Baltimore?

While not as famous as those in San Francisco or Manhattan, Baltimore’s historic Chinatown flourished around the 200 block of Park Avenue for more than a century. Walk down Park Avenue today and you’ll see the old China Doll restaurant’s facade, buildings with Chinese characters and other signs of a time when Chinese immigrants needed enclaves to survive. The area now boats a significant Ethiopian community, and a mural on the 400 block that honors both generations of immigrants.

(Last week, the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation rejected the collective’s proposal for D.C.-based No Kings Collective to paint a free APIA-focused mural before this festival, citing building stability and lack of proposal. “If we can get an approved by the CHAP board at subsequent hearings, where we’d have the design, then No Kings is willing to do it for next year,” Leandro Lagera, a Filipino-Canadian member of the collective, said.).

Now, as APIA stories enjoy more visibility than ever before, the Chinatown Collective wants to channel the historic Chinatown’s narrative into a more inclusive future. Hsu added that the collective took inspiration from Katherine “Kitty” Chin and her late husband Calvin, both major community leaders in Baltimore’s Chinatown who saw its future “as a pan-Asian community.”

“If you look at the population of Baltimore city, and even within our own planning committee—Taiwanese, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Sri Lankan...there’s a growing consensus that there’s something strong and powerful in sharing the similarities we hold," Hsu said.

So what’s that mean for this year?

The Charm City Night Market’s format shares similarities with marketplaces throughout Asian cities: it’s free to enter the grounds, which feature around 40 food vendors (including the region’s premiere Asian restaurants), 30 artists and creators’ booths and 13 music and dance performances. Here’s an inkling of what you should experience:

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-The fittingly-titled Joy Luck Club Experience, which offers curated festival goods in a special VIP section. Named for the seminal novel and film, the experience includes food from the likes of Filipino Sarap Sarap and D.C.'s Rooted and Bloomed Hawaiian cuisine; activities like mahjong and henna body art; and cooking classes from the acclaimed Chef Seng of Thip Kao.

- The sheer variety of food options in the actual marketplace, which organizers grew from last year to incorporate everything from Ekiben to Moffle Bar, Maketto to Chuck’s Trading Post

- An expanded artists & makers section featuring works for sale from innovative APIA creators like Kimchi Juice (yup, that’s her moniker)

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- A new children’s section with dancing, children’s author readings and more

- Two stages of live music and dance, headlined by the dexterous Bay Area rapper and poet Ruby Ibarra

Well I definitely don’t want to miss any of this. When and where does it all go down?

Nearly double the size of last year, this year’s market coalesces around the 200 block of Park Avenue and stretches east to One Charles Center (100 block of Charles Street). It takes place Saturday from 3-11 p.m. RSVP or purchase VIP tickets at Eventbrite.com, and visit the Facebook event for a full schedule of performers.

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