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With art, restaurants and new businesses, Towson celebrates Asian heritage

Ping Wu, the owner of Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro, at her restaurant in Towson.
Ping Wu, the owner of Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro, at her restaurant in Towson. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Ping Wu has lived in Towson for nearly two decades, but didn’t open her new restaurant, Red Pepper Sichuan Bistro, a spot on Allegheny Avenue until mid-2019. So when Chinese New Year rolled around in late January this year, she was excited to be able to celebrate with the community.

Wu said customers came in all weekend — Chinese New Year fell on Jan. 25, a Saturday — and would wish each other a happy Chinese New Year.

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“I appreciate it,” Wu said. “They celebrated with us.”

Red Pepper’s notoriety is coming from its authenticity; the food is prepared traditionally and the menu does not focus on Americanized favorites, like orange chicken, but rather authentic meals prepared by head chef ZeXin Zheng, who is from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Wu said she’s glad to be communing with the people who live and work in the Towson area.

Red Pepper, in fact, has been held up as a model by some who are seeking to strengthen connections between the Asian and Asian-American communities in Towson and the broader downtown area via art galleries, restaurants and other cultural experiences.

Dave Riley, co-chair of the Towson Creative Partnership, is helping to lead an effort to celebrate Lunar New Year in Towson with food tours and art shows. This year is the first time Riley and the partnership have tried to organize something around the Lunar New Year (different Asian countries celebrate Lunar New Year on different dates), an effort that he said will continue.

Towson is the perfect place to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Riley said, because of all the Asian restaurants and businesses already in the area.

There’s the new Den Da Coffee on West Pennsylvania, and Brown Rice Korean Grill and New Generation Hot Pot, both on York Road, as well as old favorites like Towson Best (serving cheap Chinese fare) and Kyodai (a rotating sushi bar). There’s also Aloha Nails 29 (a salon), Thai One On, Kung Fu Tea, Sushi Hana and more, all “basically in a three block area,” Riley said.

There’s also the art gallery/tattoo shop, Triple Crown Tattoo, which hosts a private art collection of Asian and Asian-inspired art, and the Asian Arts & Culture Center on the Towson University campus which is gearing up to mark its 50th anniversary in 2021. The center operates as a nonprofit and has a collection of about 600 items, including artwork and historical artifacts. The center regularly holds events and hosts artists.

“I am truly impressed with all [the center] has done over the years, and how its original mission and work are still relevant and meaningful today,” Joanna Pecore, who has been director of the center for about five and a half years, said in an email. “There is still a need for people of diverse cultures to connect with and learn about one another. I think the arts are the best way to do this.”

Year of the Rat

Several Asian and southeast Asian cultures observe a Lunar New Year, and many are based on, or influenced by, Chinese New Year, one of the most important holidays in China.

And, in the Chinese zodiac system, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. Already around downtown Towson, posters are cropping up that celebrate that theme, with a design from Julie Fallone, a local graphic artist.

The same design is on T-shirts that are being sold by the Knollwood Association in Towson; proceeds from the shirt sale will go to the Asian Arts & Culture Center.

In addition to the T-shirts, a number of events are planned in Towson to celebrate the Lunar New Year and Asian culture, year-round, and recognize Baltimore County’s Asian community, which makes up about 5% of the total population, according to the latest census data provided by the county.

For one, Riley said he is working with the Towson Town Center mall to locate wall space in the building that could have a mural painted on it to celebrate the Year of the Rat.

Emily Brophy, the general manager of the mall and herself an Asian American, said the idea for the mall is “a thought, a call for artists” to see how a mural might look.

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Brophy said she likes the idea, which she said is a “great way to celebrate the diversity in the area,” but it’s in the early stages. She said it could go on the first floor of the mall, near the Brass Tap, which would give it high visibility.

On Feb. 22, two local Vietnamese eateries — The Bun Shop and Den Da Coffee — will be featured on a walking food and culture tour, hosted by the Asian Arts & Culture Center. The tour will showcase off-menu options to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese new year. Tickets are on sale online.

Triple Crown Tattoo, located on York Road, and the Asian Art & Culture Center are working to create a gallery, to be hosted in Triple Crown, that will focus on tiger-themed Asian art. The artwork will come from Triple Crown’s and the center’s collections. Tiger themed because of Towson University’s mascot, Doc the Tiger.

The two groups are also exploring the idea of hosting a joint tattoo exhibit during the summer months.

Riley said having Asian cultural experiences in downtown Towson is something he’d like to see continue to grow and develop year over year.

“It would be great economically, and culturally for Towson if we let this build and in two or three years, people say, ‘Hey you know what, it’s Lunar New Year, so I’m going to Towson,’” Riley said. “It becomes like the thing to do, it becomes a local tradition.”

Living in Towson

Maggie Yang, 26, knew she wanted to start an authentic Chinese massage business a few years ago when she was living in New York City. But something about the area didn’t seem right; there were too many shops advertising massages that weren’t authentic, she said, so she tried Towson.

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“I chose Towson, and I feel the difference,” Yang said. “I think people are so nice here, they’re so friendly compared to New Yorkers. I think there are a lot of students here ... It’s sort of a dream place for this business.”

Yang’s business, Paradise Spa in the Towson Town Center, opened about three years ago. Yang said she’s glad to be involved in the Towson community.

She said she sees it as “an opportunity to help more people, and to show more people how good authentic massage can be.” Showing people the benefits of an authentic massage can help them gain a wider appreciation for Chinese culture, Yang said, and she definitely sees Towson as a place that is becoming more and more accepting of Asian culture.

“I’m happy to be part of it,” she said.

Red Pepper’s Wu has owned another Chinese joint — Orient Express, in Charles Village — for decades. But that menu is more Americanized, she said, and often only international students from nearby Johns Hopkins would order traditional or authentic foods.

“Now [at Red Pepper], we have a lot of American customers, and they’re eating traditional Chinese food,” Wu said. “That’s new, [and] I’m very proud.”

In the future, she wants to have small classes at Red Pepper, or think of other ways to educate visitors and customers about traditional Sichuan culture and food.

“I hope more people want [to learn] about real Chinese food, real Chinese culture,” she said.

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