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The 'where' of Chinatown

The Baltimore Sun

An elderly man with thick glasses lugs a bag of sweet rice from a grocery store onto a rundown street. In a nearby building, a faded dragon's head grimaces in a hallway hung with yellowed photos. Across the street, a painted wall advertises "family dinners served all hours" at the long-gone China Inn.

These are among the few remaining vestiges of the city's Chinatown, a Park Avenue block that once had bustling restaurants, stores and meeting halls, as well as exuberant Lunar New Year's parades.

"People come in and ask me directions to Chinatown," says Sharon Tan, who with her husband owns the West Baltimore block's lone Chinese restaurant, the Chinatown Cafe. "I say, 'I don't think there is a Chinatown.'"

Now a pair of restaurateurs is looking to start a new Chinatown more than a mile north, near the intersection of Charles Street and North Avenue in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Their effort has sparked a debate over the best way to celebrate the city's Chinese heritage: revitalize the old Chinatown or start anew?

Tony Cheng, the owner of two Washington restaurants that bear his name, and his son have purchased about 10 properties in the area and started the MVP bus service, which offers $35 round-trip fares from Charles Street to New York's Penn Station.

"The neighborhood needs a little boost, and my father is trying to make it happen," says Anthony Cheng Jr., adding that he and his father are looking to attract Asian-American entrepreneurs to the area, already home to many Korean-owned businesses.

The Chengs would like to see an Asian grocery store, an upscale Chinese restaurant and some galleries open in their properties, he says. They hope the neighborhood would attract shoppers and tourists, like a smaller version of the vibrant Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco.

Members of Baltimore's Chinese-American community question whether Chinatown can be relocated - though they have nearly given up hope that the old neighborhood will ever be revitalized.

"It's not going to have the same feeling as if it stayed on Park Avenue," says Katherine "Kitty" Chin, 81, who once ran a Chinese cooking school and gourmet store on the block. "There's so much history there."

Starting in the 1970s, her husband, Calvin Chin, a leader of the Chinese-American community, sought funding to revitalize the old neighborhood with a $20 million Asian cultural center, a museum, language school and senior center. He campaigned tirelessly for the project and sent The Sun information about Chinatown just days before he died last month.

"That was his whole dream," his wife said.

But Chin was never able to secure funding for the project. Meanwhile, the old Chinatown began to dissolve as the first waves of immigrants died and their children and grandchildren moved out of the city and let go of the old traditions.

Recent immigrants and students from China, who generally speak Mandarin, unlike the older generation who speak Cantonese, rarely visit the 300 block of Park Ave., except perhaps to pick up tea and noodles at the Potung Trading store.

"I don't think [the new Chinatown plan] is going to work because Chinese people are not concentrated in the city," says Jerry Tsang, the store owner.

On a shelf in the doorway of the store stands a statue of a warrior brandishing a sword. The warrior, Tsang explains with a chuckle, is there "to keep evil out."

Inside, the shelves are stacked with cans of soursop nectar and white lychee fruit, boxes of milk tea, jars of lotus nut paste and packages of something lacy and bone-colored labeled "dried white fungus." Handmade dumplings, whole fish and sweets including a "Winter Melon Cake" pack the freezers, and a glass case holds brightly colored packages of medicines and herbs with exotic names such as Angelica and Sea Coconut.

When Tsang opened his store in 1990 - he was attending Glen Burnie High School then - most customers were of Chinese descent. These days they make up only a small part of his business.

Most days, his wife, Ying-Hua Wu, who is eight months pregnant with their second child, works beside him. Sometimes, his parents help for a few days.

Standing beside his mother, Tsang slices the tips off creamy white stalks from bok choy cabbages and tucks the dark green leaves into bags. "I'm not going to let my children do this," he says. "It's a hard job."

Tsang chats with Jieshou Liu, a slightly stooped retired chemist who has come in for a bag of sweet rice to make into rice wine.

Liu, 72, who moved to this country in the 1980s, lives around the corner in an apartment building for seniors, but he yearns for more connections with Chinese culture. He can't find books in his native language in stores or the library and spends much of his free time watching Chinese television over the Internet.

Once the city's Chinese-American community was much more cohesive - partly because racism isolated them from other ethnic groups.

The first immigrants from China moved to Baltimore in the late 1800s. Many of them had originally landed on the West Coast to work on the railroad but fled east to escape anti-Chinese sentiment.

Here, they discovered that one section of the city already bore a Chinese name. John O'Donnell, a former sailor, named his large East Baltimore plantation Canton in honor of the Chinese port city.

The city's first Chinatown centered around Marion Street, near the current location of Lexington Market. Immigrants opened laundries, restaurants, import stores, gambling parlors and joss houses - small temples - in the neighborhood, according to the History of Chinese Americans in Baltimore, a 1976 book by Leslie Chin.

The first Chinese-Americans were mostly bachelors because harsh federal immigration laws prevented them from bringing a wife to this country or marrying an American citizen, says Taunya Lovell Banks, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who led a project to preserve the history of Baltimore's Chinatown.

"One wonders what Baltimore would have looked like without these immigration laws," Banks says. "It would have been a much more ethnically diverse city."

One of the early Chinese residents of Baltimore was Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary and Nationalist who briefly headed China's first republic in the early 20th century. For several months in 1902, he organized his supporters across the globe from an office on Marion Street, according to a history compiled by Banks' students.

The buildings on Marion Street were demolished to make way for a department store, and Chinatown moved a few blocks north to its current Park Avenue location.

Restaurants that would become landmarks, such as the White Rice Inn and the China Inn, later called the China Doll, opened. Five of the founding families formed associations to help bring over relatives. Civic organizations were formed, some of which still have offices on the block, such as the Chinese Free Masons and the Om Leong Chinese Merchants Association.

Inside the Om Leong offices, a high staircase leads to a hallway lined with faded photos of banquets and award ceremonies. A hand-made dragon head sits on a small table, neon pink tongue lolling from its mouth, crazed eyes facing a blank wall.

In a meeting room, bottles of wine and blackened sticks of incense sit in front of an altar with gilded carvings of birds, fruit and bees as large as a woman's hand. On the wall hangs an embroidery of a lion roaring by the bank of a lake, the stitches so delicate it appears, from a distance, to be a watercolor painting.

Membership in the association has dwindled, Tsang says, but a new young leader is trying to energize the group.

Asian-inspired door grates and shiny awnings meant to mimic bamboo decorate several buildings on the block, the result of a facade-improvement grant from the Downtown Partnership, says Kirby Fowler, the group's director.

Yet Fowler says that the plan to create a new Chinatown in the Station North area might be more successful than trying to reinvigorate the old neighborhood.

"Given what's going on in Station North these days, I think a new Chinatown up there would be a better bet," he says.

Many recent arrivals of Chinese descent say they don't feel a connection to the old Park Avenue neighborhood.

Xiao Zhu, the president of UMB's Chinese students association, says that new immigrants tend to meet at Chinese churches or through school groups. He calls the idea of a new Chinatown "brilliant."

"I think if there was a Chinatown in downtown Baltimore, it would feel much closer to home."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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