What exactly is a night market experience supposed to be like?
For me the most important element is the crowd. There has to be an uncomfortably large number of people jammed into what seems like an open space. Charm City Night Market fit the bill perfectly.
In an area of the city that most people have never visited, a forgotten Chinatown exists — a holy site for a new wave of young Asian Americans to rekindle the flame that used to light the streets with firecrackers, tea shops and dragon dances. They call themselves The Chinatown Collective.
It’s almost too easy for me to spend hours studying in the library, deaf to all other concerns around me. As a good Asian son, I’ve been taught to earn my good grades and climb the social ladder against all odds. I strived to decorate myself during my early academic career with advanced science classes and math competition trophies. It’s easy to not care about your Asian-American identity and to believe wholeheartedly in meritocratic achievement or personal enjoyment.
I think my story resonates with most Asian Americans, many of whom have similar stories. So why organize a night market? Why go against everything our parents taught us and draw attention to a part of Baltimore that was left behind?
Stephanie Hsu, the head organizer of the Charm City Night Market, discussed the cultural significance of the Night Market with The News-Letter.
“It’s about visibility. In a town so normalized to black-white race relations, no one ever talks about the Asians, despite them being there,” Hsu said.
She went on to explain to me that The Collective is serendipitously caught in this wave of Asian-American representation, with Netflix’s Master of None, Wong Fu Productions’s Yappie and, of course, the Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians.
Marisa Dobson, another member of the Chinatown Collective, mentioned that the mission is not only to fight for Asian-American representation in society, but also to create an inclusive environment where people can learn about and interact with cultures unfamiliar to them.
The Thursday evening before the Night Market, I ventured into Pigtown — a neighborhood unknown to many Hopkins students — to attend the sneak peek fundraiser that was held at the Suspended Brewing Company.
People seemed to be surprised to see someone like me there — a student journalist perhaps lost in a bad part of town. Two days before the Night Market itself, the organizers still felt like their idea was a fringe concept, and there was a nervous air in the room despite how well the preview was going.
Hsu elaborated on the hurdles faced in planning the Night Market.
“We are all in different industries, and we all reached our arms into our connections, trying to throw something together. We have no proof of concept, and we have no idea how our grassroots funded idea is going to turn out,” Hsu said.
Early in the planning stages, Hsu went to the Maryland Historical Society and extensively researched the history of the Asian presence in Baltimore, digging up a few gems from a forgotten community.
She unearthed an article from 1968 published by The Baltimore Sun titled “Baltimore’s Chinatown,” and another from 1977, also published in the Sun, titled “The ethnic group nobody ever talks about.” The latter article discussed some of the racial issues relating to Chinese Americans that most of us view as a new, modern-day topic of interest.
“If that was Baltimore 60 years ago, and no one talks about it today, what will it be like 60 years from now? We have a chance right now to forge a new future and change the meaning of being Asian American,” Hsu said.
As I learned more about the Night Market, I couldn’t help but ask: Who are the members of The Chinatown Collective?
“We’re just a group of friends who want to throw an awesome party, and hopefully people will walk away having learned something new in a fun and exciting way,” Hsu said.
4 p.m. Saturday came around faster than I expected. By the time I showed up, the entire block was filled to the brim with an incredibly diverse. Walking up Park Avenue, I could hear Chinese and English in one ear and Tagalog and Korean in the other.
Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly dealt out servings of their delicious pork belly sisig like they were old ladies playing mahjong. Sisig is a Filipino dish made with headcheese (the flesh of the pig’s head) and, in this case, pork belly. I saw people who would likely never have tried such a dish queue up after consulting the experts at the front of the line.
Like Hsu said, it wasn’t about Asian exclusivity either. On the same street as Thai Street and Ekiben were Mexican On The Run and White Envelope.
The VIP lounge included food from Kaliwa, a Washington D.C.-based restaurant recently named to the Michelin Bib Gourmand list. Drinks were served by Alex from Ida B’s Table and Gina from Wit & Wisdom, sponsored by Suntory Whisky.
I ran into students who I had encouaged to attend the event, Asian Americans from outside the city and Baltimorean city-dwellers.
As the event began to wrap up, vendors swept by, asking whether they could have a booth for next year. Attendees asked whether it could happen yearly or even monthly. The members were overwhelmed by the smashing success the event turned out to be, and I thought back to two days ago when everything was so uncertain. Onstage, Grayson Moon sang a cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and finished strong with the crowd cheering him on into the night.
After their victorious bout Saturday night, The Collective faces a new set of concerns: What will the next one look like? How will it be better than this one? Where and when will it be held?
These details have yet to be hashed out, and there is still uncertainty about the future. But the fact remains: The triumph here in the historic Chinatown of the city has started a momentum of shared experiences, and the Asian-American presence will not be ignored.