I don’t know if you heard but Charm City Night Market was held in what can be called an almost abandoned space in Baltimore this past weekend. There’s hustle and bustle in almost all directions surrounding the space but when you walk through this wide block of downtown on any other weekend besides this past weekend, it’s as if the ghosts of Baltimore have descended on this one block. But, if you took this block out of context, closed your eyes and forgot where you were, the charm and potential of the tree-lined street with its antique replica street lights and a big, green beautiful space, practically sings to you.
This is what I think Stephanie Hsu (@chinadollbaltimore) saw in this space. She also saw the beauty of yesterday when this block was a part of a thriving Chinatown in Baltimore. This image of the hidden beauty of Baltimore transposed with the deep, rich history and tradition of Charm City’s own Chinatown is what sustained her in creating the Night Market. It’s this vision that was translated to us when she enlisted a group of loose friends (ironically enough connected by social media) to help Steph shepherd this project into what it bloomed into on September 22, 2018.
In going through the reactions to the Night Market, I’ve read a lot of commentary regarding how it was something that Baltimore needed, it was something that Baltimore has never seen, it created a space for not only Asians but all people of color to celebrate diversity, it was where a child discovered a place to find butterflies & grasshoppers, and so much more. I’m not equipped to put the Night Market in cultural context or even a Baltimore context. I’ll leave that to other more talented writers than myself (I see you Lisa McCray-Snowden). To me, Night Market is much more personal and a journey taken with seven other people who I now consider a family and while there was eight of us who experienced it from start to finish, our extended family, our Tita’s and Tito’s (who aren’t really your blood Tita’s or Tito’s) number in the dozens and I’ll apologize now if I’ve left anyone out of this post.
FYI, if you haven’t put on Yellow (the Mandarin version) on repeat from the soundtrack of Crazy Rich Asians while you’re reading this, maybe you should…
Fittingly, our first ever official meeting for this was exactly a year before the eve of the NIght Market. I actually met Steph much earlier than that, on the day of Calasag Pop Up’s first Kamayan. She was one of the people enlisted to lay down the food for the communal tables. I don’t actually remember when we first discussed the Night Market but Steph likes to say I volunteered everyone to participate in it after we did discuss it. Our original meetings started off much bigger and people were in and out of the process but the other six that saw this all the way to breaking down the lanterns late Saturday night were: Erica and Charlie (@choisauceboss), Pam & Harrison (@pandheats), Marisa (@marisa_dobson), and Jamie (@jamiesumague). Somewhere along the line, we became the Chinatown Collective.
We all brought a little something different to the table and one of the big things we had in common was that we had never put on a large scale, open air, Asian style Night Market before. Our original dreams were grandiose, more city blocks, sake and soju in a bonsai garden, sumo wrestling suits (okay, I was probably the sole supporter of that), Ruby Ibarra (NEXT YEAR), and a whole host of other ideas. What we also had in common was this was personal, it was more than a passion project. I can only guess at everyone else’s motivation for going through this crazy ride but if I were a betting man, I would say all our motives, when boiled down to it’s essence, were exactly the same.
Ironically, my motivation didn’t crystallize until about a week and a half before the actual event. I could never quite articulate what it was but it was always on the tip of my tongue. I had dinner at Bad Saint with John Floresca who was one of the producers of ULAM, a documentary about the explosion of Filipino food in the United States. I had told him about Night Market and he started telling me why they made the movie and that it was an apt comparison to why we were doing the Night Market. My first thought was, “He’s fucking crazy” because the movie has been received so well not only in Filipino Communities but also in the broader world of Film Festivals; while we still had yet to receive our street closure permit nine days before our Night Market. Then he said a couple things, the first was this was a perfect time to be an Asian American primarily because the food and culture scene was exploding and three years ago, no one could have foreseen this. Two, he and I were at the perfect age to experience this (we’re roughly the same age) and then he asked me why (that was fucked up John).
The first thing I said was because we remember.
We remember what it was like growing up as an Asian American where we had our communities but had to primarily grow up in non-Asian places
We remember our non-Asian friends asking why we had 25 lbs of rice in our kitchens
We remember downplaying our culture, our appearance, our food, our traditions all in the name of being successful in this world
We remember what it was like when our food could only be had in bodegas or our mothers’ kitchen
We remember all of those things and more and because we remember, the recent proliferation of our culture, our food, our traditions seems even more fulfilling.
None of these were unfamiliar themes to us at the Chinatown Collective. As we discussed the logistics for the Night Market, we also discussed all of these topics. From sharing articles like this and this to having the honor of talking with Kimberly Chou and discussing creating spaces that tell our truths to sharing our own personal stories of growing up to eating so much good food together. There were potlucks where we fell in love with Kuya Ja’s lechon pork belly roll, birthday parties where a simple thing like a sparkler seemed magical, restaurant meals which we’ll remember for a lifetime (I see you Spoken English), and many, many meetings held at many, many happy hours with many, many drinks.
John also pointed out that while our cultures were different, our similarities should be celebrated also. "When does arroz caldo become a risotto, when does spaghetti become pancit?” were just a few examples he gave. This was the final piece of why the Night Market became so personal. It wasn’t just a way to celebrate our Asian communities. It was a way to show that our Asian American communities were a vital part of the American tapestry. It was a way to show that our similarities were far greater than our differences and our similarities included all communities of color.
Despite all of our grand plans, we ended up with a much smaller event that anticipated. It’s not an exaggeration that CCNM almost died about a million times. From funding to permits to vendor engagement, we could have shut it down and given up at any point. But, maybe because of naivete or belief or love or stubbornness or a combination of all of the above, not once did anyone in the Collective suggest this was not going to happen. And yet, Despite all of these struggles, we ended up with an event that was something far greater than we could have asked from Baltimore.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’d like to think I’m honest, I try to give my opinion and I’m basically a curmudgeon. I am also the oldest member of the group and they resorted to calling me Godfather because of that and because I was fortunate enough to make a few friends here and there. Regardless, basically a curmudgeon.
But, this piece, is particularly off brand and reads like a mushy love letter. It reads that way because it is. It’s a love letter to Baltimore and it’s diverse communities for believing in the Night Market and showing up with open hearts and open stomachs (maybe leaving with open stomachs but that’s another article). It’s a love letter to communities beyond Baltimore that decided that Charm City was the place to visit on Saturday.
It’s a love letter to the Chinatown Collective which was much bigger than just eight of us. It’s to Stephanie, Marisa, Jamie, Pam, Harrison, Erica, Charlie, Mark, Dan Ahn, Alice, Steve Chu, Ephrem, Krystal, Mawish, Emily, Dylan, Maryrose, Alex, GINA, Evan (which is MVP in tagalog), Eliza, Atomic Goofball (Danny), Rachel, Andrew, Dharna, and the countless volunteers who did everything we asked with a smile.
It’s a love letter to every single person who posted about us on social media promoting the event and thinking about it in ways we didn’t even anticipate.
It’s a love letter to Rey and Julie who were stringing origami cranes for the Night Market on Thursday evening and on Friday evening, they welcomed their third child, Levi, into this world and I can’t wait to tell Rey and Julie, in person, how amazing the Night Market turned out and hold Levi and tell him that he was the good luck charm we needed.
It’s a love letter to every single vendor who believed in us. It’s to Kaliwa, Kuya Ja, Ekiben, White Envelope, Little Boy Bakery, Mera Kitchen Collective, Gwenie’s, and dozens of other food and artist vendors that took a chance on eight persistent people who couldn’t promise them a thing except belief and community. It’s a love letter to them for having even more vision about this event than we did.
It’s a love letter to all the exceptional and diverse artists that performed. It’s a love letter to that group of women who thought the only place in the world to celebrate their good friend’s birthday was at the Night Market. It’s a love letter to Courtney and Alex for sharing their engagement with us. It’s a love letter to Kitty and Sony who paved the road for any and all of this. Finally, it’s a love letter to our parents and to our families who worked so hard to ensure we could be successful in a world where they knew our differences would be highlighted but taught us to celebrate and embrace them and show the world that it’s our similarities that matter more.