Growing up in China, Yumin Gao frequented its night markets, as well as those in Thailand, Japan and other Asian countries. Gao loved the vibrancy of the open-air street bazaars, where people came together among vendors hawking authentic dishes at affordable prices.

After moving to Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist attended a few food festivals in the area, but they did not live up to his expectations. So he got together with some friends and they wondered, “Why can’t we do something like that?”

Gao, along with his friend Ben Wang and their partners, Sophie Shi and Pauline Liu, formed the Asia Collective Night Market in December 2021. Now the group is preparing to hold a night market in August in Howard County, which is home to a growing and diverse Asian community.

The new night market promises to bring indulgence to the Howard County Fairgrounds. Offerings may include Chinese barbecue meat skewers searing over a grill, ropes of hand-pulled noodles bathing in sauce, and a towering slice of crepe cake sitting under a fine dusting of green matcha powder, according to pictures splashed across the festival’s website.

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The Asia Collective is behind one of two large-scale night market events in the Baltimore area. The other, an effort focused on breathing life back into Baltimore’s almost forgotten Chinatown, lost momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic and faces an uncertain future.

UPDATE: Traffic, lines leave bad taste for guests at Howard County Asian food festival

The Howard County event will be held from 2 to 11 p.m. on Aug. 20. In addition to more than 40 food vendors, the festival will feature cultural showcases and live music, organizers said. Gao said they had sold about 10,000 tickets as of mid-July. Their goal is to attract 25,000 visitors to the night market this year, he said.

Branded “DMV’s ultimate Asian food festival,” the night market will be a place of community and celebration, Wang said.

“In Asian culture, grabbing food is a very important part of getting to know each other and spending time,” said Wang, a management consultant who was born in China and moved to Baltimore in 2017 for graduate school. “Everything happens at the dinner table. That’s how we’re used to connecting — through eating, through sharing, through vibes of good food. That’s exactly what we can bring through the night market.”

The event’s goal is to celebrate the diversity of Asian food and culture in the area, the organizers said.

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Howard County has the second-largest concentration of Asian residents in Maryland. The county’s Asian population grew by about 50% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census, with more than 67,000 residents identifying as Asian. The largest segments of Howard County’s Asian population identify as Indian, Korean and Chinese, according to a 2020 county report, with Filipinos, Vietnamese, Japanese and other ethnicities also represented.

Asia Collective Night Market co-founders, (from left to right) Yumin Gao, Sophie Shi, Pauline Liu and Ben Wang, stand in front of a sign advertising their food festival at The Mall in Columbia. The night market will be held at the Howard County Fairgrounds on Aug. 20, 2022.
Asia Collective Night Market co-founders (from left) Yumin Gao, Sophie Shi, Pauline Liu and Ben Wang, stand in front of a sign advertising their food festival at The Mall in Columbia. The night market will be held at the Howard County Fairgrounds on Aug. 20, 2022. (Courtesy of Asia Collective)

Shi, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, grew up in the Midwest and England in cities that didn’t have large Asian communities. After moving to Baltimore, where she works as a nurse practitioner, she was surprised and elated to find Ellicott City, which has a large Korean population.

“But we didn’t have as many festivals or events, as compared to the West Coast, celebrating Asian culture,” Shi said. “So I think for us, it’s really important to create that inclusive event celebrating [Asian American and Pacific Islander] history, ourselves, our culture, our food by sharing it with others.”

Visitors will be able to sample Vietnamese egg rolls from Hong Hao Rolls, Korean fried chicken from The Chicken Lab, Taiwanese baos from Bao Bei and summer-inspired dishes from Chinese restaurant Ni Hao. Musical artists scheduled to perform include indie Pinoy band Pearse Abbey, from Upper Marlboro.

“I’m really excited to learn about other Asian cultures,” Gao said. “That’s why we have so many different groups.”

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Future of Charm City Night Market uncertain

The Asia Collective Night Market is not the first event of its type held in the Baltimore area in recent years. In 2018 and 2019, a different group, the Chinatown Collective, organized the Charm City Night Market, which drew 12,000 to 20,000 people a year to an area in Baltimore where Chinese immigrants had formed a community in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Baltimore’s Chinatown slowly faded from the map as families moved out of the city, partially because of racial tensions during the civil rights era, a former longtime resident of Chinatown told the Baltimore Sun in 2018. Now, the percentage of Asian residents in Baltimore City hovers just above 2%, according to Census figures. Near downtown, grocery store Po Tung Trading, and others like it with awning designs inspired by East Asian glazed tiles, are some of the final vestiges of the city’s historic Chinatown.

In this sepia-toned photo, two men stand outside a storefront that reads "Choice China Tea." One man points at papers posted in the window. Chinese calligraphy hangs in strips near
A historic photo photo from Enoch Pratt Free Library's collection shows two men standing outside On Leong Merchants Association on Park Avenue in Baltimore's Chinatown. The photo is not dated. (Courtesy of the Chinatown Collective)

The Chinatown Collective wanted to change that, said co-founder Steph Hsu. The group hoped to bring redevelopment to the area and revitalize it as a neighborhood for Asian-owned businesses. “It’s really about finding your place as Asian Americans in the city, where conversations about race are predominantly Black and white,” Hsu said. “Understanding what place we have in that conversation, what place we have in the community.”

The pandemic took the wind out of the project’s sails, however, and the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country took an emotional toll, members said.

“We were just all so tapped out emotionally, and it was so hard to do community building work on top of our full-time jobs on top of just grappling with these formerly suppressed feelings that came to the fore,” said Robbin Lee, who is part of the Chinatown Collective team.

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The group was in talks with developers about a $30 million mixed-use project to transform a block of Chinatown. That proposal stalled, partially because of the pandemic and a lack of funding, Hsu said. But Hsu stressed that it’s not so much the physical location of an Asian community that’s important as the connections within.

“No matter what, the light hasn’t gone out,” Hsu said. “There is still a strong and vibrant Asian American community in Baltimore that cares and is committed, and is there to celebrate the creatives and businesses that exist. Even if Charm City Night Market is not there every single year, there are volunteers that really care about the city and about Asian Americans being part of the city.”

Festive red lanterns hang above a crowded street lined with tents full of food vendors at the 2019 Charm City Night Market.
In 2019, the Charm City Night Market drew 20,000 attendees to Baltimore's historic Chinatown. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the Chinatown Collective's plans to revitalize the area and transform it into a hub for Asian-owned businesses. (Courtesy of the Chinatown Collective)

Hsu and Lee now support the new group of young Asian professionals taking up the mantle of night market organizing. They are helping advise members of the Asia Collective as they plan their first big festival.

Both collectives are conscious of the specter of anti-Asian racism, which became more conspicuous during the pandemic, as a xenophobic backlash blamed China for the coronavirus.

Wang said the vast majority of the feedback that organizers have received on their upcoming festival has been positive, though they did receive a comment that included a racist trope about Chinese food.

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Recognizing that safety is a top concern, they plan to have special staffers monitoring and responding to any hate crimes and racist behavior during the night market, he said. Law enforcement will also help with security and traffic.

“We want it to be fun,” Wang said. “Keep the politics, keep the racial comments aside. Let’s just enjoy the good food.”

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