Baltimore’s historic Chinatown again an immigrant hub

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Exploring Park Avenue’s Chinese past and Ethiopian present.

Moon cake and mochi ice cream, a dozen different kinds of frozen dumplings. When international students walk into the Asian grocery store Jerry Tsang helps run in downtown Baltimore, they find a taste of home on the other side of the world.

“We have a little bit of everything in this shop,” he said, walking down a row lined by Indonesian curries and salted fish on one side, a variety of soy sauces on the other.

Tsang was just the age of those students, 18, when he arrived to Park Avenue from Shenzhen, China, near the island of Hong Kong. It was the early 90s, when there were more Chinese restaurants and shops in this area of Park Avenue than there are now. But even then, he said, people were beginning to leave for D.C. and Rockville. It was a migration that began since the 1968 riots burned much of Baltimore.

“Everybody left,” he said.

But in recent years, the area once known as Baltimore’s Chinatown has become home to a growing Ethiopian community. Across the street, there’s an African hair braiding shop and a small café, the Chinese-style awning still visible above the doorframe. On a recent morning, Tessew Mekuria had just stepped in for a cup of freshly-brewed Ethiopian coffee. “I am from the countryside; I’m a country boy,” he said. The owner is from where he’s from.

Ethiopians eat food with their hands, curried meats and veggies piles on top of injera bread. This kind of communal sharing, “It is kind of expressing love,” said Mekuria.

Earlier this year, Filipino-American artist Jeff Huntington made a mural that paid homage to both Chinese and Ethiopian communities.

The plan, at first, was to just paint a dragon. It would be a reminder of the enormous puppet that had once shimmied up and down Park Avenue during New Year parades, the feed of its puppeteers peeking out from underneath the cloth. The work, financed by Downtown Partnership, would sit across from a gleaming new apartment building up the street.

Along with his wife, Julia Gibb, and an assistant, Huntington began the painstaking process of spray painting each of the dragon’s scales, using a stencil that blew wildly in the wind. But as they worked, he said, he noticed something. He began eating at the local Ethiopian restaurant, and interacting with local African entrepreneurs and residents.

“I could just tell it was sort of a community of people that knew each other and took care of each other,” he said.

So, a spontaneous change. On the side of a building that once housed “George the Tailor,” according to the hand-painted sign, he and his wife imposed an enormous Chinese dragon, along with an Ethiopian lion of Judah.

“The mural then represented this transformation from the past to the present,” he said.