Researching Identity through History and Place

By Karen Yee, University of Maryland Graduate Student

Chinatowns have always held a special place in my heart because the visits were the only time my parents would talk about our heritage. Every year without fail, my family would travel all the way to New York City’s Manhattan Chinatown to celebrate the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day in English, which falls on April 4 or 5. It’s a time to remember ancestors by tomb sweeping and lighting incense as a sign of respect to our ancestors. When I was 13, my grand-uncle made the trip with us. I still remember when he looked around at the cemetery and quietly said: “They discriminated against us, that’s why all these gravestones are just slabs of stone.” I did not understand what he meant until years later, when I began studying about Asian American history as a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

The author, Karen Yee.

When I began my graduate research to learn about Baltimore City’s Chinatown for the Maryland Historical Trust this semester, I started with limited knowledge of Asian American history. It was not taught in public school or an option while I was in college. When I first studied the general history of Chinese immigration into the United States as part of this project, I was shocked to find that the earliest wave of Chinese immigration from the mid-1850’s had come from the Guangdong Providence – even more surprisingly, it was primarily in the Taishan district – where my family had roots. I knew at the very least that this was where my father’s side of the family grew up, and it was my own dialect that I spoke with my grandmother. As I delved deeper, I immediately reported my new facts to my father, who told me how the history connected to my own family tree. After researching the general history of Chinese Americans, I looked toward Baltimore’s Chinese immigrant history. Before I began this project, I was not even aware there was a Chinatown in Baltimore.

Park Avenue in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of the author.

For hundreds of years, Baltimore enjoyed a fairly positive trading relationship with China. Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood, for example, is named after Canton, China. John O’Donnell purchased property in what is now known as Canton to build a plantation in the late 18th century. He had traded with China at the port of Canton because it was the only Chinese port opened to Western trade at the time. Over the years, Chinese prime ministers, major trade groups, and student groups have visited Baltimore for a variety of reasons.  Leslie Chin’s History of Chinese Americans in Baltimore (1976) shows the ways Chinese immigrants have impacted the urban landscape through their laundries, restaurants, import stores, and joss houses (places of worship of Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, or Chinese Folk religion) in Baltimore’s Old Chinatown. Baltimore’s Chinatown held a majority percentage of the total Chinese population in Maryland between 1870 and 1960, after which it began to decline due to suburban sprawl and the need for more space to accommodate growing families into areas such as Rockville. Despite legislation such as the Page Act of 1875 (the first restrictive federal immigration law in the United States, which prevented entry of Chinese women) and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which banned the entry of Chinese men as well), the Chinese population in Baltimore continued to grow in size. This growth resulted either from people exploiting loopholes in the legislation or migration of already established immigrants from other states. 

Charm City Night Market in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of the author.

Chinatowns were developed out of the need for Chinese immigrants to seek safe havens from racial discrimination, providing a place where residents could trade and practice traditions within a familiar context. Most Chinatowns were composed of men due to the restrictive immigration legislation in the late 19th century. Family groups and associations such as the Chinese Benevolent Association also gave political and social help to those in need. In Baltimore, some churches and religious/faith institutions extended a hand in helping immigrants adjust to life in the United States.

Life in Baltimore’s old Chinatown was not really any different from other city neighborhoods except for the context of anti-Chinese sentiment and discrimination. There were community celebrations such as the Chinese New Year, funerals, and other activities. Chinese immigrants did interact with the non-Chinese local community through their trade businesses, laundries, and restaurants. Although old Chinatown no longer stands in its entirety, revitalization efforts in the area began in 2018 with the Charm City Night Market, which took place in the area. Hopefully in the future, the neighborhood will return back to its former glory — not as a Chinatown, but as a place where all Asians, Pacific Islanders, and others can celebrate their history and heritage through historic sites and cultural resources. This motivates me to continue my research on the history and heritage of Chinese Americans in Baltimore and in Maryland.

As I wrap up my research work with MHT this month, I find it fitting that May is both Asian Pacific American Heritage and Preservation Month. This project provided an opportunity to preserve a part of my own and others’ family history. It also shed light into my own personal identity. I had grown up understanding that I was Chinese American, but I did not understand what it meant to be a Chinese American in the United States. My history in the United States does not start at the beginning of my birth, but in the struggles of those who had come before me and worked hard to achieve their goals and rights. It took me eleven years to begin to understand what my grand-uncle had said that day. As I and others visit the tombs of our ancestors, I hope that we will all continue to seek out our own histories to preserve our stories and places for future generations to learn and explore. Old Chinatown in Baltimore may be changed, but its history and stories wait patiently to be discovered and shared.

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