Baltimore’s Chinatown

MHT has an ongoing project to document Asian American heritage in Baltimore City and the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, with funding from the National Park Service’s Underrepresented Community Grant program. Check out this research update from architectural historian Nicole A. Diehlmann of RK&K who is working on this exciting project!

Large-scale immigration from China to the United States began in response to the discovery of gold in northern California in 1848. Many immigrants arrived in San Francisco from the Guangdong province in southern China, which had suffered from political instability and natural disasters. Seeking opportunity in the United States, Chinese immigrants first found employment in northern California’s gold mines and later on the Transcontinental Railroad. When the railroad was completed in 1867, some Chinese workers began to move out of California to the eastern United States.

Chinese immigration to Maryland did not accelerate until the late nineteenth century. The 1870 census indicates only two Chinese people living in the state. Ten years later, that number had only increased to five, but by 1890, there were 189 Chinese people living in Maryland. In 1900, the number had nearly tripled to 544 individuals—480 were foreign born residents, while 64 people had been born in the United States. The vast majority, 426 individuals, lived in Baltimore City. Most lived near the intersection of Marion and Liberty Streets, not far from Baltimore’s bustling port in the Inner Harbor. This area, which became known as “Chinatown,” was the residential and commercial center of the Chinese immigrant community. Some Chinese people lived outside of Chinatown, but still within the city, particularly those who operated laundries, which were found throughout Baltimore. Others lived outside of the city, such as members of the Lee family who were vegetable farmers in Lansdowne. As the number of Chinese residents in the Baltimore area grew, they established organizations and businesses to provide social, economic, and political support for the growing community.

1901 Sanborn Map indicating “Chinese Joints” and a Chinese Restaurant at the northwest corner of Park and Marion Streets in Baltimore (LOC).

Historic maps and newspaper articles record the history of these early immigrants. Language in these newspaper articles reflected prevailing attitudes of Caucasians toward Asian immigrants at the time, and the articles often used derogatory terms and condescending tone, at best treating the traditions and customs of the Chinese community as novel spectacle and at worst with derision.  Many newspaper articles relate to police raids, illustrating the suspicion and over-policing suffered by Chinese residents; however, they also provide a wealth of details about the people and places associated with the Chinese community. Chinatown contained a diverse mix of businesses and residences. Many of the buildings were multipurpose, housing businesses, restaurants, and domestic and religious spaces under one roof. The 1890 Sanborn fire insurance map indicates Chinese laundries at 10 Park Avenue and 677 West Baltimore Street. The 1901 Sanborn map indicates a Chinese restaurant at 114 Park Avenue and other establishments referred to as “Chinese Joints” just west along Marion Street. Lum Bing was the proprietor of the restaurant on the second floor of 114 Park Avenue, according to an 1896 Sun article. The building also housed the San Francisco–based Chinese importing firm of Quong Hing Lung Chong Kee & Company, which was run by Lee Yat and Hop Lung, as well as residences. The family of Lee Yat lived at 311 Marion Street. An 1894 Sun article noted that the Lee’s two daughters were the first Chinese babies born in Baltimore. Mee Lim was the proprietor of the Park Avenue restaurant in 1923. Upon his death he had an estate worth over $12,000 dollars that was distributed to the School Board as he had no heirs. In addition, the 1901 Sanborn map indicates a Chinese laundry at 102 Liberty Street that was operated by Wang Sing and Su Hong in 1899 and Der Pop in 1902, all of whom also lived in the building. At 208 West Fayette Street, there was a “Joss House,” which is the English term for a Buddhist or Taoist temple or altar.

1914 Sanborn Map indicating Chinese restaurants, dwellings, and a Joss House along Marion and West Fayette Streets, west of Park Avenue (LOC).

The 1914 Sanborn map shows a three-story Joss House at 217 Marion Street, two three-story Chinese-occupied dwellings at 203 and 205 Marion Street, and a restaurant at 202 West Fayette Street. 203 Marion Street was noted in an 1894 Sun article as a store operated by Joe Kee, who operated the Chey Shing Chung & Co., a Chinese grocery, dry goods, and embroidery dealer. 217 Marion Street was called a “Chinese resort” with Ah Goo as the proprietor in a 1901 Sun article about a police raid on the property where 13 individuals were arrested for playing fan-tan, a 2,000-year-old gambling game that Chinese immigrant workers brought to the United States. The 1914 Sanborn map indicates that 217 Marion Street also housed a Joss House, which was likely installed circa 1903. That Marion Street house was also the site of a celebration recognizing the new Republic of China and the rise to leadership of Sun Yat Sen in 1912, when a flag of the new republic was hung from the second story and a picture of Sun was placed on the wall. The restaurant at 202 West Fayette was called the Empire and was operated by Der Doo. In 1919, Rector’s Chinese and American restaurant, under the management of Dr. Wu, opened along the same block at 208 West Fayette.

Articles in the Sun from this era describe various Chinese cultural traditions from the perspective of white observers. An 1895 article describes Teng Meng, a day where offerings are left on the graves of ancestors. It notes that eight wagons left from the Chinese Masonic Temple in Baltimore—three went to Cedar Hill Cemetery on what is now Ritchie Highway in Anne Arundel County and five to Mount Olivet Cemetery on Frederick Road, where there were eight Chinese graves. The article states that offerings of “boiled chicken, bananas, raisins, nuts, cigarettes, opium and whisky” were left at the gravesites. A 1903 Sun article described the Lunar New Year celebration in Chinatown, noting that the Chinese grocery and supply stores and restaurants did great business serving the growing Chinese community. The festival, which traditionally lasts two to four weeks in China, occurred over four days in Baltimore due to “the restrictions placed on the enthusiasm of the celebrants by the police.”

Feeling development pressure from the booming department stores and five-and-dime stores along North Howard and West Lexington Streets, the center of Chinatown moved northward along Park Avenue to West Mulberry Street after World War I. The buildings north of Marion Street were demolished circa 1929 to make way for an expansion of the Julius Gutman Company department store. There were many Chinese businesses and residences along the 300 and 400 blocks of Park Avenue and the 200 block of West Mulberry Street. The 1922 Polk’s Baltimore City Directory lists six Chinese goods dealers on these blocks. The Baltimore branch of the On Leong Merchant’s Association was established in 1920 and had offices at 215 West Mulberry Street, but later moved 323 Park Avenue.

The On Leong Chinese Merchant’s Association moved to this building at 323 Park Avenue in 1950. (Nicole Diehlmann 2021)

Baltimore City’s Chinese population began to decline during the Great Depression. A Sun article from 1937 noted that “Baltimore’s 400-odd Chinese are scattered about, although they once lived homogeneously in the neighborhood about Mulberry Street and Park Avenue.” The article notes that those remaining in Baltimore still engaged in trades such as restaurants and laundries, although some became noodle manufacturers such as Tom You, proprietor of the Quong Chow Noodle Company at 209 West Mulberry Street.

Chinatown continued to shrink in the post–World War II era. The north side of the 200 block of West Mulberry Street was demolished for a parking garage by 1952, and buildings on the south side were slowly demolished over the late twentieth century. Other businesses opened outside of Chinatown, like the China Clipper at 1003 North Charles Street and the New China Inn at 2426 North Charles Street. Some growth continued to occur within Chinatown, however, as landmark restaurants, such as the White Rice Inn at 320 Park Avenue and the China Doll at 406 Park Avenue, opened in Chinatown in the 1940s. A combination of urban renewal in the late 1950s and the repeal and creation of several national laws in the 1960s led to an exodus of many Chinese Americans from Baltimore to the suburbs. By 1963, 2,188 Chinese people resided in Maryland, and of those, only 748 lived in Baltimore City. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 removed barriers to race-based discrimination and allowed Chinese and other Asian Americans to freely move to suburban areas, further continuing the decline in Baltimore City’s Chinese population.

Buildings on the 300 block of Park Avenue, at the center of Chinatown, continue to house variety of Chinese businesses and organizations (Nicole Diehlmann 2021)

The changes in the Baltimore Chinese community and the decline of Baltimore’s Chinatown were noted in a 1969 Sun article. Mrs. George Tang stated that Chinese serving in World War II gained new skills that allowed them to get jobs in new industries. Their prosperity allowed their children to attend college and embark on careers far different from the laundry and restaurant jobs that were the mainstay of the earliest Chinese immigrants. She further noted that they “have a freer kind of existence. They’re accepted by the rest of society.” New businesses and a small Caucasian “Bohemian population” were changing the composition of Chinatown. In the mid-1970s, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association attempted to acquire land at Park Avenue and Mulberry Street for a 14-story Asian Culture Center, but their effort was unsuccessful. Many buildings formerly occupied by Chinese immigrants in Chinatown are currently vacant and in poor condition; however, the vestiges of this once vital Chinese community are still apparent and worthy of preservation.

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