Food & Drink

Po Tung Oriental Grocery is a Staple in Baltimore’s Near-Vanished Chinatown

Not only does owner Jerry Tsang stock the shelves with ingredients from his native China, but he also seeks out items that span the globe, reflecting his diverse customer base.
—Photography by Mike Morgan

A customer holds his cellphone up to Jerry Tsang’s face. The 54-year-old Tsang looks at the photo with a doubtful expression and shouts a question in Cantonese to his wife, Ying-hua, who is stocking shelves in the back of the family-owned and -operated Asian grocery. She shouts the answer.

No, Tsang says, they didn’t have that brand. Could they get it?

Probably, yes, probably, he would look for it. Sure.

The man, a regular, is assured. And with that, he makes his way down one of the product-packed aisles at Po Tung Oriental, looking for other items he’s unlikely to find anywhere else in the city. This tiny store in the heart of Baltimore’s near-vanished Chinatown, tucked downtown on Park Street between West Mulberry and West Saratoga, can easily be missed by drivers rolling by the mix-and-match commercial and residential buildings. But for those who’ve discovered it, Po Tung is revelatory.

Yelp commentators, always chary with compliments, overwhelmingly approve of the specialty grocery store, calling Po Tung “a hidden gem,” “terrific,” “a godsend for students who don’t have a car,” and “a wonderful store with good prices, fabulous selection, and lovely people who are glad to help you.”

An unexpected part of that “fabulous selection” is fresh fruits, which, when available, are immediately on display inside Po Tung’s front door, on a high glass counter. Yes, there are mangoes, papayas, kiwis, and pineapples. But adding even more color, there are occasionally mounds of golden Fuyu persimmons or piles of spiny, red rambutan from Malaysia.

“I like finding items my customers want or like,” Tsang says. “I like introducing them to something they’ve never tried but heard about.”

Tsang is originally from Guangdong, a coastal province of southeast China that borders Hong Kong and Macau. His shelves are chock-a-block with Chinese staples like zha cai, pickled mustard, and doubanjiang, a fermented chile soybean paste, along with varieties of fermented vegetables and a plethora of tapioca pearls for bubble tea. But he also stocks foodstuffs that span the globe, reflecting his diverse customer base.

One low shelf holds dark hunks of palm sugar, which is essential for Indonesian dishes like kue lupis (sweet sticky rice dumplings). Japanese Pocky sticks sit nearby, partnered with packets of rice noodles, Filipino pansit noodles, dried mushrooms, bean curd, and “100-year-old” eggs. Bottles of spices line up, including hard-to-find ones like asafoetida, used in Indian dishes. Tins of Titus sardines from Morocco are stacked up like books. Bok choy, water spinach, and Chinese broccoli are in the refrigerator section, and there are dumplings galore in the freezer.

The store is packed, but neat, and incredibly organized. If you can’t find a product, just ask, and either Tsang or Ying-hua will expertly pluck a bottle, can, or package from a shelf or corner and, despite the many different languages on labels, it’s almost always exactly what you were looking for.

And it doesn’t stop with the food.

There are pots and pans high up near the ceiling, and a side aisle full of regular kitchen stuff, cutlery, detergents, and scouring powders. Huge multi-liter tins of oil and sacks of rice bunk near shelves of hot pepper sauces. Phalanxes of cookies, candies, and dried fruit face off against jars of honey and boxes of teas. Woks, stone pots, pans, Korean stone bowls called ttukbaegi, tea kettles, and tea sets are also available.


To outsiders, the neighborhood around Po Tung might look a bit sketchy, with several boarded-up vacant buildings, an empty grassy field where a huge department store once stood, and the gutted shell of another building on the corner just south of Po Tung. North of the store, there’s ongoing construction in the 400 block of Park Avenue where a mixed-use development of city-owned projects is underway.

Tsang says he’d heard about several other rehab and construction plans in the area before the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on things. With the city now in recovery mode, he hopes they will materialize sooner rather than later.

The neighborhood’s somewhat rough edges don’t bother him, he adds. He rarely finds it necessary to call the police for any serious crime. “Once in a blue moon,” he says. If someone does get offensive or creates some chaos, he just crosses the street to the barber shop for friendly assistance and the occasional intervention.

Kitty-corner from Po Tung is the Perfect Images Barber Shop, where on warm days, men linger and chat after haircuts, and whose owner, Eric Stanley, quips that barber shops were once “The Black Man’s Country Club.”

“That’s my man,” barber Donald “Hands” Lynch, a big man deftly wielding an electric razer on the side of a customer’s head, says of Tsang. “He always speaks up [and says hello]. He’s kind. Everybody knows him. If he has any trouble, I just step over and it gets taken care of.”

Po Tung’s block isn’t just slightly off the beaten track, it’s also interesting—these things often going together, of course. There are several local apparel stores nearby, a liquor store, and a couple of Ethiopian businesses, including the Tabor Ethiopian Restaurant, whose pre-pandemic Tuesday night jazz sessions attracted Peabody Institute music students looking to learn from professionals.

And nearly everyone who lives or works in the neighborhood stops in Po Tung to shop.

It’s that rarity of rarities in the 21st century, a neighborhood grocery store that serves the neighborhood and where the owner knows your name and your family’s. And that’s how Tsang thinks of his store, his regular customers, and nearby businesses—“like family.”

Sure, the store stocks mostly Asian products, but his customers, emblematic of the neighborhood and the city’s diverse demographics, are from everywhere—Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, Europe—and its shelves reflect it. Many of his neighborhood regulars, who don’t have cars to shuttle them to the suburbs for larger markets that feature food from their homelands, know that Tsang might very well have them in stock. If not, they can request it and he’ll find it.

Po Tung also attracts a good number of international Baltimore college students from nearby Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University. Hailing from such far-flung places as Africa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and China, they often fill the aisles, baskets loaded with this small taste of home, patiently waiting at the single register helmed by Tsang or his wife.

“I’d heard about it, so I didn’t go for anything special the first time, but just to see,” says Yiguang Zhu, a Johns Hopkins University doctoral student in environmental health and engineering from Fujian, China, who discovered the store when he moved to an apartment in the neighborhood in 2019.

“I was amazed,” says Zhu, who has a car, so he’s also able to shop at H-Mart and Great Wall in Catonsville and Lotte Plaza Market in Jessup. “Po Tung’s got a unique location. They have everything—seasonings, pickled vegetables, Chinese ingredients—right here in the city. If I’m cooking and find I’m missing an ingredient, I can just walk there,” he continues. “Their prices are really fair, and all the Hopkins students get a discount if they show their ID. The owners are great and really helpful.”


The sentiment is repeatedly echoed by other customers and businesses in the neighborhood. And this is Tsang’s neighborhood.

“I grew up in Baltimore and went to Douglass High School,” Tsang explains, referring to Frederick Douglass High School, the second-oldest high school in the United States created specifically for African-American students during the era of segregation. (Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first Black justice, and Cab Calloway, the legendary bandleader, both graduated from the historic school, among others.)

“I’ve been in the neighborhood for a long time,” Tsang adds with a hint of a smile. “Everyone knows me.”

African Americans and Chinese and other non-white immigrants in Baltimore were once legally redlined from certain neighborhoods and ended up living near one another. The Chinese community in the city began forming in the late 19th century, fueled by Asian (mostly Chinese) workers who arrived in the U.S. during the Gold Rush era and then worked on the Trans-continental Railroad.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the U.S.’s first legislation to restrict immigration on a racial basis, halted that influx for 10 years, but allowed those who arrived in the country in 1880 to remain. The civil rights acts of the 1960s, in particular, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, removed the racially biased, nation-of-origin quotas that had severely restricted immigration from non-Northern and non-Western European countries.

Tsang’s family immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when he was 16, following a maternal grand-uncle who’d arrived in Baltimore at a time when the city’s Chinatown was a small but still vibrant community of laundries, noodle factories, import companies, restaurants, and benevolent associations.

Tsang went to the since-closed RETS Electronic Schools after high school and initially opened a 600-square-foot Chinese videotape store across the street from his current location—“like Blockbuster,” he says—called the Po Tung Chinese Videotape Store. It was not a success. The licensing cost combined with a $2 rental fee per video did not prove profitable.

In 2000, he moved across the street and opened a grocery store. He went to auctions and bid on used freezers, whatever he needed. He got up at dawn to stock the grocery, buying from Korean and Japanese wholesalers, as well as Eastland Food Corporation in Jessup, which imports and exports food products from Asia.

At the end of 2000, he went to the Hong Kong wedding of a friend who’d met his future wife through a matchmaker. At the wedding, Tsang met Ying-hua. He was 35 and she was 19 years old. It took two years before Ying-hua could come to the United States and they could get married because, he says, the 16-year age difference made U.S. officials suspicious of his intentions.

A former Maryland state representative ultimately facilitated the visa and they married. Today, the Tsangs have two children: Phoebe, 17, and Godric, 15. By the time they’d married, the city’s Chinatown was already emptying out, as people moved to the suburbs and began finding jobs outside those traditionally held by first- and second-generation immigrants.

Tsang says he’d like to stay and keep the business going to see if the area resuscitates its Asian character. Occasionally, Tsang’s son helps out at the grocery store, but Tsang doesn’t think his son will want to run it in the future. He’ll certainly remain, Tsang says, until his children are at least out of college, but he admits the long hours can be wearying. Now that he’s in his early 50s, he says the lifting and toting of heavy produce boxes and long hours on his feet in the store are beginning to take their toll.

But then, just as he says that, someone comes in looking for that singular ingredient from China and Tsang is off, back on the hunt.