In late 2011, Jonny Hwang had an idea. Within a couple of months, that idea ending up attracting 8,000 likes on Facebook and roughly 40,000 people in foot traffic. Hwang was in shock.
Hwang, a 32-year-old entrepreneur, is the founder of the 626 Night Market, an outdoor food bazaar modeled after the evening markets in Asia. "We had talked to our friends about it and on our spare time, just made a website," Hwang explains, "People just started putting it up on Tumblr and Facebook and within a month, our page views went off the charts." Not a cent was paid for marketing. Everything was spread by word of mouth.
The 626 Night Market made its debut in April of 2012 and has had a total of three events since then. They're set for six more in the summer and within recent months, have begun to evolve as a community-building organization under Hwang's direction.
With a following of over 11,000 people on Facebook, the market has had substantial clout with the San Gabriel Valley community. "This area is a very unique place and it's always made me feel like home," Hwang says. "That's why I named the event after it." Their first event in Pasadena drew three times as much people than expected with nearby streets coming to a gridlock because of traffic. They have since moved to the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia and have expanded considerably. Though the food will always remain the core, Hwang has added community contests and film screenings to the mix.
"The main thing I want to highlight is that this market is a platform," Hwang says. "It's a platform for local businesses, entertainment and talent to get noticed. I always tell my staff that they can skew the night market and use it to do whatever they want to do."
In retrospect, Hwang's background has groomed him to be the ideal leader of the 626. Born in Taiwan but raised in Monterey Park, he notes that he was hyperaware of the community issues Asians faced in Los Angeles. "I thought this place was the weirdest thing when I first moved here. All the signs were in Chinese," he says. "I didn't understand why people here didn't want to assimilate."
It wasn't until his undergraduate years at USC that he became increasingly involved in Asian-American issues and after college, he packed his bags for Taiwan to learn Chinese and start up his own restaurant. Four years later, he moved back in Los Angeles, married his girlfriend from Taiwan and started pursuing a career in the entertainment business industry. On his resume are jobs with Technicolor and Paramount Pictures.
"I was always interested in business and entertainment," Hwang says. "They aren't necessarily related but I feel that all the things I've done has involved those two aspects."
Sitting at a coffee shop on the corner of San Gabriel Boulevard and Broadway, Hwang's eyes light up when he talks about the potential and influence of the night market. "We aren't in it for the money," he explains. "Look at our staff. It all started off with volunteers. They were passionate about what this night market meant for the community and reached out to me." Hwang notes that all of his staff members, including him, still have day jobs.
As for Hwang, he's constantly taking feedback and thinking of the next steps. "After our first event, we went through every single Yelp review and addressed all the problems," he says. "It's a learning process and we're just taking it as it comes. The next step is to expand beyond the night market and make this event a platform for new products that aren't necessarily food. We want to encourage artists and filmmakers to come."
It's been a year since the organization formally took off and since then, it has attracted attention from both local and international media. The development of the market is entirely in Hwang's hands but it couldn't have been better timing.
The San Gabriel Valley has long been a mecca for the Chinese food-obsessed. , According to industry publication Chinese Restaurant news, there are approximately 500 Chinese restaurants with a 626 area code but the problem is that a bulk of these restaurants are inaccessible because of language barriers.
The night market has been a way to bridge the cultural and language gap. Hwang notes: "None of this could've spread without technology and a growing interest in Asian food."