The decades-old tradition of the night market (covered last year in Transpacific Routes) -- the evening outdoor marketplace events in Asian cities known worldwide for their array of street food and haggle-happy merchandise vendor stalls -- is still a nascent concept on this side of the ocean, but it's already quickly writing its own history here.
After the initial 626 Night Market hit the streets of Pasadena in April 2012 -- an event that was as heavily criticized as it was attended -- the organizers worked out the logistical kinks with a larger location at the Pasadena civic center, before settling at their current home at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia last year. In June 2013, summer weekend Little Saigon Night Market premiered, as well as the inaugural San Diego Night Market in that city's pan-Asian Convoy District.
Now, in 2014, even more night market events are setting up in the Southland, with the recent announcement of the KTown Night Market coming to L.A.'s Koreatown in April and the now-experienced 626 Night Market operators taking their show to the 714 (949, technically) and the 213 with events at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa in May and the Staples Center parking lot in Downtown Los Angeles in June. Later this summer, Asian American arts and entertainment organization Kollaboration and the Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce are planning to bring the night market experience to that city as well.
Less than two years after the first Asian-style night market made its debut in the San Gabriel Valley, the nocturnal bazaars are finally making their mark on the cultural landscape of Southern California. The Year of The Horse? The Year of The Night Market is more like it.
So why have night markets suddenly become all the rage recently?
"It's obviously something that the Asian population was looking for," said Jonny Hwang, the 626 Night Market's founder who first began planning the first formal night market in Southern California in late 2011. "Especially for the Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Thai [communities]. Their countries have stronger night market traditions back in Asia. I think our events, when they first started, got a lot of attention and publicity. We approached it by making not just an event with food, but a platform for the community to rally around, the nostalgia of bringing something like that from Asia to an area that people identify with."
"We've always envisioned doing some sort of night event," said Danny Park, operations manager for the KTown Night Market, who initially began planning their event a year ago and was inspired by night markets in Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as 626 and the annual L.A. Korean Festival in the fall. "We thought, 'Let's see if we can do this in Koreatown.'"
Joseph Park (no relation), KTown Night Market's managing partner, who has had previous experience promoting concert and sporting events, said that they encountered others in the community who also wanted to start up a night market in Koreatown.
"We met others who had the same idea and wanted to do it, too, but we were the only ones who executed it somewhat; we took the idea and ran with it," he said.
Danny Park added that the culture of night market promotes younger start-up businesses who haven't yet established themselves, many of whom sell in festivals, which can cost up to $10,000 per vendor to participate. "This option can be done for under $1,000," he said, also adding that the Southern California weather and the vibrant nightlife culture of Koreatown were contributing factors to starting their market.
Though the 626 Night Market started out on the streets of Old Town Pasadena, home to a pedestrian-friendly environment and accessibly by transit, its current digs at Santa Anita Park were more suburban and car-oriented for the typically urban night market format as seen in Asia. But Hwang decided to address that by expanding his market to other areas.
"We wanted to bring our event [to downtown L.A. and Orange County] to share with them what we've done in the 626, which admittedly can be a bit out of the way for a lot of people in Southern California. Having our market at the OC Fairgrounds and downtown L.A. makes us more accessible to more people, it's a win-win for everyone," said Hwang.
Meanwhile, the KTown Night Market will take place on the eastern end of the sprawling Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus (the site of the historic Ambassador Hotel) on Friday, April 18 and Saturday, April 19, from afternoon to midnight, during the school's spring break. The school was chosen not only because of the available space (and otherwise lack of available open space in Koreatown), but because the assistant principal of one of the schools, who shared a mutual friend with one of the night market organizers, was extremely helpful in the planning process. They soon got the cooperation of councilmember Herb Wesson's office, Metro, and various media partners, from Radio Korea to La Opinión.
Danny Park mentioned one of their reasons for starting the KTown Night Market was that he felt that the L.A. Korean Festival catered too much to the older Korean community, highlighting the generational divide that exists in nearly all Asian immigrant groups. But Joseph Park, who volunteered for the festival in his youth, felt that breaking down divisions was an important step in going forward.
"We approached [the L.A. Korean Festival] organizers not too long ago, coming in scared, thinking the older generation would be resistant to us, but it was quite the opposite. They remembered us, and have been extremely helpful and supportive, connecting us with vendors and providing tents and equipment. They welcomed us with open arms, they wanted to help us with future events in Koreatown," he said.
"We want to make it clear that this is not a Korean cultural event -- we also want to celebrate the diversity of K-Town," said Danny Park, citing the need to highlight the area's Latino, Bangladeshi, and Thai communities, as well as the Korean American community. Though the entertainment on that Friday evening will have Korean cultural and K-Pop acts, the Saturday program will feature a more multi-ethnic lineup. The KTown Night Market organizers are also planning a market event in Orange County for later this year.
The 626's Hwang also intends to have a local community focus for their OC and DTLA night market events.
"Each of our events are really about the local community," he said. "We always try to draw, businesses, entertainers, artists and vendors from the local communities. We have popular vendors coming to all events, we source local vendors, we provide a platform for people in the neighboring communities to showcase their food, products, and talent. Each will have its own uniqueness, with the vendors, businesses, artists, and people that participate."
Both night market operators see their events as not just emulating a format imported from Asia, but developing an identity all their own: an Asian American night market, in every sense of the word.
"The night market concept, I think, will change," said Danny Park. "We are defining our own 'night market' whether it's the 626, K-Town, or Monterey Park. We're all young people putting these events together, and as we get more experienced, we're gonna have our own definition of what an Asian American night market could be."
Joseph Park added that the KTown Night Market will feature live entertainment and carnival-style games, elements that usually don't exist in Asian night markets.
"Our original vision, which was to bring the night market to the U.S., and making it a more local kind of event, inspired other people to mimic and emulate what we've done, said the 626 Night Market's Hwang. "As each of the night market events take place, it's becoming more diverse, with more people hearing about it. It's now not just an Asian, or Asian American type of event. That's the natural progression of the events in general.
For years, the people on this side of the Pacific Rim have looked toward Asia as a role model for night market events. Soon, the rest of the United States will look to Southern California -- already a cultural trend-setter for the nation -- in the same manner.
"I can see, one day, every city will have their own kind of night market," said Joseph Park.