The Night Market Sees the Light of Day

The Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon, Hong Kong. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Back in early 2001, I set off for a 5-week vacation to the Philippines, which included inaugural side trips to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. Whenever I mentioned to friends and family that I was going to Hong Kong, I would often hear, "Don't forget to visit the Night Market," thinking it was a singular building or place akin to L.A.'s Farmer's Market in the Fairfax District. Whenever I asked them where in Hong Kong this "night market" was, the only answer they would give me was, "Kowloon."

When I arrived in Hong Kong, I made arrangements to stay at a hotel in Kowloon, hoping to find this "night market" somewhere. It didn't take me long to find a string of outdoor vendors stalls along streets and alleyways radiating from Temple Street in Kowloon's Yau Ma Tei district to realize that this was the "Night Market" everyone was talking about. Eventually I found some souvenirs to bring home, a couple articles of clothing, and even an umbrella for the couple rainy evenings during my stay. And lucky me, the Night Market was just steps from my hotel. I also encountered similar nocturnal bazaars in Singapore and Malaysia.

Fast-forward a decade later, where nostalgia, ethnic pride, and pure entrepreneurship have recently imported the concept of the Asian night market to the other side of the Pacific.

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Here in Southern California, we currently have the massively-popular 626 Night Market. Westminster's Little Saigon in Orange County also recently inaugurated its own summertime nocturnal bazaar. And the monthly Chinatown Summer Nights street party events in Los Angeles' Chinatown incorporates a small night market element. The markets here selling everything from art and craft items, to cellphone accessories, to clothing, not to mention the plethora of food vendors hawking traditional Asian street food to gourmet fusion dishes.

I've been to all three, and find them all to be wonderful social, cultural, and culinary events, which add to the vibrancy of Southland life. But are they true night markets in the traditional sense?

The first 626 Night Market in April of 2012 took place on a single block of Pasadena's Garfield Avenue. Problem was, over 20,000 people squeezed into that block, launching an immediate armada of negative reviews via social media channels. The second iteration, three months afterward, was moved a few blocks away to the street plaza fronting Pasadena's city hall, and was to everyone's mutual approval, so much that it required an even larger area to accommodate its exponential growth in terms of both vendors and visitors.

But leave it to the unabashedly suburban San Gabriel Valley to provide a new home for the 626 Night Market in the sprawling parking lot of the Santa Anita Racetrack, a virtual asphalt moat far from any walkable neighborhoods or transit facilities. The Little Saigon Night Market, though smaller in magnitude, is also located in a privately-owned parking lot.

Food vendors at the pasar malam (night market) in Johor Bahru, Malaysia | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Night markets are largely Asian concepts, but they are just as much urban concepts as well, utilizing public spaces, closed-off streets, and back alleyways as the night market venue.

But the suburban parking lot venue model for night markets isn't an exclusively Southern California thing: Even the largest night market on this continent -- the massive Richmond Night Market in suburban Vancouver, Canada -- occupies a parking lot.

Still there are a few examples that get the Asian urban model right. Vancouver's Chinatown night market, albeit a fraction of the size of the Richmond market, takes place on a city street. And San Francisco's on-again, off-again Chinatown Night Market sets up shop at Portsmouth Square.

Perhaps the urban experience is a tall order for North American night markets. Organizational expenses, logistics, municipal ordinances, and liability issues are expected obstacles. And where night markets on this continent are planned and marketed events, they are pastimes back in Asia; Hong Kong's famed Temple Street Night Market has been in operation nightly since 1975.

Still, the influence of Asian night markets here in Southern California is undeniable, as more communities establish their own markets and market-like events. Each October in L.A.'s Koreatown, the local Seoul International Park hosts the four-day-long L.A. Korean Festival, which itself has a considerable-sized night bazaar with a plentitude of merchandise and food booths. But along nearby Olympic Boulevard, a women's clothing store sets out a few clothing racks on the sidewalk outside the store, creating a sidewalk corridor the length of the establishment that relegates but a narrow, yet easily navigable path of open sidewalk cutting through the merchandise. It was very night market-esque, and passing through the corridor of clothes made me feel like I was in another part of the world for a few seconds.

One thing's for certain: We'll only be seeing more of these markets in the future, and only time will tell how they will, if at all, shape our streetscapes and public spaces, and even inspire and influence other cultures as well (A mercado de noche in Latino neighborhoods, perhaps?) The night market has only just seen the dawn.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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Love this article, thank you Elson, now my eating list has gotten bigger than ever!!!