For days leading up to the San Gabriel Valley’s “first ever” Asian night market, the excitement mounted: All my friends — along with their mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts and grandparents — were planning on going. But on the night of the inaugural 626 Night Market, that eager anticipation transformed into a furor.
I never made it to the market. The rants about two hour searches for parking and the pictures of the near immobile crowd of people crammed into a single Pasadena block flooding my Facebook and Twitter feed were enough for me to call my relatives and cancel my plans. But I don't believe the Asian night market was a failure. The masses that got turned away may still be fuming, but organizers of the 626 Night Market tapped into a thirst for a reinvention of traditional cultural event for a new generation of Asian Americans.
What was touted as a Taiwanese-style market was, in fact, more “626”-style, powered by the boba-crazed, second generation wearers of t-shirts printed with cute anthropomorphic characters.
"There were a lot of second generation or younger entrepreneurs," said Jonny Hwang, 31, who organized the event along with his wife Janet Lan, 29, and friend Brian Gi, 30. "They caught onto the idea a lot faster."
Hwang and Lan, residents of Alhambra who spent many years in Taiwan, wanted to recreate the good times they and their friends and family had at the night markets there, where stalls brim with delectable street foods and people bargain over goods and chat with friends into the early hours of the morning.
Memories, as well as tales, of night markets buzzing with activity carry a much longed for sense of excitement and community that can be hard to find in the placid suburbia of the San Gabriel Valley. After all, there are not many engaging local nighttime activities that involve the entire family, save the popular Hong Kong style cafes.
Hwang, as well as some of my friends who have been to night markets, say this is the key difference in lifestyle between Taiwan and America.
Some vendors feel the same way. "The thing is, the people who are slandering the night market people, they should just be happy that there is something like this in L.A. cause without 626 Night market, there would be nothing else," Pei Yen who runs the organic dumpling company Bling Bling Dumplings said in an e-mail. "It's something that was started from three people that [have] full time jobs and this was just something fun for them to do and who knew it was going to blow up like this."
But the next 626 market, and clearly there is a demand for one, should not try to be that nostalgic Taiwanese market. While it was impressive that in many cases entire Asian American families attempted to come out to this event, if there is still interest in these night markets from anyone, it is likely not going to be from the first generation folks.
The vendors that brought the market to life were not just the ones who sold stinky tofu (though that element is important). Many were actually the kind who operate Facebook pages and Twitter feeds with names like “Ray Ray’s,” “Bling Bling Dumpling” and “Mad Mochi." They run around eating kimchi tacos and flock to food truck festivals. Many probably did not read, and probably could not read, the Chinese newspaper articles that alerted their parents to the event.
Like these vendors, a 626 Night Market should reflect a different kind of cultural authenticity, one that is not fixed in a nostalgic past, used to ease homesickness or serve as a glimpse of the East for non-Asians. Yes, it should have a San Gabriel Valley flavor, something that evokes the culture of the Asian residents in this area. But it should also highlight the inventive spirit of an ever-evolving, and diverse population.
Grumbling about crowds aside, we all know if another night market happens, lots of us will be out there again. Instead of going back to driving to our usual spots around the San Gabriel Valley, maybe we'll bump into each other at the 626 Night Market instead?