The Year of the Night Market

626

By Ada Tseng

Ramen burgers, kimchi fries and pho tacos. Stinky tofu. Spiral-cut fried potato skewers sprinkled with a variety of seasonings. And balls — lots and lots of balls: curry fish balls, fried yam balls, takoyaki squid and octopus balls, kimchi fried rice balls with DMZ sauce, gourmet rice balls with honey Sriracha, crispy tofu balls covered with Vietnamese green crisped rice and spicy orange aioli. Truly, the wealth of options at an Asian American night market can be overwhelming for an attendee. After all, we only have one stomach.

Last October’s OC Night Market — the latest extension of the 626 Night Market that has since branched out from Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (home of the 626 area code) into downtown Los Angeles and Orange County — was filled with over 200 vendors competing with each other for the attention of 60,000 potential customers. Sometimes that involved shouting Korean BBQ menu items from a loudspeaker or flashing eye- catching disco lights; sometimes it took three half-naked Asian girls encouraging onlookers to buy delicious Vietnamese coffee. But the most effective and envied form of attraction was a long line of customers, signifying the food must be worth the wait.

Though many Asian countries have their versions of outdoor food markets — from Singaporean hawker centres to Korean pojangmacha — the term “night market” was popularized in Taiwan, where these nighttime food markets still remain a key attraction for foreign tourists visiting the country, eager to experience the noisy atmosphere, crowded food stalls, mouth-watering smells and cheap eats that you consume on the spot (or while walking in search of your next snack). According to Taiwan’s government information site, food bazaars that operated at night in ancient China were originally called ghost markets, and contemporary-style night markets began to appear in Taiwanese cities during the turn of the century, when the government actively set aside blocks of streets for permanent night markets.

For Asian immigrants and their second-generation children, night markets elicit fond memories. “I always remember visiting the night markets with my family and friends to eat all different kinds of food,” says Jonny Hwang, the founder of 626 Night Market, who was born in Taiwan but immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child. So when his family relocated to Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles with a large Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant population, he wondered, why didn’t they have one?

“There are tons of little businesses and good restaurants, but they all have Chinese menus and signage, so it can be very foreign and intimidating to outsiders,” he says. “Because so much good food is hidden, I thought a night market would be a great showcase for the talent and entrepreneurs in the area.”

Hwang had heard of a couple successful night markets in Vancouver, as well as previous attempts to start a night market in Southern California that didn’t work out. Assuming it had to do with the challenges working with health departments and government agencies, he and his partners went straight to different cities of the San Gabriel Valley with a night market proposal, figuring that if they had the government backing them, the entire process would be a lot easier.

At first, most of the cities in the area were not interested. “The people running their events recreation departments didn’t even know what night markets were, because they weren’t Asian,” says Hwang. “Which is kind of sad, because they serve a very Asian population. They were used to doing their Lunar New Year Festivals, so they figured they already had an Asian event.”

Pasadena was the only place that was interested, because they happened to have an initiative to attract more Asian businesses to the area. So the very first 626 Night Market was scheduled for April 2012, with plans to shut down a couple streets in Old Town Pasadena for the event.

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Hwang’s team was optimistic that they could get 8,000 attendees, but the Pasadena special events folks, who had years of experience planning signature events like the Tournament of Roses parade, tempered their expectations. As first-time organizers, they’d be lucky to get 500 people to attend, they were told. But come event time, Hwang says the team had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom ended up stuck in long lines, trapped in walkways like sardines or unable to even get in.

“If we had gotten 8,000 to 10,000 people throughout the day, it probably would have been OK,” says Hwang. “But people were coming from Orange County and Riverside, and all the way from San Diego and Las Vegas.” The surrounding freeways and side streets were packed. A police chopper had to monitor the traffic jams and crowds from above.

Though it seemed like a disaster to attendees (many of whom blasted the event through angry Yelp comments), business-wise, it was a huge success. Vendors were happy because they all sold out, and most importantly, it proved that there was a huge demand for a night market. The 626 team learned a lot of things, and soon, the other cities that had originally shunned their proposal came knocking.

Though 626 Night Market was not the first night market in America — Night Market Philadelphia, for example, though not focused on Asian cuisine, began in 2010 — it has made the biggest impact.

“626 are the ones that really started this night market hype,” says Jeff Shimamoto of The Original Ramen Burger, whose ramen-bun burgers have been a fan favorite since his brother Keizo debuted it in New York in the summer of 2013. “Our type of food probably wouldn’t have existed in a regular food market. It’s when the Asian night markets started popping up that we were able to participate.”

Shimamoto now has a brick-and-mortar of sorts, offering The Original Ramen Burger at a take-out window in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Tonight, he’s hanging out at the adjacent Lock and Key bar with his fellow night market veteran friends, Phillip and Carol Kwan of Mama Musubi (who specialize in a gourmet version of onigiri rice balls, a popular Japanese snack) and Matthew Hui of Fluff Ice (a Taiwanese-inspired snowflake ice that takes flavored ice blocks and shaves them into what they call “frozen cotton candy”). They’re celebrating the end of another busy and successful night market season.

Since 626 debuted, night markets have opened up in other areas of Southern California, like Koreatown and Little Saigon in Westminster. Hwang himself was contacted for advice or collaboration requests from groups who wanted to start their own night markets in San Jose, San Diego and St. Paul. There are now night markets in Seattle, Honolulu and New York, and the list goes on. Even the team behind Studio City’s Sportsmen’s Lodge 1st Thursdays Night Market, who Hwang remembers jokingly called themselves “the white night market,” wanted in on the action. Now, you might be thinking, isn’t a Caucasian night market just … a fair? Like every single county fair in America? But this was just an indication of how the term “night market” was catching on. It had looped back into the mainstream.

Benjamin Kang, one of the organizers of the KTOWN Night Market and the MPK Night Market in Monterey Park, California (both debuted in 2014), believes it’s a good time for night markets because Asian culture is trending more than it ever has in America. “All my white friends want to come to Koreatown,” he says, laughing, citing the Koreatown episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown, as well as the numerous Asian American chefs on mainstream TV cooking shows. “They’re always asking me what the best Chinese or Japanese restaurants are in L.A.”

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“I think the food industry revolves around the Asian population,” says Hui of Fluff Ice. “When all the Asian people think it’s cool, then the non-Asians flock to it. Because all the foodies on Yelp are Asian girls named Grace or Nancy.” He laughs. “The Yelp elite start reviewing all these places, and they become the definitive source.”

While 626 Night Market also had creative entertainment to go along with the food — Asian American performers, live art battles, eating competitions and the unveiling of the new Guinness World Record for the largest cup of boba milk tea — KTOWN Night Market made use of their Korean American showbiz connections, bringing together high-profile food celebrities, like the guys behind Seoul Sausage Company, who won Season 3 of the Food Net-work’s The Great Food Truck Race, as well as musicians like rappers Dumbfoundead and Shin-B. Six months later, KTOWN Night Market also hosted a Halloween Food Fest, where there were costume contests and carnival rides.

“Night markets in Asia are open all the time, so they don’t make a festival out of it,” says Shimamoto. “But here, they turn it into a big event, and that’s what makes it fun. We have concerts and beer gardens. And that’s why we get so many people concentrated at one time.”

The Kwans launched Mama Musubi at the first 626 Night Market in 2012. The brother-and-sister duo wanted to test the market and see what people thought about fresh Japanese rice balls. Would people get their gourmet version — with 24-hour braised Berkshire pork belly — or would they assume it was the same as the refrigerated kinds you can get at Mitsuwa supermarkets? Turns out, there was excitement for rice balls not only in the night markets but in non-Asian markets like the Altadena Farmer’s Market, where they are regulars. But though they work these markets and also cater, their ultimate goal is to launch their own store.

Similarly, The Original Ramen Burger started participating in night markets in Los Angeles because California foodies were asking for it. They do pretty well, but they see night markets as a transition into eventually running four to five restaurant franchises.

“There are two crowds of vendors at the night market,” says Phillip Kwan. “Vendors like us who have long-term visions of opening up brick-and-mortars. And others that make a comfortable living for themselves doing festival-type events.”

Some vendors may have a full-time job on the side. Others might be there just for fun. “On the last day of the night market, there were these 15 Vietnamese ladies from Orange County [in the booth next to us],” remembers Shimamoto. “They showed up four hours before everybody else, and they were all perky and ready to go with all their juices. And they said, ‘We all go to the same church, and we decided we were going to come out here and try and sell some lemonade!’” He laughs. “And that’s great! Maybe they’re just doing it once a month for a little money. Or maybe they could become the next Mrs. Fields Cookies. Either way, they were just so happy to be there.”

Hwang encourages it all. “In the beginning, most of our vendors had stores, but we really encourage the ones who don’t,” he says. “It’s such a good platform for people to try new ideas for cheap. Just do it for one weekend. If it’s good and you like it, then do it again. Those are the types of food you can’t eat anywhere else. You have to go to our event to find them.”

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“Phil and I think that the model for starting a restaurant is going to start changing,” says Shimamoto. “In Los Angeles, you see a lot of restaurants come and go. But [working the night markets] is a way you lower your overhead and costs, and it’s a great way to get some exposure while retaining flexibility to work on other things, like food trucks or developing your brick-and-mortar.”

Even Fluff Ice, which already had a store in Monterey Park when 626 first opened, found that attending night markets is just a good way to network, advertise and grow your business. “There’s just so many layers of income you can get with a business like this, whether it’s night markets, school fundraisers or Hollywood catering,” says Hui, who has catered for How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Recreation, The Office and the upcoming film Paranormal Activity 5. They now have four locations in Southern California.

But these Asian American night markets aren’t without its skeptics. In Taiwan, you go to the night market because you’re craving certain foods, whether it be oyster pancakes, ba-wan (Taiwanese meatballs wrapped in gelatinous dough) or aiyu jelly drinks. You’re also expecting a certain atmosphere — makeshift stalls where you see and smell the food being prepared right in front of you — and a certain experience, a.k.a. cheap stuff, whether it be food, shopping or games.

In the beginning, that was the source of some of the disappointment for night market goers in America. It didn’t look right — health codes in the U.S. require covered canopies so it looked like a typical fair. It’s not cheap: there’s usually a cover charge of $5 to $10 just to get in, and everything, even a tiny plate, usually costs at least $5 (which adds up!). And there was a random mix of foods, both Asian and non-Asian, that weren’t necessarily what you thought of as “street food.” (One vendor at a recent KTOWN Night Market was serving up 100 percent grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised Australian bone-in lamb.)

“But I think that’s what makes us different in a good way,” says Hwang. “If you think about the night markets in Asia, it’s all the same foods. We always get a good amount of vendors that are new or tweaking their menu, and it’s exciting to see people experimenting with new things — whether it’s fusion foods like the ramen burger, pho tacos and new types of guabao [Taiwanese pork belly buns] — or if they’re bringing in traditional stuff that we never had before, like yam balls and chicken sausages. It’s a competitive marketplace, so you have to be creative. Don’t do the usual things, or if you do, figure out how you can do it differently.”

“You can’t be stale,” agrees Carol Kwan, who recently collaborated with the Shimamoto brothers to create a one-month-only specialty mash-up: the Mama Musubi 24-hour Pork Belly Ramen Burger. “It’s the same even if you’re in a restaurant. You have to innovate and keep creating something new to keep people coming.”

That said, for every food item that’s worth waiting for in the night market lines, there are many, many more that are underwhelming and overpriced. It’s also hard to tell whether something is innovative or just gimmicky, and with so many copycat renditions of almost the same idea (there’s a reason Ramen Burger changed its name to The Original Ramen Burger), it’s tempting to assume the latter.

But one can only hope that the truly tasty, fusion or not, rises to the top — that the prevalence of night markets are giving those gems a place to grow and a community of like-minded food fans a place to gather.

“One of the major pluses [of the night markets] is how it impacts the current and hopefully the next generation of Asian Americans,” says Christine Chiao, a food writer who’s contributed to LA Weekly and Sunset. “A regular or seasonal night market can be a platform for more than just the vendors. It can become a channel, too, for young Asian American attendees to seek and express their identity.”

So did Hwang ever imagine that the 626 Night Market he created would become such a cultural touchstone?

“Not really,” he says. “At first I really did it for fun, as a side thing, because I knew it’d be something that people would enjoy. I never thought I’d end up working full time to produce night markets.” He laughs. “Who goes to college thinking that? It’s surreal.”

 

 

 

Feature image: 626 Night Market at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. Photo courtesy of DANNY LIAO PHOTOGRAPHY. This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

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Ameriie is Back: New Albums, New Novels, New YouTube Channel

ameriie

By Ada Tseng

Listening to Ameriie talk a mile a minute, it sounds like she’s working on a million creative projects at once. The singer and musician is most known in mainstream America for her 2005 hit single “1 Thing,” back when her name only had one “i.” (The second “i,” which doesn’t affect the pronunciation, was added in 2010 for a different “vibration.”) Since then, she’s released two albums — 2007’s Because I Love It, which was only released abroad, and 2009’s In Love & War, her first release under her own label, Feeniix Rising, which she created with her husband and collaborator Lenny Nicholson. And she has two more in the works (BILI, a nod to the initials of the earlier album Because I Love It, and Cymatika Vol. 1, the first of a trilogy in mind) that are scheduled for a 2015 release.

Ameriie is constantly planning, constantly thinking and constantly putting together vocals, chords, beats and drum riffs in her head, even if she encounters writer’s block and needs to go on a run to tempt inspiration to come. She doesn’t like to write down her ideas, because she feels like it loses some of the magic. (“If the idea is good,” she insists, “I’ll remember.”) And she’ll throw herself into each project. “I always record in the dark, and then I pace,” she says. “I go into a corner and face the wall, so it probably looks creepy.” But after she’s done, she’s on to the next thing. And when she’s not writing, recording or performing music, she’s working on her novels. Yes, novels, plural — one a young adult story and another that has a fantasy theme. She makes it a point to write almost every day, and her drafts and outlines are impressively organized on Scrivener, her choice of writing software she can’t stop raving about.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue- See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/ameriie-is-back-new-albums-new-novels-new-youtube-channel/#sthash.BubZ2FUU.dpuf

Reshma Saujani’s Girls Who Code and the “Inspire Her Mind” Campaign

by Ada Tseng

In Reshma Saujani’s 2011 Ted Talk, she discussed the importance of encouraging more American youth to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers in order to create jobs and re-ignite our economy. Not only are twice as many degrees being earned in business and social science compared to STEM, she also pointed to a startling gender gap, especially in technology fields. While 58 percent of women earn bachelor degrees, only 25 percent of them are in STEM fields, and only 12 percent of computer science graduates are women, down from 37 percent in 1985. Research has shown that in a poll of fourth graders, two-thirds of both boys and girls claim to like math and science. However, by the time girls graduate high school, only 0.3 percent choose computer science as their college major.

“I think there are subtle things we do to girls that tell them that these fields are not for them,” says Saujani, who provided the voiceover for this summer’s “Inspire Her Mind” campaign, a cultural dialogue ignited by Verizon and MAKERS, a digital platform showcasing stories of trailblazing women from all walks of life. The commercial shows how parents discouraging their daughters from getting their dresses and hands dirty, telling them to be careful around electric tools (while passing them off to their brothers), can really have an effect on girls’ perceptions of what they think they can be.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/girls-who-code-reshma-saujanis-nonprofit-encourages-girls-to-pursue-careers-in-engineering-and-technology/#sthash.5eDbY1yd.dpuf

Man From Reno’s Ayako Fujitani As a Mystery Writer

man from reno

By Ada Tseng

When her latest film Man From Reno won the top prize at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival this summer, Ayako Fujitani was initially confused. “Dave [Boyle, the director,] told me, ‘We won!’ and I said, ‘For what?’” she remembers. She laughs. “I had forgotten it was a competition! The project had come such a long way from the [initial] Kickstarter [fundraising campaign]. We had such a tough time even finishing the movie, and we were super happy to even get in the L.A. Film Festival. So when we won, we were super shocked and surprised, in a good way.”

This is the second time the hapa actress (born to Japanese aikido master Miyako Fujitani and American action star Steven Seagal) has worked with Boyle, the first experience being in his 2012 black- and-white indie romance Daylight Savings, in which she had a supporting role as Goh Nakamura’s ex- girlfriend. After that wrapped, Boyle was working on a crime film that started out as a pair of simultaneous mystery stories with vastly different protagonists, a Japanese writer and an elderly sheriff. The sheriff character, who’d eventually be played by Pepe Serna, came from an unproduced screenplay Boyle had written previously, but the Japanese writer Aki was a new addition and written with Fujitani in mind.

“I think she has a unique cerebral soulfulness about her that was perfect for the part of Aki,” says Boyle. “While the sheriff’s storyline is more of a traditional police procedural, Aki’s is a bit more emotional and character driven. She is the classic amateur sleuth, but she has secrets of her own that make her darker than your average heroine.”

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-5 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/get-to-know-actress-writer-and-filmmaker-ayako-fujitani/#sthash.6p6kduel.dpuf

‘Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe’ by Yumi Sakugawa

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By Ada Tseng

One year after her debut comic book, I Think I’m In Friend-Love With You, artist Yumi Sakugawa has released her second book, Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe, complete with nine black-and-white, ink-illustrated metaphysical lessons about how to slow down, appreciate your surroundings, overcome your insecurities and feel more connected with the world around you.

“As a self-help junkie who used to read a lot of self-help books to get through periods of depression and extremely low self-esteem,” she says, “this book is my own way of contributing to the self-help genre, but in a more visual format that is very different from the usual style of self-help books.”

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/your-illustrated-guide-to-becoming-one-with-the-universe-by-yumi-sakugawa/#sthash.WIegveJY.dpuf

Kathy Uyen in How To Fight In Six Inch Heels

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By Ada Tseng

Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Kathy Uyen worked as an actress in Los Angeles for several years before she got the opportunity in 2008 to work on her first Vietnamese film, Passport to Love. Though she was quickly accepted in Vietnam’s show business world — she received a Best Supporting Actress award at the 2009 Golden Kite Awards (the Vietnamese version of the Oscars) — she still felt like a fish out of water.

“When I first moved to Vietnam, I’d go to [industry] events, and everyone would be dressed up in really beautiful gowns,” Uyen remembers. “And I’m coming from L.A.; we don’t wear gowns. But I had to get all these long gowns made in order to be respectful. I felt like this klutzy girl on the inside. Everyone was all properly posed on the red carpet, and I would just smile and pretend, even though I didn’t know what I was doing.”

After a few years, though Uyen had achieved a certain amount of fame and celebrity in Vietnam, she realized that roles for Vietnamese American women were still few and far between. Though her Vietnamese language skills had become more fluent, she still spoke with an American accent and found herself losing roles to Vietnamese locals. That’s when she decided to take matters into her own hands, come up with a story idea for a film she could star in, and pitch it to producers.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/vietnamese-american-kathy-uyen-in-how-to-fight-in-six-inch-heels/#sthash.HYGG6mMg.dpuf

Crystal Kay Is Ready for her International Debut

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By Ada Tseng

Born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, to an African American military father and a third-generation ethnically Korean singer mother, Crystal Kay was constantly surrounded by music. She started singing commercial jingles at the tender age of 4 (“My mom’s friend who owned an advertisement production company would borrow me when they needed a child’s voice,” says Kay) and released her first single, “Eternal Memories,” at 13. Fifteen years and 11 albums later, Kay, 28, is looking forward to branching outside of her Japanese fanbase and introducing her unique sound to American audiences.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue- See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/japanese-artist-crystal-kay-is-ready-for-her-international-debut/#sthash.ZS0fC7hF.dpuf