On Asian American Night Markets

Asian-style night markets are becoming as much a summer fixture in Southern California fixture as the county fair.

When I was thirteen my mom went through pains to make some of my favorite Filipino food for my birthday party. I felt bad when my non-Filipino friends wrinkled their noses at the food and only ate fruit. Such moments of embarrassment over traditional food is a common experience among Asian Americans.

I had those thoughts in mind when I attended the 626 Night Market over the weekend, where Santa Anita Park was packed with people who came to eat Asian food. The summer festival series began in 2011 by USC alumnus Johnny Hwang. It mimics night markets in Asia, where people enjoy street food and local delicacies.

I began attending Asian American night markets in Southern California when I was in high school — first the 626 Night Market series and then with the KTown Night Market in Los Angeles. I had a deep love for the night markets because they highlighted Asian culture.

I grew up in a town that was mostly Mexican American, which explains why my friends were wary to try Filipino food. The night markets, however, provided an opportunity for my high school self to interact with a primarily Asian space, which was something I didn't often do outside of my home. I loved that I could have a bowl of soup with fresh, hand-pulled noodles and chat with Asian American artists who chose to pursue art rather than take up a stereotypical career path for Asians.

I've had my share of disenchantments, however, because night markets often have huge crowds and 30-minute lines just for a mason jar of tea.

And yet, I keep coming back with Asian and non-Asian friends in tow.

"I like the food. It's a good, happy, social kind of venue," said Eric Uyeda, a fellow attendee who has been coming to the 626 Night Market since the series began in Pasadena. Uyeda has a point; just like the O.C. County fair and the L.A. County fair, Asian-style night markets have a great festival vibe that is perfect for families, friends and couples. For this reason, SoCal night markets may attract Asian crowds, but many non-Asian Americans attend, too.

In this way, I appreciate that the night markets reflect the growing visibility of Asian Americans. According to Pew Research Center, Asians are the fastest-growing immigrant population in the United States. There is a notable population in the San Gabriel Valley where the 626 Night Market is hosted. Restaurants and popular food trucks such as Komodo are also introducing remixes of traditional recipes. As such, the region has a growing taste for some types of Asian and Asian fusion food.

Because of the increase in visibility, some Asian Americans feel more encouraged to embrace the traditional food of their respective culture and try the food of others. The night markets allow them to do just that, and also introduce non-Asians to new types of food. But as a San Gabriel Valley native, I appreciate that SoCal night markets reflect the diversity of the region by featuring food from both Asian and non-Asian communities.

SoCal night markets may heavily feature Asian culture, but these night markets are not completely reflective of night markets in Asia. One wouldn't see, for instance, sponsor booths from companies like McDonald's or BMW in Asia, nor would there be multiple vendors blasting top 40 music and EDM in their respective booths. In that regard, SoCal night markets have the vibe of an American county fair and reflect the diversity of SoCal by featuring food from Asian and non-Asian communities.

"We're open to all types of new ideas, all types of races, whether it be Asian, South American or European," said John Yap, a 626 Night Market staff member in charge of the information booth and merchandise.

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Like Yap mentioned, the night markets are definitely Asian American but they are open to providing opportunities for locals of all backgrounds. These night markets, for instance, allow local musicians to perform and get exposure. They also support small businesses by providing artists, animators and vendors to share their ideas and products with a large crowd.

"It's a night market [for vendors] to enjoy themselves and to give customers an experience they never had at such a festival."

These night markets are particularly interesting because their growing popularity as summer festivals is a small mark of historical progress for Asian American communities in SoCal, the primary symbol being the location of the 626 Night Market, Santa Anita Park.

Santa Anita Park, located in Arcadia, was an assembly center for evacuated Japanese Americans during World War II. People lived in smelly, overpacked horse stables and apartments before moving to isolated camps throughout the country. Actor George Takei, whose family was relocated to the racetrack when he was four years old, recalled to L.A. Times in 2012 that his mother "thought it was the most humiliating and degrading experience of her life."

Yet the racetrack seems to have been redeemed in its current role as home to the country's biggest night market celebrating Asian American art, culture and business.

"These are brand new businesses, these people would like to invest their time and their money showing thousands of people what they love to do, how they do it … they chase that dream and we're here to help them realize it," Yap said.

Asian Americans still fight work for representation, empowerment and political engagement. The SoCal night markets help the community in that fight. They allow Asian Americans to embrace traditions and current trends. They celebrate Asian culture and support the diversity of SoCal by providing opportunities for vendors of all backgrounds.

For that alone, I'll always come back to enjoy myself at a night market – even if I have to spend the better part of an hour waiting for boba.

Reach Staff Writer Heidi Carreon here and follow her on Twitter here.