When the 626 Night Market debuted in Pasadena, California in the summer of 2012, city planners anticipated that roughly 5,000 people would attend the food festival. Modeled after popular night markets in Taiwan where vendors commandeer urban thoroughfares on a nightly basis or set up permanent markets to hawk a panoply of street foods and wares, the 626 Night Market opening brought unexpected surprises.
Thanks to the power of social media and legions of wired, ravenous foodies, more than 20,000 people choked the streets of Old Town Pasadena on opening night, trying to get to the single block reserved for the event. Jonny Hwang, the market’s founder, recalls: “4 to 5 p.m. — that was my only hour of happiness. And then after that, a sea of people hit us.”
During the event, social media became a double-edged sword, with fans venting their frustrations at the chaotic scene in real time and writing scathing one-star Yelp reviews. It’s an experience that still seems to haunt Hwang: “It was very tough, because it’s very personal for us. I think for me, especially, it was hard to overcome it.”
Yet, Hwang and his team persisted. The 626 Night Market — named after an area code in the San Gabriel Valley heavily populated by Asian Americans and Asian immigrants — has finally found a home at the front Paddock Garden of Santa Anita Park, about eight miles away from its launch site.
More than 150 vendors selling meats-on-a-stick, fusion musubi, Indonesian noodles, Burmese beef-stuffed flat-bread, hand-pulled Dragon Whiskers Candy, Taiwanese street food and more set up shop along the hedge-lined walkways which lead to separate areas for live entertainment, a DJ-led dance floor and a food truck galley. The lit façade of the racetrack entrance serves as a backdrop, giving the market a festive, theme-park feel. Long lines still persist, especially for the most popular vendors, but as visitor Ray Liu of Temple City, California noted as he stood at the very end of a long queue for lamb skewers, “Waiting in line is part of the fun.”
That’s the right attitude — if not the key to enjoying the event. The first market at Santa Anita Park attracted more than 55,000 attendees, and the tally for that opening weekend wasn’t far behind, prompting Brian Wong (a native of nearby Arcadia and one of the market’s organizers) to proclaim, “We kind of knew it’d be a pretty good turnout, but this exceeded expectations. People are lining up like it’s Disneyland.”
The success of an Asian food market at Santa Anita Park marks an ironic turning point in the park’s history. During World War II, the racetrack was the nation's largest assembly center for Japanese Americans on their way to domestic concentration camps. Internees were housed in horse stables converted into living quarters that still reeked of manure. Actor George Takei vividly remembers his family being herded there when he was 5 years old, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans.
“We can’t change the history of the location,” says Hwang, “but at the same time, we have the opportunity to have a big Asian community event that honestly we’ve never really had before. If we can grow this event at this location, we can at least make this a new event for Asians to embrace and kind of redefine what Santa Anita is known for.”
Creating this new event has meant focusing less energy on replicating an authentic Taiwanese “night market” experience and placing more emphasis on building a stronger community. Hwang says, “After the first event, we realized that [a Taiwanese-style market] is technically impossible. There’s no way with the health regulations and the city fire codes that we can have an authentic night market experience. But we can take that spirit and try to do something with it and kind of make it unique and develop our own identity.”
Part of that identity has nothing to do with food. Hwang explains, “[O]ne of the things we’re trying to make the night market become is a platform not just for businesses and vendors and entrepreneurs but also for talent, whether it be singers or bands or artists or filmmakers. If we have 40,000 people coming out every weekend, why not take advantage of that and let hidden talent in the community have a chance to be showcased.”
This is where the night market has evolved beyond simply being a nocturnal ethnic food festival into something bigger, which the Los Angeles Times explored in an article entitled “Asian American youth culture is coming of age in ‘the 626.’”
Walking through the packed grounds among a wide cross section of Southern California’s residents while the popular comedic duo, the Fung Brothers rap about the “Boba life” onstage, the pungent smell of tofu overpowers the senses and stuffed patrons waddle across the paddock, it feels like the 626 — its food, its history, its culture, its newfound pride — is bursting at the seams.
After a rough start, the 626 Night Market has finally come into its own at Santa Anita Park. And if you were to place a wager, it’s probably a safe bet that this is only the beginning.
Visit 626nightmarket.com for more information.