Watch out world, the center of Asian America is the 626, which for those of you who don’t know is the area code for the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County.
Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of hyperbole (or a lot) there but do you blame me taking some pride in my neighborhood?
Having been born, raised, and still living in the 626, I remember back in the 90s when no one outside of the San Gabriel Valley knew about the San Gabriel Valley—let alone its area code. I was so desperate for 626 representation and love that I got excited when Stitch from Lilo and Stitch, was named “Experiment 626.”
Now because of people like the comedy hip hop duo, the Fung Brothers, and wonderful events like the 626 Night Market, people are starting to take notice. I had a chance to sit down and talk to Aileen Xu, the content creator, spokesperson, and media relations manager for the 626 Night Market.
1. What is the 626 Night Market?
The 626 Night Market is the largest Asian night market in the U.S., featuring over 160 food and merchandise vendors, live entertainment, DJs, short films, children’s activities, and much more. It is a giant food and entertainment event for the entire family to enjoy.
2. Who came up with the idea and why?
Our founder Jonny Hwang came up with the idea with his wife Janet—they met and lived in Taiwan and loved going to the night markets there. When they came back to the U.S. to settle in the San Gabriel Valley, they loved how accessible the area was to Asian food and culture, but felt that one thing the area was missing was a night market. In the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, there wasn’t much to do late at night—a night market would provide a place where people of all ages could gather, socialize, and explore different local foods. Jonny, Janet, and a friend Brian then set out to start the 626 Night Market in Pasadena in April 2012, and the rest is history.
But the mission of the 626 Night Market runs deeper than just providing a fun event for the community. One of the main purposes of the event is to provide a place for local businesses and entrepreneurs to flourish and to stimulate local economies. There are tons of mom & pop shops and restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley who have delicious and authentic foods, but most of them do not have signs or menus in English. This can be very intimidating for people who would like to try new cuisines, but are discouraged by a language or cultural barrier. What the 626 Night Market does is provide a hub where all of these local mom & pop shops can showcase themselves to a huge audience, and where visitors can taste a variety of these local restaurants that they normally would not try. Not to mention, our market is a place where vendors can experiment with new fusion food creations or products and test the market before selling it at their business. It’s a win-win experience for everybody.
3. At the last 626 Night Market, I heard a story that the first year you guys were anticipating a lot less people. How surprised are you guys by the success? And why do you think that is?
So when the three original 626 Night Market organizers were planning the first event in April 2012, they approached the City of Pasadena with the proposal. First of all, the three had no experience in event planning and had no idea how many people would come out to the event; the City of Pasadena predicted that probably 5,000-8,000 would show up. So they planned accordingly for that crowd, not knowing that in just a couple months before the event (February 2012), the power of social media would have a dramatic impact on the outcome of events. On that night, about 20,000 people came out to the event and overwhelmed & shocked all of the vendors and especially the organizers.
They definitely did not expect that kind of success for their first event, considering that they put no budget towards advertising or marketing. Social media spread the word about the event on its own, which is crazy. But in hindsight, that first night proved to us that a lot of people are interested in the concept of the night market and that this event is definitely something we have to continue to build and improve upon. That first event was a nightmare—the food ran out in the first couple hours, and we probably hold a record for the most 1 star Yelp reviews given in one night—but the high demand was a good problem to have. After that, the organizers continued to expand the night market so that it can meet that huge demand by the community—and we’ve grown a lot since last year.
We know a night market is something the people really want—probably because so many of the people in San Gabriel Valley either grew up with or heard about the night markets back in Asia. Night markets bring a feeling of nostalgia. And also, Asian Americans love food—there’s something about the obsession of taking photos of food, using Yelp (Asian Americans are the largest demographic of Yelp users), etc. Food brings people and cultures together.
4. If a person can only go to two food booths or food trucks, what would you recommend?
This is a tough one. I love foods that are unique and that you can’t get anywhere else, so my two food booths would be Mama Musubi and Phantom Food Truck. Mama Musubi serves unique, hand-crafted musubis that are so delicious and so rare (they only do 626 Night Market and cater special events) and Phantom Food Truck serves the best fusion foods like Peking Duck Fries…. OMGAH they’re so good. And a recommendation for drinks is Cold Cane Labs—they sell freshly pressed sugar cane juice in different flavors! Super refreshing for a warm summer night.
But then again, if you were a night market first-timer, I would definitely make sure you stop by the stinky tofu and lamb skewer booths before you go anywhere else!
5. Where can they find out more about the 626 Night Market?
The 626 Night Market is at the Santa Anita Park (Front Paddock Gardens), 285 W. Huntington Drive Arcadia, CA 91007. There are only two more Night Markets this summer! This weekend (July 6-7) and the first weekend of August (3-4). The Market is open on Saturdays 4PM-1A and Sundays 4PM-11PM.
My wife, baby, and I are going this Saturday when it opens and are looking forward to eating and trying new foods. For those of you with families, I highly recommend going early and beating the long lines!
PS: I just heard that the 626 Night Market folks are planning on making the World’s Largest Cup of Boba Tea. Can’t wait to check it out. For more information, go to their website.
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