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The return of the 626 Night Market

Visitors walking around eating chicken kebabs were a common sight at the 626 Night Market.
Visitors walking around eating chicken kebabs were a common sight at the 626 Night Market.
Sharon Kanes

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Night markets are a tradition in Asian culture. But as the Asian diaspora grows, the events have been popping up throughout the west in cities such as Vancouver, Auckland and Philadelphia.

The LA-area got its own night market in April: the 626 Night Market in Pasadena. It's named after the area code for the San Gabriel Valley, home to one of the state's biggest concentrations of Asians. But organizers weren't ready for the tens of thousands of visitors who descended on the night market's April premier. It was — by all accounts — a logistical nightmare.

Despite all the problems, on Saturday, the city gave organizers a second chance. Josie Huang was at both, and has this story.

The first Asian night market in Pasadena was — shall we say — a bit traumatizing.

More than 20,000 people squeezed into one city block over the course of the night. A police chopper monitored the traffic jams and crowds from above, and waits for food lasted a half hour or more.

"It was too tight," Jackie Belen says. "It was jam-packed. Everybody was like sardines!"

Belen, a social worker, drove all the way from Long Beach for the first night market. But after just 10 minutes she bolted to her car.

"And then I was so pissed that I said I'm going to go on Yelp and give them 1.5 star. No, a 0.5 star review," said Belen. "At first I felt bad, but then I wasn't the only one."

That's true. Hundreds of reviews on Facebook and Twitter were uniformly awful — in an Ishtar/Spiderman-Turn-off-the-Dark kind of way.

"We had a lot of negative comments and that hurt us a lot," says Aileen Xu, spokeswoman for the 626 Night Market. "You can almost say we were too successful that we failed."

But Xu says organizers "couldn't stop."

"We had to bounce back and make another one," Xu says. "Because many people came, we know there's a demand for it."

So they worked out the kinks with the city, negotiated for a bigger space, got twice the number of food vendors and retailers, about 170. And what a difference a few months of planning can make.

Kathy and Ray Liu drove up from San Diego for the night.

"We're staying overnight at a local hotel," Ray Liu says. "And this is our time without the kids."

They heard all about the crowds at the last night market. But that didn't faze them.

Kathy Liu says, "I was born in Taiwan and he has family that live in Hong Kong and Singapore. So we love the night markets."

Ray Liu says he likes "the walking around, milling around with other people. And you get to pick and choose whatever food you want. You grab a little bit of this and grab a little bit of that and it's just a fun evening."

Three times as many food vendors showed up for take two. New college graduate Annie Chou and her friends are on a eating marathon.

"I had fish balls, lamb skewers, corn, this strawberry candy thing, sugarcane juice, coconut juice," Chou says. "And waffles."

The 626 Night Market was founded by three people from Taiwan, and at the first event street food like fermented tofu, or stinky tofu, were the hot-ticket item. But Xu says the goal this time was to make the event Pan-Asian.

"We have fusion food like Asian-Latino," Xu says. "We don't want to limit it to one culture because the Asian-American population in LA — it's a melting pot."

The event attracted a lot of newcomers, and some old faces, including Jackie Belen, the angry Yelper.

"A lot of people who saw my Yelp review were like why are you going back? Are you serious?"she said.

But she reasons, "If they're going to put the effort to try it again, even after all the negative comments, why not?"

Better parking, more space — Belen says she's giving it a more positive review on Yelp. Organizers hope the night market will become a regular event, maybe even monthly. With an estimated attendance of over 30,000 people, even more than last time, it looks like they might get their wish.