After being born in Taiwan, then living in Kansas for three years, then–6-year-old Jonny Hwang arrived in Monterey Park, the city that's home to the largest concentration of Chinese-Americans in the United States. He was confused.
“I thought, 'Did we drive two weeks to get back to Taiwan?' ” he says. “It was actually very weird for me.”
Hwang spent the rest of his childhood in Southern California and pursued filmmaking at USC, but the island of Taiwan came calling. He left to rediscover his ancestry, learn Mandarin and open a lounge in Taipei, where he introduced American food, culture and hip-hop to eager Taiwanese audiences. But then Hwang met Janet Lan, who is now his wife, and four years later, the two trekked back to L.A.
Something still didn't sit right. His wife felt it, too. She missed the colorful, fast-paced night markets in Asia, which not only offered a sensory overload of sounds and smells colliding in the bustling alleyways but also a social environment ripe for conversation.
“We were always bored on the weekends here, and in the San Gabriel Valley there's so many great Asian restaurants and businesses,” says Hwang, 32. “It's like the only thing that was missing was a night market.”
Infusing his SoCal upbringing with his Taiwanese roots, Hwang created the 626 Night Market, a weekend event bringing stinky tofu, spam musubi, roasted chicken butt and pig ears to nostalgic Asian-Americans — and allowing others to try the rich flavor combinations and tastes provided by Asian street cuisine.
Neither Hwang nor the city of Pasadena, where the inaugural event was held, anticipated the night market's popularity. More than 30,000 people descended on one city block, causing traffic jams, excruciatingly long waits for food and a hovering police chopper sent to keep a handle on things from above.
Frustrated market attendees flooded social media to vent, turning the night into a logistical flop. Hwang half-jokes that the 626 Night Market holds the Guinness World Record for most negative Yelp reviews in a 24-hour period.
“I hid in my room for a very long time after the first one, because it's hard not to take it personally,” he says.
But Hwang wasn't ready to give up, so with a bit of tweaking, successful second and third events brought the crowds back but also gave him and his team the confidence they needed to keep going.
“It was tough but a good learning experience. It really grounded us,” Hwang says.
This year, the event has graduated to a new location at Santa Anita Park and will be back for three weekends throughout the summer. The hope, Hwang says, is not to emulate a night market found in Taiwan or a traditional U.S. market but to encapsulate the best of both worlds, in an arena and cultural landscape only Los Angeles could provide.
The city and the members of its Asian diaspora certainly seem ready for it.
“I think there's a rising sense of identity and pride here,” Hwang says. “I never thought I'd be organizing an Asian night market in L.A., but it does make a lot of sense; it's my way of reconnecting with my culture.”
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