AN INTERVIEW WITH FOUNDER JOHNNY HWANG
Inspired by the lively and colorful night markets found in Taiwan, in 2012 Jonny Hwang and his friends started the 626 Night Market in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles. On weekend summer nights, 80 Asian street food vendors and 70 local merchandise vendors gather to sell spicy tofu, dumplings, oyster noodles, and other delights. The crowd of 40,000 to 50,000 attendees are entertained by live performers, DJs, games, and dancing. In summer 2013, the 626 Night Market featured a six-foot tall glass container filled with 320 gallons of boba, including 125 four-inch tapioca balls. Public Diplomacy Magazine editors Jocelyn Coffin, Caitlin Dobson, and Maria Portela interviewed founder Jonny Hwang to learn more.
Public Diplomacy Magazine: What kind of environment do you hope to create with the Night Market? In terms of creating an atmosphere, what is the advantage of hosting the market at night versus another time of day?
Jonny Hwang: We wanted to recreate the spirit and energy of the night markets in Taiwan with the 626 Night Market. Night markets are often found in Asian countries such as Taiwan, China, and Thailand. As many of these Asian societies have a vibrant night scene vastly different from America, it was important to have our events at night to emulate the feel of an Asian night market.
PDM: Do you have any criteria for selecting businesses to showcase? Does there have to be a direct connection to Asia or Asian culture?
JH: We prefer small, local businesses. We want to make sure we have enough Asian flavors and authenticity, but we do not limit businesses to only Asian-related. In 2014, we are expanding our events to Los Angeles and Orange County. We anticipate these events will be more diverse, but will still retain the Asian night market roots.
PDM: Why is food such an important focus of what the night market offers? What sort of impact do you think food has on the attendees’ experience overall? Why food and not something else?
JH: Food is a very important component of Asian culture. Oftentimes the first or second thing you ask a friend when meeting them is if they have eaten. People go to night markets in Asia primarily for the food. Food is a very social experience for Asian cultures, and also in America. With the advent of social media tools such as Instagram and Facebook, sharing the food experience has exploded in popularity and in turn, that helps promote all the great, small businesses that attend our events. Attendees can express themselves through their food choices almost like a fashion statement. Food, without a doubt, is the main attraction of our events.
PDM: What are the main challenges in successfully sustaining the 626 Night Market? What strategies do you have to deal with these challenges?
JH: In Los Angeles, trends and fads are extremely common. Night markets have survived in Asia for decades, if not centuries. Our strategy is to constantly evolve our events with new foods, entertainment, arts, technology, and experiences. We want our events to not only be a platform for food, but a platform for any category that our attendees are passionate about.
PDM: Is the market known outside of the Taiwanese/ Asian diaspora? Does 626 Night Market try to attract others outside of this diaspora?
JH: When we first started in 2012, probably 98% of our attendees were Asian. By our seventh event, it’s become about 80% Asian. We are definitely starting to get known outside of the Asian diaspora. We believe that expanding into Los Angeles and Orange County will further broaden our demographic reach.
PDM: What is the main goal you hope 626 Night Market will achieve for the diaspora in the San Gabriel Valley? What do you think the Night Market does in terms of cultural survival and maintaining a cultural identity?
JH: The main goal for the 626 Night Market is to provide an event that the Asian diaspora can identify with and rally for. Whether people participate as vendors, artists, or support their friends, or come as attendees, they are involved in the experience. Rarely do Asian communities have something to call their own that unites them and that many of them support. It’s definitely a way to tie them to their culture and maintain cultural identity, but also a way to tie their American experience with their ethnic origins, because our events infuse American/LA lifestyle elements with the concept of Asian night markets.
PDM: What does a market platform offer – that other platforms don’t offer – that encourages intercultural exchange through food?
JH: A market platform with the diversity of vendors that we have offers an insight into pan-Asian foods, businesses, and artists. Food is often the first or simplest way for intercultural exchanges to happen. It’s a common denominator that people from all cultures are interested in exploring.
PDM: How do you hope the expansion of the market to Los Angeles and Orange County will amplify the cultural exchange that currently takes place in San Gabriel Valley?
JH: We hope that our expanded locations will carry the energy and lifestyle culture of our market to LA and the O.C., but we also want to showcase the differences and talents of LA and the O.C. in the same way we did with the 626.
PDM: What role did/does the diaspora play in the conception and the implementation of the 626 Night Market?
JH: The diaspora plays a huge role. We draw from the entrepreneurs, artists, creators, and supporters of our communities, and provide them with a platform to showcase and chase their passions, ideas, and be innovative, which in turn helps our events.