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O.C. Night Market Returns for Another Season

Night markets are a millennia-old Chinese tradition. Historically, they are street-markets comprised of various types of vendors – usually with an emphasis on food, clothing and jewelry. Throughout the ages, the tradition has spread throughout various Asian countries, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. Many North American cities (in both Canada and the U.S.) with Chinatowns host night markets, and the 626 Night Market, in Arcadia, Calif., is promoted as being the largest night market in the U.S. Two years after the 626 Night Market opened, in 2012, its organizers saw the potential for catering to the Orange County community. Thus, the O.C. Night Market was launched!

Photo courtesy of O.C. Night Market

The market will take place several times this year (May 17-19, June 14-16 and August 23-25) at the O.C. Fairgrounds, in Costa Mesa, and claims to be the “biggest and only large-scale night market festival in Orange County.” While this modern event has come a long way from the pushcarts and street vendors that originally thrived at night markets, there will be plenty of sights and activities to enthrall visitors. Guests can expect to experience more than 200 local food, merchandise, games, arts and crafts vendors; art exhibitions, eating contests, dance competitions, live musical performances, and more. In advance of this year’s O.C. Night Market season, Irvine Weekly reached out to Holly Nguyen, the PR and marketing manager for 626 Night Market, to learn more about the history of the SoCal branches of this tradition.

Given that the O.C. Night Market is an offshoot of the 626 Night Market, we asked about the original SoCal night market’s origin. Nguyen said, “Founder Jonny Hwang felt that the San Gabriel Valley, home to the highest concentrations of Chinese-Americans in the United States, was missing a night market. He named 626 Night Market after the area code.” She went on to explain a bit about the cultural significance of the event. “In Asia, night markets are a place where people can not only grab a bite to eat from a street food vendor but also … socialize and spend time with friends and family. 626 Night Market is now a mainstay in the local community and a popular summer destination for Angelenos and travelers from out of town.”

Nguyen explained that the O.C. Night Market was opened to provide convenience for the people who didn’t like driving all the way up to the San Gabriel Valley, and it has since become “one of the largest and most popular food festival events in Orange County.” Given the plentiful Asian demographics of Orange County, we wondered how many of the O.C. Night Market’s vendors were from local neighborhoods. She pointed out not only the extent to which vendors were local but also the degree to which the night markets are an inspiration for entrepreneurship and business expansion.

Photo courtesy of O.C. Night Market

According to Nguyen, “A good number of vendors at the O.C. Night Market are based in Orange County. If they do well their first year, we encourage them to join 626 Night Market or even our newest event, NorCal Night Market at Alameda County Fairgrounds, in Pleasanton. We have always supported local businesses and entrepreneurship. Our events are sometimes the first time a vendor has ever sold an item to anybody, and some go on to open their own restaurant or store.”

As our Q&A went on, we learned that the event’s vendors and exhibitors are not exclusively based in Asian cultures. Quite a bit of diversity will be represented in the Art Walk (exhibition of arts). Nguyen identified some of the exhibitors (along with their Instagram handles) and the varieties of their work. She said that artists will include “Hee Han (@heezart), who does fan art of films and anime such as Marvel’s The Avengers and Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro in a steampunk style. Another is Eddy Lee (@eddyleeart), who does painting of ethereal women on wooden panels. Our Art Walk artists range from spray paint, oil on canvas, digital illustrations, mixed mediums, you name it.” When asked about the presence of traditional arts for sale, Nguyen pointed out, “As far as we know, there are no vendors showcasing traditional wares, but [we] would love to have some! Many of our arts and crafts vendors will be selling small things such as handmade wallets and purses, enamel pins, crochet plushies, succulent plants and jewelry.”

Sensing our interest in learning the extent to which the O.C. Night Market is a facsimile of traditional Asian night markets, Nguyen clarified. “I want to make it clear that we are not a traditional Asian event and are in no way trying to copy the night market events in Asia. We have many Asian and Asian-American attendees who hail from a wide range of cultures such as Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and more.” She continued, “Over the years, our events have become more diverse, and we have always been open to everyone. 626 Night Market [and, by extension, the O.C. Night Market] is its own unique, modern blend of Los Angeles culture, simply with Asian roots.” However much distance this distinction creates, she was quick to add, “We do have some traditional Asian foods, such as Taiwanese giant fried squid on a skewer that’s bigger than your face, Japanese takoyaki and Chinese beef and lamb skewers. Other popular foods are fusion foods such as rainbow elote, sushi tacos or Hot Cheetos burritos.”

Photo courtesy of O.C. Night Market

The details of the eating competitions had not yet been finalized as of this interview, but Nguyen did offer: “In the past, we have had mukbangs, based on the popular viral trend from South Korea of eating large amounts of food in front of an audience.” In the arena of dancing competitions, more modernity dominates. Nguyen said, “The dance competitions are very modern and will be mostly hip hop.” She went on to outline the dynamics of the performances, mention a few competitive groups and reveal the stakes. “Teams of up to 40 people each will exhibit or compete in an hour-and-a-half long show on Saturday, May 18 from 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. The grand prize is $1,000 cash. Some teams are Urban Motus, Carson Street Dance, Kaba Modern and Taste the Rainbow.”

Additional components of the O.C. Night Market include interactive activities that are not necessarily Asian-themed or inspired but fun for the whole family, nonetheless. These include carnival games, photo ops, a street piano (available for guests to play), a flower wall and a dance floor for b-boying [a form of breakdancing] while a DJ spins appropriate music. While it may not provide the quintessential Asian night market experience, the spirit of the O.C. Night Market and the degree to which it is inspired by the night markets of past ages make it a colorfully inviting event. One fried squid on a skewer, please!

The O.C. Night Market will operate at O.C. Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, on May 17-19, 4 p.m. – 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. – 11 p.m. on Sunday.

Tickets start at $5 (admittance for children 3 and under is FREE); parking is $9. For more information on these and future dates, visit www.ocnightmarket.com