A Night Market in a Suburban Parking Lot

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You can’t find an urban tradition more firmly rooted in Asia’s cities than the night market. Since emerging in Tang dynasty China, about 1,200 years ago, they have become a quintessential part of the urban experience in Taiwan, Hong Kong and throughout Southeast Asia. In Taiwan, night markets are so firmly rooted they have spawned an entire cuisine of street foods known as xiao chi, or “small eats.”

Now, just as Chinese immigrants brought the night market tradition to other parts of Asia, they have taken it across the Pacific. The largest night market in North American can be found in Richmond, a flat, sprawling suburb of Vancouver about a twenty minute drive south of downtown. Since it first emerged in a shopping mall parking lot in 2000, the Richmond Night Market has grown into a 400-stall behemoth that draws up to 35,000 people per night. It is held every weekend between May and October, from 7pm to midnight. Although most of the people who visit the night market are Asian, including many Chinese — all of the announcements over the PA system are in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and signs on nearly all stalls are in English and Chinese — it still manages to attract a fairly diverse crowd of Vancouverites, especially as it has gained attention in the English-language media.

Unlike its Asian counterparts, the Richmond Night Market does not take place in the confines of a street. Instead, it’s held in a vast open space, sandwiched between the Fraser River and an industrial park, accessible only by car. But the stalls are arranged in rows, creating the illusion of a crowded lane. Despite its distinctly suburban setting, it offers a kind of outdoor space of interaction that is normally foreign to the suburbs. This is especially true in the most crowded part of the market, around the food vendors. Amidst the odd scent of curried fish balls and miniature donuts, thousands of hungry people munch red bean pancakes, barbecued squid, noodle soup and tong shui.

Despite its popularity, though, the night market’s future is threatened. Earlier this year, its landlord decided not to renew its lease, perhaps seeing development opportunity in its waterfront location. Even with strong support from City Hall, the Richmond tourism bureau and the local chamber of commerce, the market has been unable to find a home for its upcoming 2008 season. It would need at least 15 acres to operate, but finding such a large chunk of open space in Richmond is a huge challenge.

Recognizing the market’s potential both as a tourist attraction and an incubator for small businesses, one Richmond city councillor proposed creating a permanent market space underneath the guideway of the Canada Line, an elevated railway that will link Richmond to Vancouver in 2009. “When I was in Beijing, I saw markets under the roadways and overpasses. They utilize any available space,” he told the Richmond News.

While the councillor’s proposal would do nothing to solve the night market’s immediate need for space, it is a brilliant long-term solution. Not only would it reduce the need for parking, it would create a hub of activity around the Canada Line, which is already attracting new high-density development. Wouldn’t it be fitting if the Richmond Night Market, so suburban until now, ultimately ended up resembling its more urban counterparts across the Pacific?

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday November 12 2007at 06:11 pm , filed under Canada, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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