The smell of barbecuing fatty pieces of pork and beef wafts in the wind, mingling with the sizzling aroma of vegetables dropped in hot oil.
Steaming bamboo baskets sitting on almost every stall invite hungry crowds to sample a bite of hot dumplings, spicy chicken or oyster pancakes.
The modern-day concept of a Chinese night market originated in the center of large Taiwanese cities like Taipei.
The idea came about when people, mainly teens, would cluster on small streets and hang out long after dark.
Seeing this crowd as a moneymaking opportunity, stores began to stay open later. As word got out about the late hours of the stores, more and more patrons came to enjoy the nighttime dining and shopping. Voila, night market.
Today, the markets have a mixture of stalls and booths selling clothing, crafts, electronics, xiaochi (snack food), and specialty drinks like Boba tea. The larger, most established markets tend to take place in freestanding marketplaces, while smaller ones happen on busy city streets.
Fortunately, you don’t have to travel far for a night-market experience. U.S. and Canadian cities with distinct Chinese populations are beginning to hold these events as a way to further build community between the cities Chinatown’s and the surrounding areas.
Currently, the largest night market in North America is in Richmond, British Columbia. The market boasts about 400 booths and is a spending-and-feasting extravaganza. Anything one could want is priced mostly between $5 and $25. From pet fashion to cell phone accessories, jewelry to precious glass teapots, and of course knock-offs of every designer, it’s all cheap and ready to be sold.
In Richmond, don’t be discouraged when the end of the shopping row comes, the main attraction is just ahead, the food court.
The term “food court” doesn’t even do this enormous hall justice; it is an international culinary tasting convention. Dim sum sits next to chicken curry puffs and fried oyster cakes. Try one of everything. To wash it down, find the recognizable Boba (or bubble) tea—a mixture of green tea, milk, flavoring and chewy tapioca balls. When you’ve had your fill of shopping and eating, the market also boasts carnival games and rides to keep crowds entertained all night long.
Richmond’s market is known to have up to 30,000 customers on warm summer nights and the large amount of people only adds to the ambiance. The market is open 7 p.m. until midnight every Friday and Saturday from late May until October 1. www.summernightmarket.com
Only a half an hour away from Richmond, the capital city of Vancouver also puts on a large night market in its Chinatown. The Vancouver market is known for its traditional Asian handicrafts that are sold along side the regular snacks and consumer goods. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, from late May to late September, between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., the market opens to a healthy crowd comprised mostly of tourists, with a sprinkling of locals. www.vcma.shawbiz.ca/
In 2007, Seattle launched its own open-air night market in the heart of its Chinatown International District. The market itself is a small-scale version of the Richmond market, but the must see event is the Summer Festival weekend in July. This is the weekend when the night market goes 24-7 for the Pan-Asian American Street festival. This event has all the fun of a night market, but also includes children’s activities and family-fun events. www.cidbia.org/events
Further down the Pacific Coast, find San Francisco’s famous Portsmouth Square transformed into a market that’s likeness to Hong Kong is truly uncanny. This fair was originally created after the 1989 earthquake to help boost the dwindling economy. It succeeded and has been around ever since. Locals and tourists alike gather for the great bargains and cultural performances like lion dancing, martial arts, and Chinese operas. This market runs from late July to late October every Friday and Saturday night.
There are fewer night markets on the East Coast, but don’t miss out on the big North American Night Markets in New York City. Traditionally, Chinatown in the Big Apple is a daytime attraction with most shops closing down at around 8 p.m., but the streets buzz with activity on late summer nights.
Just hop on the N, R, Q, or W train to Canal Street and see red and gold-lined streets that are alive in the moonlight. New York’s night markets take place Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to midnight in August and sporadically throughout September and October.
A night of extreme snacking has never been so much fun!
By Courtney Crowder for PeterGreenberg.com.
Some of the best night markets are in Bangkok–so check out our Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Bangkok, Thailand.
If you’re interested in more fabulous shopping experiences in Asia, check out Suzy Gershman’s Postcard from Hanoi.
Learn about more tasty adventures in our Culinary Travel section.