Will a night market - a Chinese staple - open in Philadelphia's Chinatown?

Melody Wong of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. wants to duplicate the feel of the traditional Chinese markets.
Melody Wong of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. wants to duplicate the feel of the traditional Chinese markets.
Posted: November 02, 2010

Among the joys of China are its city night markets, the traditional, open-air venues where young people meet for a fresh fast-food snack, old people come for a moonlight stroll, and tourists dare one another to try a bite of deep-fried scorpion.

Now, local leaders want to establish a night market in Chinatown, one that would offer all the allure and atmosphere - minus the scorpions.

"This is what Asia's really like, and we're going to give you a taste," said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. (PCDC), which is leading the project.

Night markets have been a part of China - and Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other Asian lands - for what seems like forever.

Some markets are permanent, their food stalls and ovens secured to the ground. Others appear at dusk and are gone by morning - then reappear the next night. They sit in alleys and closed-off streets, beside churches or on vacant lots, set at those particular places because, well, that's where they've always been.

The night market in Zhenjiang, a busy Yangtze River port city in China, resides on a dirt and asphalt clearing. Vendors sell food, but also clothes, toys, and used machine parts - virtually anything that can be carried.

What all markets have in common is great, cheap food.

"We're trying to replicate something of that feel in Chinatown," said Melody Wong, PCDC's main street manager. "We're still discussing it, and we'll still have to bring it to the community."

The goal would be to lure more visitors to Chinatown, to invigorate the nightlife, to offer younger people a new attraction and older residents a touch of their homeland. PCDC officials have been talking to managers at the Food Trust, the health and nutrition agency, which held a successful "Night Market Philadelphia" event this month at Passyunk Avenue and Tasker Street.

PCDC would like to launch the Chinatown market next summer. But nothing is guaranteed.

One obstacle is finding a site. Chinatown has little open space, so closing a street may be the most viable alternative. But that would create a different barrier: money. To block a street in Chinatown means paying the city about $3,000 per occasion, according to the PCDC. Restaurants that want to sell food on the sidewalk would need to buy special permits, which would raise their costs to participate.

Other options for sites include a parking lot at 10th Street north of Vine Street, an area developing into "Chinatown North," and Franklin Square, the city park at Sixth and Race Streets.

"We want to emphasize the opportunity for a night market to create economic opportunity," Chin said.

That could include food vendors who want to build their business, to perhaps advance from cart to truck, or from truck to formal restaurant.

A market could give part-time artists a place to sell their work, and businesses a way to promote their wares. For example, Chin said, the owners of Chinatown's new music store could provide melodic demonstrations on the erhu, a type of Chinese violin. That would add ambience to the market - and draw customers to the store.

The best known night market in the world may be Donghuamen, in Beijing, where rows of food stalls proffer spring rolls, dumplings, lamb, and beef. Most foods are displayed raw, then seared in a wok or deep-fried. Cooked-on-a-stick fare includes birds, crickets, grasshoppers, starfish, and seahorses.

The Donghuamen market is a lively, colorful place, but it was more rambunctious and free-flowing before it was "improved" by the government in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

That sanitization offers a cautionary lesson for anyone trying to re-create the night-market experience in this country, said Maria Toyoda, an Asia specialist at Villanova University.

The most spirited modern markets exist as little-regulated enclaves where food stalls sit beside tables of antiques and bootleg DVDs. They grew out of black markets, up-from-the-ground enterprises started in response to shortages of food and clothing, and tolerated by authorities so people could meet basic needs.

But a U.S. market wouldn't enjoy a similar wink-and-nudge abeyance of government oversight. Some of the very traits that make Asian night markets fun would not be permitted here.

"The idea of having a night market in Chinatown would be wonderful - a wonderful, atmospheric thing that would highlight the diversity in the city," Toyoda said. "On the other hand . . . there's a real risk of it looking too manufactured, too clean."

Chinatowns in other U.S. cities have tried to import the tradition, or aspects of it, with mixed success.

After a three-year absence, San Francisco's Chinatown restarted its summer night market this year, turning Portsmouth Square into a bustling shopping area. The Los Angeles Chinatown holds a regular farmers market. New York is developing plans for a night market, hoping to hold the first one this winter, just before the lunar new year celebration.

For Philadelphia Chinatown, a night market could be a step toward becoming a regional cultural destination. Right now, there's no organized means for visitors to experience the Buddhist temples, herbalists, tea shops, and groceries that make Chinatown unique.

In New York, four agencies offer walking tours of Chinatown. The Museum of Chinese in America, situated there, holds lectures, readings, and art exhibits. This month the museum launched a Chinese Cinema Club.

While it's unclear if Philadelphia Chinatown could develop similar programming, a night market could help.

"We're going to find out, do some focus groups - if we had a night market, what would you like to see?" Chin said. "We believe it's something that would be appealing to the broader masses here in Philadelphia."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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