Asian Night Markets Spotlight Heritage and Culture

For the last two decades, cities across the United States have increasingly hosted night markets, typically expansive open-air community events featuring food, merchandise, and entertainment from local vendors and artists. The origin of night markets, also known as night bazaars, is deeply rooted in Asian history. The first night markets sprouted in China during the Tang Dynasty, as early as the 9th century A.D. Now, night markets are central to Asian culture and in their popularity, have arisen across the globe.

In the United States, night markets are most frequently held during Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. On the surface, these community events are art and food-centered celebrations of Asian culture. However, night markets also serve to bolster the local economy, welcoming visitors into a festival atmosphere to experience culture and traditions that some may not otherwise have encountered. This presents an opportunity for broad community engagement and public investment. These events may further highlight the need for vital neighborhood improvements to ensure the economic success and longevity of small businesses, advanced public safety, and the preservation of Asian communities.

Cultural performances were part of the recent Oakton College's Asian Night Market in Skokie, Illinois. Photo by Dina Walters.

Cultural performances were part of the recent Oakton College's Asian Night Market in Skokie, Illinois. Photo by Dina Walters.

Night Markets as Community Revitalization

In 2021, the economic impact of COVID-19 on Lower Manhattan's Chinatown continued to threaten the economic stability of independent vendors and business owners. Neighborhoods Now, a collaborative initiative committed to aiding communities in their recovery from the pandemic, partnered with Think!Chinatown, an intergenerational community organization, to expand outreach and revitalize the neighborhood's economy. Together, Neighborhoods Now and Think!Chinatown launched a pilot event series called Chinatown Nights, an outdoor night market located in Forsyth Plaza at the intersection of Forsyth and Canal Streets. Organizers worked with urban designers such as di Domenico + Partners to create a welcoming environment for increased foot traffic in the area of the plaza.

The success of Chinatown Nights led to its rebranding as the Chinatown Night Market in 2022, expanding its footprint and by 2023, tripling in size with over 30 vendors. The event populated not only the plaza but Forsyth Street as well, incorporating design elements such as a lantern wall and colorful dining lights to ensure a bright, safe, and inviting atmosphere. These features required multiple generators throughout each three-hour market, a resource demand that brought into sharp focus the infrastructure needs at Forsyth Plaza.

Planning Goals for Chinatown's Forsyth Plaza

After three successful years of the night market, organizers launched a campaign to bring the city's attention to much-needed capital improvements in the area. The immense popularity of the night market only emphasized the shortcomings in the plaza, such as inadequate lighting, energy access, and no public restrooms. In 2023, an estimated 8,300 people visited the night market, an average of 2,800 people per hour. The effort to promote the needs of Forsyth Plaza benefits the future of the night market and the Chinatown community as a whole. Further, these improvements, if made, make possible the expansion of the night market, an advantage to Chinatown and New York City's economy and tourism.

As Think!Chinatown and its partners are preparing to launch the night market in 2024, they continue to campaign New York City's municipal government for these improvements. "We have been in conversation with DOT's Public Realm team about priorities for potential investments in Forsyth Plaza," said Alan Chan of di Domenico + Partners. "With the help of the Urban Design Forum, we have also connected with other BIDs that have successfully advocated for capital improvement projects to learn about their approach. While there is growing interest, we are still in the advocacy and planning stages [but] remain optimistic."

The Tsukasa Taiko perform at the Oakton College Asian Night Market in Skokie, Illinois, this May. Photo by Dina Walters

The Tsukasa Taiko perform at the Oakton College Asian Night Market in Skokie, Illinois, this May. Photo by Dina Walters

Considerations for Your Community

Night markets present an opportunity for planners to engage with communities and stakeholders, building a strong foundation of trust. Ongoing night markets across the U.S. include Chicago and the San Gabriel Valley region of California; other cities, such as Honolulu; Wichita, Kansas; St. Paul, Minnesota; Austin, Texas; and Knoxville, Tennessee, host weekend-long or one-night events. The culturally rich food, artistry, and entertainment have proven time and again to be an enormous draw and a boon to the local economy.

Top image: Chinatown Night Market at Forsyth Plaza. Photo courtesy of di Domenico + Partners.

About the Author
Dina Walters is part of APA's Prioritize Equity team.

May 28, 2024

By Dina Walters