Revitalizing the Vancouver Chinatown Night Market

Vancouver Chinatown Night Market
The Vancouver Chinatown Night Market will run on Keefer Street between Columbia and Main streets from May 17 to September 18.

Local entrepreneurs are casting a new vision for Chinatown’s long-running night market

Vancouver’s Chinatown Night Market opens for the summer on May 17, but it won’t be the market you remember—or at least half of it won’t be. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Tannis Ling, managing director of the Vancouver Chinatown Night Market and owner of local restaurant Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie. “We’re kind of doing a hybrid market this year; half of it is the same. Literally half the vendors are the same past vendors and the other half will be new.”

Ling had watched for years as the summer night market unfolded in front of her Keefer Street restaurant, noticing a lacklustre scene that could benefit from an injection of entrepreneurialism and new-world culture. “I noticed a small decline in visitors and also the stalls—the vendors themselves—didn’t seem to be signing up as much,” she says. “The infrastructure was there and the feeling and atmosphere was there, I just thought the content needed to become a little more relevant to the neighbourhood and to the time.”

As a member of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee, Ling had the right connections to get the ear of the Vancouver Chinatown Merchant’s Association (VCMA), the group that has organized the summer event for the past 18 years. From there, she partnered with Ken Tsui, an active member of the Chinatown community and well-known organizer of pop-up events, who Ling says “knows everything that’s going on in the city.” With Tsui on board as programming director, the pair is working with the VCMA on a renewed vision for this year’s market.

This summer’s event is marked by the change in entertainment and the focus on curating a group of local vendors that will target a broader audience. “Chinatown is Chinese, but there’s so many different neighbourhoods in the area,” says Ling. “There’s no reason why we should appeal to strictly a Chinese audience where there’s all those other kinds of people around.”

Popular story-telling series Rain City Chronicles will appear at the market along with other new acts and vendors that will appeal to a wider demographic—namely, hip-hop karaoke, vintage-clothing vendors, movie nights, specialty-food vendors and street-fighter tournaments.

When addressing Richmond’s two large, thriving night markets, Ling says the Chinatown Night Market is prepared to differentiate rather than compete. “It’s just impossible to compete with the Richmond night markets,” she admits. “Most of the Chinese demographic lives out there, they have hundreds of stalls and it’s a permanent setup for the summer, so they don’t have to put it up and take it down every night like we do.”

Because of its size, the Chinatown market can easily cast and employ a different vision within the same year. Ling says residents and businesses owners have reacted positively to news of the night market’s transformation, adding that most are just happy to bring more foot traffic through the area.

In the long-term, Ling says she envisions the market growing from its current one-block size back to its original four-block footprint. “Eventually I would like it to expand back out and have all of the other Chinese businesses involved, because they used to have stalls right outside their businesses.”

For now, however, she’s happy to treat the 2013 market as a learning experience and building block for future events. “For our first year, we have pretty much no budget and hardly any man power—everybody who’s working on it is volunteering right now, so we’re trying to see what works and what doesn’t. We’re just trying to create a foundation that will help us next year and the year after.”

For the Love of Chinatown from Anthem Jackson on Vimeo.