Toronto's Asian Night Markets Helped Me Reconnect with my Culture
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Toronto’s Asian Night Markets Helped Me Reconnect with my Culture

I've never been to China, but Toronto's celebration of my culture took me one step closer.

Photo by Derek from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Derek from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

I smelled it before I saw it.

The air was hazy, filled with smoke coming off the many grills and deep-fryers. Pungent and sharp, the notorious odour of stinky tofu—the food I came here to taste—filtered through the humidity and hit me square in the face. I hovered at the edge of the Markham Civic Centre’s parking lot where Night It Up! was set up for the weekend. The stench was reminiscent of mouldy cheese and unwashed socks, and immediately overwhelmed my senses. I created a makeshift mask with my T-shirt but my eyes still watered.

The three stinky tofu stands were lumped together near the back—out of convenience or necessity, or both. My friend who didn’t mind the smell went to line up while I stayed a safe distance away. She returned with six cubes of deep-fried tofu, garnished with some pickled cabbage and chili sauce on the side of a paper tray. I pierced a smaller piece with a plastic fork, hesitant but curious about this all-star of street food. It tasted like how it smelled: not good. My friend loved it. I was more than happy to offer the rest of my half.

For the past decade, Asian night markets like these have flourished in the Greater Toronto Area’s food scene. Inspired by those on the streets of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and across Asia, these night markets are providing a taste of that experience within the city—the opportunity to experience Asian culture through food and entertainment in an atmosphere just like the kind you’d find on the other side of the world. It’s noisy, smelly, and crowded, and it makes no apologies for these faults. That’s part of what makes these markets special.

Since the inception of Markham’s Night It Up! in 2002, the event has become a staple of the GTA’s roster of summer food festivals. A few years after, the T&T Waterfront Night Market joined in to bring the concept to downtown Toronto. Now, both see thousands of patrons show up to get a taste of Asian culture.

As someone who was born and raised in Toronto, I have been fortunate enough to explore my Chinese background freely within the multicultural boundaries of the city. But I have never been to Asia and for that, I lack understanding of what it’s really like. On the surface, the night markets are a way to try new foods and have a good time. But they’re also an opportunity for me to reconnect with my Asian heritage. Growing up, I was generally considered to be the “least Asian” of my group of friends. I stopped going to Cantonese language classes years earlier. I avoided the long trek up to Pacific Mall whenever possible. I never shared the same obsession with the latest K-Pop groups, Chinese dramas, or animes that my peers gushed about.

It was only until I entered university—in a mostly white journalism program—that I realized how out of touch I was with my own culture. Now, I’m more mature and ready to embrace a tremendous part of my identity that I shoved aside as a stubborn teen. For myself and other Canadian-born Asians, the night markets are our connection to past generations. They allow me to share in a common experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

The moment I stepped into the market, I was submerged in a wave of sights and sounds. All around, I heard the sizzles and pops of hot oil as food vendors cooked through the night to feed never-ending lines. The air is noisy with chatter and a blend of Chinese pop songs in between current radio hits, melding together in a lively atmosphere that feels comfortable. A local band danced and jumped on the main stage under flashing multicoloured lights. Families with strollers pushed through clusters of teens sipping smoothies from a whole pineapple or watermelon. It pulled me in and forced me to become part of its energy.

From dusk to midnight, crowds of thousands strolled through rows of white tents, a different vendor under each. The key to walking through a night market is to be aggressive but courteous—or be stepped on. If you’re with someone, hold on to them because once they’re a step ahead of you, they might as well be on the other side of the market.

This is typical at night markets, which can be traced back to the eighth and ninth centuries during the late Tang Dynasty. They were places for socializing, with different vendors and activities including gambling and fortune telling. Modern night markets evolved in Taipei where regional dishes were sold cheaply to migrants who worked late in the city. As it spread to other areas in Taipei and elsewhere in Asia, the night markets have become an integral part of daily life, a place for business, leisure, and culture. In North America, night markets started to appear in cities with large populations of Asian people, and Toronto was a natural fit.

Here, food is the main attraction and it seemingly never ends. With a mix of traditional dishes and fusion food trends, it’s tough deciding what to try first (and how long you’re willing to wait in line for it; the lines are always long and winding). The first thing I ever tried at the night market was a whole teppanyaki squid on a stick. To be shared amongst me and two friends, it was clear from the start that this squid would be a challenge to eat. Chili-soy sauce dripped down my hands as we argued over the best way to eat it (body or tentacles first?). Fortunately, other dishes were easier to try: panko-breaded tofu fries, panna cotta with red bean and tapioca, and steaming hot takoyaki.

Preparing takoyaki at 2009 Night It Up! Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Preparing takoyaki at 2009 Night It Up! Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Ben Hum, president of the Toronto organization that co-hosts and organizes the T&T Waterfront Night Market, likens the food offerings to a walkable tapas menu. Passion is shared through food, and with more than 100 vendors participating each year, there is more than enough to go around.

Wennie Wong is one vendor who shares this passion deeply. While she and her husband, Lap, own ginseng and renovation businesses, the pair also work as vendors at food festivals all over the GTA during the summer. They’ve been coming to the night markets for three years now. Their booth sells tornado potatoes, a snack that originated from the streets of Seoul. Aptly named Happy Twist, they add in their own flair by using sweet potato and taro.

Wong and her husband immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong more than 20 years ago. Wong started Happy Twist because she saw it as an opportunity to enjoy the warmer weather while still running a business. She tells me that although the hours are long and the days are stressful, she loves being a vendor.

“When I see all the people that line up for our booth, I’m really happy,” Wong says. She takes pride in her product, and enthusiastically tells me where ingredients are sourced, and how the spirals are created and cooked. They use a machine to cut the vegetables into long strands that spiral around a stick. Then the twists are delicately deep-fried in vegetable oil for an eye-catching alternative to the standard potato chip. “We care a lot about the quality. If we thought the quality wasn’t good, we wouldn’t sell it,” Wong says.

Wong notes that many of the vendors are older immigrants who don’t speak English. The food business is a competitive world, but Wong believes it’s best to stick together. “I like to socialize so I’m close to a number of vendors,” she says. “We’re working so close together, it’s about teamwork.”

In many ways, this sense of camaraderie is what the night markets are about: sticking together, sharing a common culture, and celebrating heritage thousands of kilometres away from where it originated.

Franca Tam, Night It Up! chairperson, says the organization’s mission has been consistent since the event was first started 15 years ago. “The vision that we try to establish and create for everyone is to have the kind of experience that you can’t get elsewhere,” Tam says. However, Hum says it’s not about creating a carbon copy. “We don’t replicate the night market experience in Asia 100 per cent because we’re not in an Asian city,” Hum says. “What we have to do is put a Canadian spin on the night market idea as Asian food experiences.” For example, organizers make the effort to include a variety of entertainment like hip-hop crews and art battles that are not specifically Asian.

Beneath all the food and entertainment, it’s the sense of community that pulls the market together. It’s a place to enjoy with families and friends, and for me, the source of many happy memories. I remember meeting a classmate from high school that I hadn’t seen since graduation. Sipping bubble tea with my dragon boat teammates. Bumping into a fellow intern I had only seen hours ago. Indulging in a bowl of matcha shaved ice with a close friend whom I only see a few times a year.

Photo by kaeko from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by kaeko from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

In Asia, night markets are a part of everyday life. In Toronto, I get to experience the everyday for one night. It may not be authentic, but it’s the closest I’m going to get. I can find Asian food anywhere from Chinatown to Scarborough, and there are countless resources to go to learn more about the culture. But it’s hard to create atmosphere. The night market, with its loud, vibrant presence is a perfect storm of it all.

For me, and many others, night markets remind us of our Asian roots. It’s where the flavours are familiar and loved, not exotic or weird. It’s where the smells and crowds are part of the experience rather than a nuisance. It’s a reminder of my identity. I hope to travel to Asia someday, and maybe even get to experience the markets there. In the meantime, I’ll keep on trying to like stinky tofu in Toronto—and that’s good enough.