The Richmond Night Market
The Richmond Night Market (also known as “Magical Duck Island”) is a beautiful place filled with neon trees, fried sea creatures, and comically named knickknacks like “Whirly Doo” and “Flying Panda Magic Machine.” Entering the market itself is a stressful experience, but it does build anticipation. Dodging cars and obeying sassy traffic directors is all part of the fun. Weaving in and out of gates, following the crowd of fellow attendees, and distinguishing which directions the signs really point to make it all the more exciting as the magical market in the distance grows closer.
In order to enter the market, one must pay a hefty $2.50 toll. Step into the crowd a few coins lighter, and you are immediately overwhelmed. Hundreds of signs, voices, and flashing lights pull your attention in a million directions, while J-pop and K-pop tunes blare all around you. The market has a games area, a huge stage, three rows of knickknack tents, three rows of food tents, and of course, an inflatable duck the size of a small house. The significance of the duck remains a mystery.
In order to survive this magical duck island, you need to get your game face on. Walk row by row. Do not detour. Do not buy the first Hello Kitty stationery set you see. Wait it out, you might find a cheaper one down the road. It’s all about patience. You are a warrior, the night market is your enemy, and you must use your cunning and determination to learn its strengths and weaknesses before you attack.
The first squadron you must face in the night market is the knickknack stalls. Here you will find rows upon rows of the most whimsical, childish, and enticing toys for prices so low it’s practically Walmart. Upon scouring this area, a few items stand out: socks with the starbucks logo on them (for the most hardcore of baristas), a giant fuzzy bunny onesie (capable of transporting the wearer to a land of marshmallows, cashmere and miraculous comfort levels), and strange marble type-things that appear solid but are quite malleable when touched (for watering plants and general squishing needs). If you require an iPhone case, cheap SpongeBob boxers, pens shaped like farm animals, or a knock off Chanel bag, the Richmond night market is a dream come true.
Once you’ve perused the gifts and goodies, all that walking has probably left you feeling ready for snacking. Now it’s time for the main attraction: the food. The food section is truly the most overwhelming part. Everything smells amazing, everything looks exotic, and each stand is cheaper than the next. Bubble waffles, fish balls, nachos, noodles, fried ice cream, fried cheesecake, fried mars bars, and every kind of dumpling you can possibly imagine fill the stalls. Looking up and down the rows of food is like staring into the pearly gates of heaven without a road map. So many tempting treats deserve a taste, like grilled chilliwack corn, takoyaki, chocolate covered pineapples, dragon’s beard candy, and of course, bubble tea.
Takoyaki is dough-covered meat or vegetables slathered in sauce and seaweed. There are at least three separate stands at the market selling this dish so take advantage of a free samples and have a taste to start off your exotic food excursion. The dough is crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, the veggies seasoned to perfection, and the seaweed crispy as heck. The post-takoyaki high will leave you feeling more adventurous and much better off. You might wonder about the origin of this odd doughy ball, but remember, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Next up is the dragon’s beard candy. This occupies one of the smallest tents. With only three staff inside they form a work chain, one elderly Chinese man weaving the strings of candy by hand, a woman folding the cloud-like tufts and filling them with a peanut mixture, and another lady packing them neatly in boxes and handing them to the eager crowd. Dragon’s beard candy was originally reserved for chinese royalty but in a fit of originality it has been brought to Richmond. The trio making and serving the candy are probably some of the nicest people around, and the candy, some of the nicest you’ll ever eat. If you have a million dollars, don’t waste your time with a mink coat, buy a lifetime supply of Dragon’s beard candy and die happy. The white wisps of the outer layer melt in your mouth, making way for the peanut mixture to crunch along. It’s not too sweet and not too rich. It’s light, it’s handmade in front of you, it’s truly special, and it might actually be perfect.
After the dragon’s beard candy, another sweet booth is here to satisfy your sweet tooth. Look out for a stall where customers shoot chocolate out of a gun onto the fruit of your choosing. This stand is the ideal place for the dessert savvy housewife who has a secret penchant for guns, and also the gun savvy teenager with a secret penchant for desserts. The chocolate covered pineapple is a truly heavenly experience. To wash down your meal and end the evening, go for the quintessential night market beverage, bubble tea. The line is longer than any other but well worth the wait. Order the green tea bubble tea with tapioca and coconut pearls, and watch the three girls in matching t-shirts get to work. They shake the drink by hand, they don’t charge extra for tapioca, and they’ll be too busy to judge you for wiping tears from your eyes as you gulp down the taste of all things good in this world.
The Chinatown Night Market
The Chinatown night market does not have some mysterious double magical bird name. Plain and simple, it’s just the Chinatown night market. The simplicity of the name properly reflects the vibe of the entire operation. It’s quaint, in the least passive aggressive use of the phrase. Walking into the market there is no booth to relieve you of $2.50, you are free to head on through. The Chinatown market is less than half the size of the Richmond one. It provides an area where food trucks can park, a row of food tents, a row of knickknacks, and a medium sized stage. Being able to see the entirety of the market with one casual glance makes it less threatening and not overwhelming in the least. If it’s possible for a night market to be chill, this is it.
Walking from the bottom up, you are first met by the hip division of the market. These tents are filled with burlap, patterned notebooks, carefully curated ironic vintage t shirts, and odd artisan lollipops. It’s good to see that Gastown has fully represented itself. Now is the time for deep breaths; remember, this is a cultural experience. Scouring the hip section can be mildly enraging, simply because it seems to defy the original point of the market: to bring a taste of Chinese night markets to the ‘couv. The fact that dusty muscle tees have wormed their way into what has the potential to be an escape from the usual ho-hum Vancouver is a little ridiculous. Walking through this section, although irritating, increases anticipation for some sort of odd ethnic treat farther into the market. You came here to buy good luck charms and eat funny fried things you’ve never heard of. With that goal in mind, continue scouring the area. Be sure not to miss the booth selling screen prints, candles and something called “bro granola”. Buy a print of Bill Murray’s face. Go on. Defy your own morals. There will be plenty more authenticity farther up the market.
Farther up the market you will begin to see more of what you came for: elderly chinese couples selling incense, young teenagers pedalling blueberries they picked earlier in the day, and supposedly life changing kitchen appliances for those of us too lazy to hand peel our boiled eggs. What makes the family trying to sell food shaped erasers better than the $50 vintage Doc Marten booth? It’s the lack of elitism and sense of community. When you ask for a jade good luck charm in the shape of your zodiac sign, the booth manager is not fiddling with his Armani aviators or sighing like he’s too cool for school. With a huge smile, he shares with you the meanings of 15 different charms. It feels special, like a moment you won’t find anywhere else. That’s what the night market is about: knickknack booths that transport you to another place and educate you about another culture. On the other hand, maybe we’re reading into it too much. Come on, that Bill Murray print WAS pretty cool.
The Chinatown market offers more than just Bill Murray’s face, however. The food is exemplary. It seems to be constantly changing, with a new oddly flavored contradiction or fairly priced exotic feast every visit. If you’ve never experienced sugo sauce, get ready to burn your grandmother’s marinara recipe and buy yourself a case of these little roman jars. The owner of the company, a very pretty girl with very cool socks, named Maya, sets up a stand every weekend so people can try her sauces and oils. Despite the fact that her sauces are sold in many grocery stores across the lower mainland, Maya feels it’s both fun and important to connect with people and explain the ideas and stories behind her products. In addition to her night market stall, she holds events in her back alley every once in awhile, where she serves her sauces up on home baked pizzas– rogue dinner parties, mamma mia! All four different styles of sauces are worth a try, but the best might be puttanesca or “whore style” sauce. This one is the spiciest and includes such fine treats as anchovies, olives, and capers, which are pretty cultured and a little… saucy.
At another booth you can find the much talked about “To Die For Banana Bread,” which certainly makes the heart flutter in a way that may cause concern for your cardiovascular health. If you’re still holding onto your determination to keep your food interesting, try some of the oddly paired desserts that incorporate flavours that really shouldn’t go together but work nonetheless. Some of the unconventional sweets include black tea lollypops, rhubarb and cardamom popsicles, and lavender caramels.
Since dessert should always be served before dinner, feel free to follow these scrumptious harbingers of diabetes with your a main course. Try the poached chicken with jasmine rice, sliced cucumber, and ginger chili sauce. Look down, is that a damp spot on your shirt? That’s probably because you’re drooling at the sound of this amazing Singapore-style dish, served by the “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner Stand.” The chicken itself is moist and delicate, the sauce is spicy with ginger, and the slices of cucumber act as a cooling agent and palate cleanser for all the kick ass flavors fighting around in your mouth.
Before you leave, save some time to consume the night market defining drink– bubble tea. The bubble tea at the Chinatown night market is slightly more expensive and does not come with both coconut jelly and tapioca pearls. If you can bring yourself to make the choice between the two, it is glaringly evident from first sip that the quality of the tea itself is much better than that of the Richmond night market. It may be the high-class upbringing of a green tea bubble tea connoisseur, but the first place tea medal goes to Chinatown, may they hold the honor with pride.
All in all, who are we to say which market is better? All we can do is illustrate the pros and cons of each to assist in your decision making. The Richmond night market is much larger and more authentic. Going in with $20 and an empty stomach will certainly leave you with a tummy full of cheap treats and a brain full of bunny suit related memories. The experience will transport you to the night markets of Hong Kong, busy with people, bright with lights, heavy on the stir fry, and with plenty of oddly patterned gadgets.
The Chinatown night market is a young man’s game. It has become obvious, attending the market over a long period of time, that this year has seen a real shift in both the vendors and attendees. Although you still see the elderly Chinese people from the seniors centers sitting down and giggling as they watch their peers sing karaoke, it does seem as if the majority of the attendees are gravitating towards the hip trinket area and not paying enough attention to the 2-for-1 cupcake-printed nail appliqué stands. This shift in the market reflects the shift in the neighbourhood as a whole, but whether or not this is a bad thing is impossible to decide. On one hand, the new market provides an area for smaller local vendors to reach out to their customer base and pull new people in, on the other hand, it does pull away from the authenticity of the market. It doesn’t feel like Hong Kong whatsoever– it’s a disjointed, half Hong Kong half Brooklyn imitation. That’s what’s good about having two markets: one for the experience of an unfamiliar culture or a taste of home, and the other, a new hybrid early in it’s life, a true reflection of Vancouver’s melting pot of different ethnicities and different walks of life. It’s a case of the Nike knock offs vs. the Supreme knock offs, but does it really matter? In the end, it’s all made in China.