Art, food and community at Little Mekong Night Market

Arts / Article

Earlier this month, a few blocks off of University Avenue in St. Paul were transformed into an Asian-inspired night market. It’s called the Little Mekong Night Market. It’s a Knight Green Line Challenge winner and it’s part of the Asian Economic Development Association’s strategy to harness the creative power of the community to grow the local economy and deepen neighborhood connections.

In February of 2012, the Asian Economic Development Association launched the Little Mekong Asian Business and Cultural District. It’s been great to watch over the past few years as the Little Mekong initiative has rolled out a bunch of different art and culture events and activities to revitalize the area, increase access to and awareness of Southeast Asian art being made in St. Paul and promote small businesses along University Avenue in Frogtown. Last year, they held their first Little Mekong Night Market and it was successful enough that they had to expand the size and location of this year’s night market. I was excited to pay a visit.

The Night Market started at 6 p.m. and by the time I arrived there with my family an hour and a half later it was already packed with people. One of the things this event highlights is that this part of St. Paul isn’t usually crowded with throngs of people, but it should be. This year’s Little Mekong Night Market spilled a block and a half down Western Avenue on either side of University Avenue. Walk less than a block either way down University from Western and you’ll find great food and interesting local crafts and art. One of the best things about the Night Market is that it doesn’t bring in food and vendors from far away but rather highlights all the good things that are barely hidden from view, just waiting to be enjoyed.

I spent about three hours roaming within a three-block area and discovered new things to hear, see, smell and taste on every lap. The Hmong Breakers Leadership Council, a relatively newly-formed group, hosted breakdancing competitions in the street. They were a great representation of the huge Hmong population in St. Paul as well as the supportive and creative nature of Hip-Hop. Hoop Twin Cities performed some hooping moves as well as let passersby hoop themselves. The newly-opened Capoeira Fitness Academy did demonstrations and chatted up market visitors about the exercise and artistry of Capoeira. There were also “Chicks on Sticks” walking around on their lit up stilts, Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli performing traditional Aztec Mexican dance and drum presentations, Anda Flamenco sharing traditional and contemporary flamenco theater, and a local fitness club holding a push-up competition.

There was also, of course, food. The Silhouette Bakery offered Chinese bar-b-cue pork, beef and kimchee, curry veggie and chocolate custard buns. Lilly Bean’s Ice Desserts had shaved ice. Meanwhile, Pho-Ger’s kimchee fries led to a very long line, as did LolaRosa’s Filipino-inspired food. There was also roast corn-on-the-cob, a wide assortment of street food from Thai Café and several different bubble tea options. The things I ate were fantastic and the things I didn’t eat were probably great, too, because they all had lines running at least a block long.

Perhaps the thing I didn’t go looking for at the Night Market but ended up getting the most excited about was the traditional Hmong trade crafts by RedGreen Rivers. There were several other fashion, art, and craft vendors sharing their work, including DesignHMC’s awesome lamps made from old milk cartons and Bao’s Henna Art Booth.  But there’s something really special about the trade crafts made by RedGreen Rivers and the stories that accompany their jewelry and textiles that really make the Little Mekong Night Market feel like an important and immersive cultural experience.

This year’s Night Market was absolutely over crowded and the vendors couldn’t quite keep up with the demand, but I hope they keep doing it and I hope it keeps growing because this event is exactly why St. Paul is so much more than just some city in the Midwest.