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Little Mekong Night Market drawing big crowds on University Avenue

The open-air street festival is modeled after the night markets in Southeast Asia.

The night markets are meant to foster community engagement and neighborhood pride.
Central Corridor Funders Collaborative

Expectations were modest when the Little Mekong Night Market launched earlier this summer in St. Paul.

It was the first year for the open-air street festival, so organizers expected a small turnout for each of the four events — “a few hundred people per night market,” said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association.

Consider those expectations shattered.

Instead of a couple hundred people each night, a couple thousand have shown up. After three Night Markets, attendance has hit more than 6,000 visitors.

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And it’s not over.

A final Night Market for the summer will be held from 5-10 p.m. Sept. 6 in the 400 block of University Avenue near Mai Village, and a day market is scheduled to coincide with St. Paul Open Streets from 12-4 p.m. on Sept. 21.

Thoj said Minnesotans have enthusiastically responded to the Little Mekong street markets, which are modeled after the night markets in Southeast Asia. Each Little Mekong Night Market showcases food, crafts, art and entertainment from local businesses and performers.

“It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in a community,” Thoj said. “It’s food, entertainment, street life that you really don’t get to experience at other events. … People tell us ‘that was an amazing experience.’”

Which is part of what organizers were aiming for when they began working on the idea about three years ago.

“It was always a goal for us to do something to bring people into the area and the businesses could benefit,” Thoj said. “Night markets are a part of the culture of Southeast Asia. We’re in Little Mekong — there are a lot of Southeast Asian businesses here. As a business district, it felt right.”

The night markets are also meant to foster community engagement and neighborhood pride.

Organizers waited until the Green Line was completed before launching the first Little Mekong Night Market, in part because they wanted to avoid construction in the area and because they wanted visitors to use the new light rail line to help alleviate traffic.  

The first event, scheduled for the same day the Green Line opened to the public on June 14, was canceled due to heavy rain. But the subsequent three night markets on July 5, July 26 and Aug. 16 have been a rousing success.

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“We’re a small organization so we haven’t been able to do a lot of promotions,” Thoj said. “But the people who attend have had a positive experience and that’s helping bring more people in.”

One aspect that has been widely popular — and which has expanded significantly since the first Night Market — are performances and arts activities. After the first Night Market, the main stage was expanded and is now supplemented by additional activities on the east and west plazas. Performances have ranged from dragon dancers to percussion groups to puppet shows.

Attendees have been “really receptive,” said Oskar Ly, artist organizer for AEDA.

“[The activities and performances] allow people to explore, enjoy, learn and observe other cultures together,” she said.

Organizers are already thinking about next year’s night markets and how they can improve them.

One possibility is a venue change. The current location, in a parking lot on University Avenue and Western Avenue, isn’t highly visible from the street. It’s also just a small slice of the Little Mekong business and cultural district.

“People don’t experience much of the district other than that block, so we’re looking at how we can expose more of the district to Night Market attendees,” Thoj said.

Among other suggestions people have offered for next year: Extend the hours. Make the night markets bigger. Hold them more often — or at least on a regular schedule.

All are under consideration, but organizers are cautious about keeping Night Market relatively simple.

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“We don’t want it to get too big that we can’t manage it,” Thoj said. If night markets get so popular that another neighborhood wanted them, “we’d consider it, but we’re fine doing a really modest event that brings people together,” he said.