Vancouver impresario Ken Tsui sees several parallels between making movies and event planning. The 27-year-old director, library worker, and former pop-up restaurant operator has made music videos and short films, including To Scale about model airplanes, which was screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival. He’s taking a break from directing for a while as he spends the summer programming the Chinatown Night Market.
“It’s interesting how commanding film sets and commanding a team is very similar,” Tsui tells the Georgia Straight over coffee in Chinatown’s hip Caffè Brixton. “You’re focused on the idea of delegating your work, making sure that everybody is performing the best that they can. And keeping that energy up and that excitement up—and also knowing to focus so that the vision doesn’t stray from what you originally wanted. I think that idea of maintaining that vision still holds true to both filmmaking and events coordination.”
His vision for the Chinatown Night Market in the 100 block of Keefer Street in Chinatown marks a significant departure from its past 17 years. Tsui and the weekly event’s managing director, Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie owner Tannis Ling, have received a mandate from the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association to seriously jack up the entertainment level at the summer market, which takes place from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday through Sunday into September.
Tsui is making the most of this opportunity by bringing in hip-hop karaoke, photo shows, storytelling sessions, and competitive Ping-Pong tournaments along the lines of what’s taken place at the Biltmore Hotel.
“If it wasn’t for the VCMA support, it would be impossible to do,” Tsui notes. “Their relationship with vendors is something we would never have. So it’s essential to have their support.”
At the grand opening on Saturday (June 1), there’s drop-in Ping-Pong. Tsui says that visitors to the market will also have an opportunity to learn how to play mahjong from members of a UBC club, who will volunteer their time. In addition, Tsui is planning outdoor film screenings on a 40-by-20-foot rectangle that will be painted on the side of a building.
“The first is going to be my favourite kung fu film, Iron Monkey,” Tsui reveals. “Iron Monkey is an amazing kung fu film. So I hope people come down and see that.”
That’s in addition to the traditional food and drink offerings. This year, the food trucks and stalls will include a new Winner Winner chicken-rice stand and a new Vietnamese iced-coffee spot called Caphé. “There’s going to be a lot of businesses like that out there, trying things they’ve never done before,” he states.
Tsui, the Canadian-born son of Cantonese-speaking immigrants, recognizes that it’s easy to fall into the trap of presenting Chinatown in a kitschy way. He even acknowledges that screening a kung fu movie might be seen in this light. But Tsui promises that the Chinatown Night Market will also feature numerous artistic events appealing to a broad cross-section of the community.
To accomplish that objective, Tin Can Studios will present an artists-in-residence program allowing creative types a chance to show their projects in a hollowed-out, silver-plated trailer. As well, Victory Gardens will offer workshops for people interested in developing their green thumbs. On June 8, speakers will tell stories as part of the Rain City Chronicles series. And legendary Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog’s images of Chinatown will be projected onto a wall.
“Nowhere else is a street closed weekly in the summertime to hold something like this,” Tsui says.
He cites several differences between the Chinatown Night Market, where Cantonese is more commonly spoken, and the ones in Richmond, which have far more Mandarin spoken. He adds that the Richmond markets tend to attract a younger crowd who go there as a destination, whereas the Chinatown Night Market attracts a wider age range, including many who live in the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Tsui mentions that his father, who was born in Hong Kong, and his mother, who’s from Guangdong in southern China, met in Vancouver’s Chinatown. And as a resident of Strathcona, he has observed how Chinatown has been evolving in recent years. The Chinatown Night Market, in some respects, is a microcosm of this transformation, becoming more cosmopolitan and outward-looking.
“I can say it’s a little bit less Chinese,” Tsui says with a laugh. “I want to focus on bilingualism.”
Then he catches himself and admits that hip-hop karaoke is not going to be performed in two languages.
“I’ve been living with stereotypes since I was a kid,” he comments. “You just don’t want to be living those anymore. You just want to be seen as modern.”