Photo by Chung Chow
It wasn't quite "build it and they will come," but close.
Based on the popularity of night markets in Asia, Raymond Cheung was confident a Richmond Night Market would be met with similar enthusiasm.
He first, however, had to enlighten many locals on exactly what it was he was proposing.
"People weren't as educated about what a night market is at that point," he said of the 2000 opening. "Many people living here had never been to Asia and thought it was like a supermarket that was open at nighttime."
The people soon embraced the new concept, validating Cheung's vision, but also creating a few additional hurdles that neither he nor the city had envisioned—namely what do with increased traffic and growing garbage.
"There was no history of a business of this type and so there was a learning curve from both sides," said Cheung, who as a result of unexpected expenses such as those for traffic control actually lost money in the first year.
However, he was determined to forge ahead.
Much has changed since the modest launch at Continental Centre.
Kicking off its 17th year last Friday with a season-long tribute to Canada's 150th birthday, the Richmond Night Market, which is located at 8351 River Rd., a stone's throw from River Rock Casino Resort and Canada Line, has grown into the biggest night market in North America and perhaps beyond.
"So far as we know maybe one or two in China are bigger, but in terms of internationally there isn't anything close to matching us," claims Cheung. "Our food court this year has 105 booths, each featuring at least five or six items. What people can choose at one location is amazing, but every year we are trying to improve with new vendors (and a wider selection)."
Cheung caught the marketing bug when he was just 11 years old, shortly after his parents enrolled him at Victoria's Shawnigan Lake private boarding school. He recalls being one of only two Chinese boys at the school and not speaking a word of English, but throwing himself into such traditional activities as rugby and rowing.
"(The school) was basically in the middle of nowhere and (the environment) was like a little society," he said. "I learned a lot, like how to work with other people and in team situations. I made a lot of friends who are still my friends."
Near the end of his first year, Cheung organized his first event: taking the entire school, which was then only boys, to Victoria for a Chinese dinner. It went well, providing the youngster with the confidence to take on new adventures and, after university, to venture into the unpredictable world of business.
The idea of starting a night market was borne more out of his love for organizing, and wanting to provide a venue for people to go in the evening, than anything else.
"I thought Richmond was ready to have an event like this," he said. "A lot of times young people, teens especially, don't really have anywhere to go to hang out. And most (adults) work 9 to 5 weekdays and are also looking for somewhere the whole family can go for fun. The night market is perfect."
Besides embracing a wide-ranging palate, the Richmond Night Market also serves up an extensive selection of knickknacks among the more than 200 retail stalls. Then there is the diverse lineup of nightly performances including singing, dancing and cultural display on a 15-metre stage as well as 18 roaming dinosaurs in the prehistoric Dino Park. Many times, the night market provides a venue for various local fundraisers.
Cheung proudly boasts that the night market is also a good testing ground for young entrepreneurs, much as he was back in the day.
"If your product is good, the market with 10,000 people coming in every night, is a great place to be," he said. "Your costs are fixed because you don't have to worry about advertising or a whole year's rent."
While locals continue to flock to the Richmond Night Market in record numbers—every three minutes, Cheung said upwards of 250 people exit the Bridgeport skytrain station during market hours—its popularity has been greatly boosted by international visitors. In the last six years it has become a must-see tourist attraction. But even with the ongoing support of his wife Karen, and inspired by their two young sons, Cheung isn't prepared to rest on his laurels.
"Every year we're trying to improve and offer something new. And every year we have to try to have a wow factor (so going to the market doesn't become stale)," he said. "One of the reasons we picked Canada 150 as our theme this year is that I see the Richmond Night Market as being like Canada. If you come to the market you see a variety of people from all different backgrounds. It doesn't matter who you are, this should be a place to enjoy yourself."