Traffic and lines turned Howard County Asian food festival into a 'disaster'

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The Asia Collective Night Market promised to be a massive, new event in Howard County that would draw as many as 25,000 people eager to celebrate Asian culture and feast on tantalizing street food like hand-pulled noodles, Chinese barbecue and boba-studded drinks.

Indeed, thousands of people flocked to the fairgrounds Saturday evening for the event, which was modeled after similar night markets in Thailand, Japan and elsewhere. But many say it was disorganized and vastly oversold. Traffic backed up for miles on Interstate 70 and other roads and caused some who had bought tickets to give up.

Those who did make it inside said crowds, lines and heat made things uncomfortable. Others brought up safety concerns, saying there were not enough law enforcement officers or emergency services for the scale of the event.

Many are asking for refunds, while some commenters compared the night market to the Fyre Festival, a 2017 multi-day music festival in the Bahamas infamous for being underprepared and leaving attendees stranded without food, shelter and transportation. And while that festival may have resulted in lawsuits and criminal charges, there’s no evidence that this was anything more than unexpected demand and poor planning that left a lot of people unhappy.

“I had expectations of [the festival] being a fun and delicious time and a really good cultural experience that [would have] broader positive impacts on the community,” Alice Shi, a Virginia resident who made it to the festival at 8 p.m., said. “Unfortunately, I think the opposite happened.”

Asia Collective Night Market co-founders, (from left to right) Yumin Gao, Sophie Shi, Pauline Liu and Ben Wang, stand in front of a sign advertising their food festival at The Mall in Columbia. The night market will be held at the Howard County Fairgrounds on Aug. 20, 2022.

The festival was the idea of Yumin Gao, along with his friend Ben Wang and their partners, Sophie Shi and Pauline Liu, who formed the collective in December of last year, hoping to host a night market that would reflect the diversity of Asian culture. Howard County has a vibrant and growing Asian community, the second-largest concentration of Asian residents in the state of Maryland.

Gao told The Baltimore Banner the group was inspired after going to other area food festivals that didn’t live up to his expectations.

Gao and others in Asia Collective Night Market did not reply to requests for comment. The group posted a statement on Instagram on Sunday morning, saying they were “moved that many many individuals decided to visit” the night market.

The statement also cited difficulties executing parking plans and check-in efficiently, attributing the “unexpected sheer volume of individuals who did not have tickets driving to the fairground” as why they decided not to check for parking permits. Attendees who arrived close to the 2 p.m. opening time told The Baltimore Banner staff didn’t check their parking permit.

The statement felt like “the weakest excuse,” said Adam Phan from Fort Washington, who ultimately gave up on attending the festival after more than two hours stuck in traffic. He said it felt like the organizers had no professional experience conducting a large event.

“I don’t see this event coming back again, and if so, I don’t expect a positive turnout either,” Phan said. “People remember how you make them feel … and a lot of people felt like they wasted their time, they wasted their money.”

In late July, Gao told The Baltimore Banner they had sold about 10,000 tickets and were hoping to attract 25,000 visitors. Asia Collective Night Market has not confirmed attendance numbers.

Howard County Police said in a statement that the event was “far over capacity” and understaffed with ineffective parking coordination.

“Police did everything possible to handle the traffic, but there were simply too many vehicles for the roadways to handle,” the department wrote. “This was the first time this event was held in Howard County and due to the poor coordination, we don’t expect to allow it to be hosted in our jurisdiction again.”

Alice Shi had seen the night market as an opportunity to try a diverse array of authentic Asian foods. She had high expectations for the festival, which would celebrate and amplify a community she says isn’t often in the spotlight. It could have been a special event for many, she said, including herself as someone of Asian descent.

Instead it was a “disaster” and missed opportunity, especially for the vendors that were hoping to get exposure, she said. Small restaurants struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, and Asian business owners were particularly affected, especially with the rise in anti-Asian racism.

“This could have meant a lot to a lot of people,” she added. “To see a lot of people from different cultures, different ethnic backgrounds, all trying to attend this event and appreciate something from your culture.”

Tatiana Mannino, who lives in Fells Point, had bought tickets to the festival as an anniversary gift for her husband. In regular traffic, it can be a 40-minute drive from Baltimore to the fairgrounds. They got stuck in gridlock about two miles away from the site, Mannino said, moving less than a mile in three hours.

She began to worry about people driving recklessly, she said, seeing people swerving and cutting others off to try to get to the event. After seeing cars abandoned on the side of the road, Mannino and her husband decided to head back to the city.

People on a Facebook group called “Asia Collective Night Market Disaster” and on Twitter echoed traffic concerns, posting screenshots of estimated arrival times two hours away despite being just two miles from the fairgrounds.

“We can’t get our time back, but the very least [the organization] could do is refund people,” Mannino said. “With that money, we can go check those restaurants on our own time and support them on our own time.”

Gabe Fishbein, who took almost two hours to drive to the fairgrounds from Columbia, noticed cars pulled to the side of the road and people walking the last two miles because it was faster. Fishbein had purchased a parking ticket, but no one was there to check or scan his ticket, he said.

Others who attended the event raised concerns over the lack of screening at the entrance. Staff seemed to be burnt out, Fishbein said, and by 7 p.m. many guests were entering the festival without anyone checking their tickets, or entering through an opening in the fence.

Alyssa Tarver said she could tell the crowd was too large for the event as soon as she got to the food market. The lines were so long that it left little space to walk. Tarver resorted to walking between tents, in areas with exposed electrical wires that connected to vendor equipment. She thought to herself after the event that people shouldn’t be able to pass through there.

“There was really no space to even enjoy the event because we were all just piled on top of each other,” she said.

She and her friend tried to stick it out. It had taken them so long to get in, Tarver said, and she felt that the food vendors weren’t given the opportunity to shine. But as they waited in line, they felt like they were just wasting time and worried vendors would run out of food. Tarver ended up leaving with her friend and going to a Korean barbeque restaurant in Towson.

A lot of the food vendors seemed to be overwhelmed and out of items, Fishbein said, and the lines were taking too long. There were no canopies offering shade from the sunny, upper-80s weather, and he couldn’t find water fountains. While the night market seemed to be well-intended, Fishbein said, it was disorganized.

“It seems like there’s just kind of no responsibility, no accountability, no plan for refund, no plan to remediate anything,” he said.

Jennie Kwon, the owner of Mochi Mochi and Blowfish Poké, said organizers sent out an email to food vendors five days prior to the festival saying they were expecting over 23,000 people to attend. Kwon said the organizers noted on the email that vendors should have a minimum of 1,300 entrees to sell.

”If all vendors listened, we wouldn’t have this problem,” Kwon said. “It was a really great idea to put all this together. And they planned the best that they could, honestly.”

Kwon credited organizers with clear communication to food vendors. They suggested finger food that would be quick and affordable to serve. She also said the location was better than previous markets in the past — and the space was bigger and parking easier. If there is a future event, she suggested spreading it over two days.

But she didn’t expect the mass of attendees to show up all at once. She thought it would peak in the evening, with some down times. She also thought she’d be able to easily restock if needed because her shop is usually a 10-minute drive to the fairgrounds. On Saturday night, it took almost three hours to replenish.

Asia Collective Night Market is working to address comments, concerns and requests in the next few days, according to a post on their Instagram page.

Alice Shi said the apology was insufficient and that the group — which she said has been restricting comments on social media — should do more.

Shi said “shitshow” was the only way to describe the festival.

“I apologize for the crassness,” Shi said.

This story has been updated.


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