Food stalls draw crowds at the 626 Night Market in Pasadena. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Plumes of smoke from roasting lamb skewers curl into the night air. Crowds jostle past fermented tofu stands and vats of curry fish balls.
"Xia bing'er! Xia bing'er!" one vendor sings in the high, lilting dialect of Beijing. "Shrimp pancakes!"
David Fung, a new Houston Rockets hat on his head, slides through the Asian night market in Pasadena with his brother, Andrew. "Dude, this is like the 626 Olympics," he says, weaving to the beat of Rihanna and YG.
The two are swept up in the moment and start belting out a version of their viral YouTube rap about the 626 — the area code of much of the San Gabriel Valley.
Let me tell you about a place out east
Just 15 minutes from the L.A. streets
Hollywood doesn't even know we exist
Like it's a mystical land, filled with immigrants ...
Six-two-six, young, wild and free.
Thirty years ago, a wave of Chinese immigrants began remaking the San Gabriel Valley. It started with developer Frederic Hsieh, who had bought a few million dollars' worth of real estate and commercial property and promoted Monterey Park as the "Chinese Beverly Hills."
Vacant lots and business strips were rapidly revitalized with a flood of Asian wealth. Monterey Park became America's first suburban Chinatown.
Today, the first generation of Chinese Americans who grew up in the area is coming of age. To many of them, with their often halting Chinese and brash American ways, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong seem distant and strange. At the same time, they don't want to abandon the world their parents left behind.
"You don't fit anywhere, so you create something new," says Aileen Xu, 21, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. "A lot of us don't necessarily connect to our homeland. We're not from China. We speak English."
This new creation is not entirely formed, but you can see the signs of it in song and dance; food from a dozen provinces with an American twist; a funny way of talking that mixes bits of dialect from across China and American hip-hop.
There are new clothing lines and music labels and a reincarnation of Taiwanese shaved ice with a frozen yogurt spin, marketed as Fluff Ice. T-shirts, emblazoned with "Six-Two-Six," are selling briskly.
Boba, those chewy tapioca balls served with sweet tea, is considered the ultimate 626 product. It was popularized here and is now all the rage in Asia.
Rapping in the middle of the night market, the Fung brothers draw a group of onlookers, who are juggling meat skewers and containers of fresh soy milk.
Where kids drink more milk tea than liquor
And they roast more duck than Swishers
The six-two-six, man, check the address
Home of Sriracha and Panda Express
The Fungs, clean cut and twentysomething, are the unlikely front men for the 626.
To begin with, they're from Seattle.
They grew up in the largely white suburb of Kent eating at Applebee's and listening to Jay-Z. Their parents, pursuing doctorate degrees, came from mainland China and Hong Kong but supported their children's love for basketball, fashion and hip-hop.
They visited Monterey Park to see their cousin, who, like most everyone in the area, didn't think the suburb was anything special.
The Fung brothers, however, were fascinated. "The fusion lifestyle here just seemed so unique and special to us because we didn't grow up around it," David says.
After graduating from the University of Washington with business degrees, the brothers moved to "MPK" in spring 2011 to pursue their dream of being entertainers.
They've developed a world view based on the odd melding of things Chinese and American and the habits of a young Asian generation obsessed with boba tea, break dancing and Instagram photos of food.
"We can't create the culture of people going to boba shops five times a day, but we put a name on it," Andrew says. "People weren't proud of it before, and we're telling them: 'Just own it.'"
Beneath the relentless search for the best shaved ice or pho soup noodles, there's a yearning among young Asian Americans for something beyond the Tiger Mom world of piano lessons, perfect SAT scores and a medical degree.
So what we drink tea?
We jus' eating good
In the SGV
So what we eat late?
That's how it's s'posed to be
"I think they're creative, they're on to something," says Monterey Park Mayor Mitchell Ing, a dapper UCLA economics grad and hapkido black belt.
"I'm a fan," he says.
Ing was so captivated by the youth phenomenon that he started showing the Fungs' YouTube videos at department head meetings.
"What the Fung brothers have done has surpassed what the Chamber of Commerce and what we as the city have done in promoting ... the businesses in the community," he said.
Cal State Long Beach sociology professor Oliver Wang says these local Asian American YouTube celebrities have successfully given the region more "culture capital."
It's the attitude, not the neighborhood, that has changed, says Wang, who lives in the San Gabriel Valley.