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Why thousands flocked to Pomona Fairplex's 'Asian version of a county fair'

Blending elements of a trade show, food festival, product showcase, fashion show and concert venue, the Asian American Expo offered a sweeping, kaleidoscopic view of Southland Asian commerce at the Pomona Fairplex on Sunday.

The expo began in 1982 as a perk for advertisers in the Chinese Consumer Yellow Pages, whose parent company, the Chinese Overseas Marketing Service Corp., funds the event, said organizer Gorden Kao.

Today it has expanded in so many directions that even organizers struggle to define it simply.

"We call it different things depending on who we're marketing it to, but I like to call it the Asian version of a county fair," Kao said.

Like a county fair, there was a centrally located carousel, but at $4 a ride, most of the horses lacked riders. The fried dough came in the form of a Japanese savory pancake, okonomiyaki, and the closest thing to a burger was a rou jia mo, a cumin-spiced lamb flatbread sandwich from northern China. Balloons were plentiful, but most of them were red and stamped with advertisements for Chinese companies.

Attendance has grown nearly every year, Kao said. The first expo had just 60 exhibitors, but now more than 1,200 exhibitors and 190 food vendors sprawl over six exhibition halls at the fairgrounds complex, drawing more than 100,000 mostly Chinese attendees over two days. This year's event was Saturday and Sunday.

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The Los Angeles County Fair, by comparison, draws 1.4 million visitors over three weeks.

Some halls featured only food or medical products, but others displayed massage chairs and $1 jewelry next to free blood pressure tests and futuristic rice cookers.

In one hall, vendors hawked coffins next to coffee and promoted Chinese versions of Uber, food delivery service Seamless and Yelp. One table trumpeted investment opportunities, and exhibitors at another offered deals on quinceaneras and weddings for a Koreatown venue, Dream Wedding.

Outside, corporate exhibitors such as Olive Garden that are looking to develop Asian fan bases tried out their products on the crowds. AT&T pushed a new smartphone game called the Monkey King's Journey that's geared toward Asian consumers, while an operator at a booth next door promoted health supplements over a loudspeaker with the volume dialed too high.

This year, Kao said, the expo's organizers tried to attract a younger, more diverse demographic. They added a beer festival and an anime convention featuring costumes, and dedicated one hall to an event named the Silk Show, an exhibition of street wear, hip-hop and fashion products.

Miles Canares, who organized the Silk Show, invited a lineup of mostly Asian American musical acts for the stage at the far end of the youth-oriented hall, including Common Differences, a Hawaiian rap group; Korean American singer Gloria Kim; and Roshon, a Filipino rapper and singer.

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Canares, 27, grew up in Pasadena and attended the Asian American Expo as a kid. But back then, it was more of an Asian products showcase, where the most fun youth-oriented activity was eating deep-fried squid and barbecue on a stick.

"There was no youth element before," Canares said. "We're hoping this could be a place for the younger generation to hang out."

Product samples and giveaways continued to draw large crowds Sunday. People formed long lines to collect free water bottles, cans of grass jelly drink and other freebies inside red fabric grocery bags bearing the festival's logo — half of a Chinese opera star's face merged with the face of the Statue of Liberty.

Ying Wong and a friend, Chinese immigrants from East Los Angeles, had filled up eight free shopping bags between them by noon — such a large haul that they struggled to board the parking lot shuttle.

Wong, who has attended the festival for seven years straight, said she was stocking up on food and goods for the Chinese New Year.

"It's just a lot of fun. It's cheaper to buy things here, and they give you some good deals," she said. "We're going to come back for another load in a minute."

Kao said the festival has also been trying to attract a more diverse clientele, such as Pomona resident Debby Thomas and her husband.

Debby Thomas, who was attending the festival for the second year, loves to try new food and cook with Asian ingredients. It sometimes doesn't feel as though she's the expo's target demographic, she said, but she and her husband enjoy visiting the exhibitors and vendors anyway.

"Not all of them will hand us their stuff, but you just have to engage them and make it clear you're open to it," Thomas said.


Twitter: @frankshyong


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