Summer nights in Chinatown fill with music, food, fun

With an ever-evolving mix of night life options on any given weekend, Los Angeles during the summer can be considered an almost overwhelming place for anyone hoping to catch them all.

Consider the third annual Chinatown Summer Nights happening this Saturday. A free, all-ages mix of a cultural event and street party produced in partnership between the Chinatown Business Improvement District and Santa Monica's KCRW-FM, the event promises a smorgasbord of food, music and art that merges well with the city's always eclectic menu of summer happenings.

The event has previously drawn between 15,000 and 18,000 people, according to the business district's count, and this year it has expanded to three nights with unique happenings also scheduled for Aug. 11 and 25.

"The Chinatown parties are a magnificent representation of what L.A. is all about," said KCRW DJ Anthony Valadez, who will be spinning this Saturday. "One of the great elements is the fact that every color, every age group and every walk of life is represented on the dance floor. That's really the diaspora of L.A."

Set to preside over an impromptu dance floor to be set up in the Central Plaza at Broadway and College Street, Valadez will join a roster of familiar voices from the station that include Jason Bentley and Jeremy Sole to provide a genre-hopping soundtrack for the night. But they won't be alone.

Retro-hip Caveman Vintage Music, an instrument and record shop in the heart of Chinatown, has curated a lineup of local acts on the festival's live music stage. The music shop's Eric Stollsteimer said it kept the selections eclectic in order to "give the festival a little bit of everything."

Chicano Batman, a globe-trotting quartet blending elements of cumbia, soul and surf-rock, headlines Saturday along with the electronica-instrumental duo Touché. On Aug. 11, the bossa nova psychedelic-fusion band Wild Pack of Canaries co-headline with Latin rocker Gustavo Galindo, and Aug. 25 features the cumbia collective Buyepongo along with singer-songwriter Stephen Sowan and the Blessings, a 1970s-inspired rock unit with a southern tinge. Not far from the music area, a silent video projection of the Hong Kong action movies "Ip Man" (2008) and "Ip Man 2" (2010) will further color the proceedings.

Brooklyn-based art outfit Punk Rock Pillow Fight also will present its vision of "Big Trouble in Little China," a pillow fighting tournament open to all between band sets. Organizer Andrew K. Thompson described it as a "modern reaction to 'American Gladiators,' professional wrestling and the world of combat sports."

Founded in 2005 with the goal of jolting too-cool music audiences into acts of "childishness ridiculousness," Punk Rock Pillow Fight is less about conflict and more about the courage to lighten up.

"Some people are afraid to get on the mattress, but it's really fun to watch the ones who are brave enough, because they go from skepticism to complete laughter," Thompson said. "Sometimes you don't know the person you're fighting and you're looking across at this person you've just met, and when it's over you just want to hug it out."

The foodie set will have a chance to experience the many culinary offerings of Chinatown through cooking demonstrations and dim sum eating contests hosted by a number of local restaurants, including Golden City, Hoan Kiem and Mandarin Chateau. The event on Aug. 11 also will feature the "Battle Chinatown" cooking competition, featuring Jet Tila of the Charleston in Santa Monica taking on reigning champion Lupe Liang of Hop Woo BBQ Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown.

Nearby restaurants will be open later than usual, and diverse tastes also will be available from a rotating selection of food trucks, including Flying Pig, Munchie Machine and Pigs Feet Under. Craft beers curated by Eagle Rock Brewery will be available at an outdoor beer garden.

In many respects the festival is a celebration of Chinese culture, but it's also an event that connects the city to its historic roots. "L.A.'s new Chinatown was built in 1938 when the original Chinatown was condemned and demolished to build Union Station," explained George Yu, president of the business district. "[The organization] produces events to engage Angelinos and to encourage exploration." In this context, discovering a new corner of the city sounds just like summer.

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