By Karen K. Ho
"It's hard to explain without seeming racist," laughs David In when asked about the East-Asian party scene in Toronto. The 29-year-old Korean-Canadian is a co-founder of Epic Nights. The entertainment production company produces concerts and other events, but Epic specializes in promoting club nights targeted at young East-Asian students and professionals.
I haven’t been to a nightclub in years, but I still know that clubbing is a massive part of Toronto's entertainment industry. I also know that East-Asian nights are incredibly popular. What I wanted to figured out was exactly how popular, and how parties focused on East-Asian clubbers might be different than a “regular” club night. So I asked David, and here’s what I learned.
Club gear transcends race. “You'll have your hipsters and the guys who are all GQ'd, and obviously the douche-bags who are wearing Ed Hardy,” David said. “You know, the True Religion jeans and really flashy standout style.”
East-Asians drink what everyone else drinks. Bottle service orders are dominated by vodka, while bar orders are mostly Jagerbombs and tequila shots.
“Asian Glow” exists. (It’s increased acetaldehyde accumulation, ok?) “Some people will have one sip of beer and they'll turn red,” David laughs.
Friday night is Asian Night—it’s when club owners are most likely to ask Epic to help them bring in an Asian clientele. “However on Saturday it's completely different,” he said, noting that the demand for “white” nights goes up. “But those tend to become mixed anyway.”
David said that among ethnicity- or nationality-specific events, East-Asian parties are generally busier than those aimed at South-Asian or Black patrons. “Not to be racist,” he quickly added. “It's just how it goes.” For Epic Nights' current residency at Pure, David brings in hundreds of people per week. On special events like Halloween, that number can go up to as high as 3,000. “And its like at least 99 per cent Asian,” he said.
“Asian” doesn’t mean “905.” “Uptown, downtown, Mississauga, we have people coming in even further than that,” he said. “It's not like people from one area.”
Focusing on Asian patrons is a business decision. “Most clubs don't do well if they don't do Asian,” he explained. “When a club isn't doing so well that's when they outsource to a company like us.”
Maybe seeking out white crowds is, too. “White people tend to spend the most,” David said. “That's just generally how it goes.”
At the same time, “Asian clubs” are stigmatized. “There's a saying in Toronto, ‘Once you go Asian, your club's going to shut down,’” David said. Nightclubs Embassy, XS and Live all introduced East-Asian residencies last year. Shortly after, they all closed.
Most Asian clubgoers are Chinese. “There is a ton of Chinese people in Toronto,” is David's simple analysis. “Those make up the majority of people who come out.” A decade ago, East-Asian clubgoers were generally from Hong Kong, but these days, most 20-something patrons are now from Mainland China.
International students like to show off their cash at clubs. “You're going to have Mr. Chan, who's opening up 10 bottles of champagne for his friends because Mommy and Daddy are rich in Shanghai," he said, remembering some of his personal clients buying up multiple bottles of Ace of Spades champagne each worth $900. “You just can't compare.”
They’re also kind of shy. When Epic Nights organized K-pop events, they were really busy, but not very social. "The first time we did it, a lot of Korean people came out and they said the music made them feel like home," David said, adding that many of those who attended were small groups of exchange students. "But they only like to party amongst themselves."
Filipinos are much more likely to prefer hip-hop. “A lot of parties in Toronto now, they play house music,” David said. “But when you go to hip-hop club, you're going to get a different clientele of people.” At these events, both the dress code and drink preference are very different: more sneakers, and more Hennessey.
Racism exists in the club. David says that Korean attendees stopped coming out to events once they realized a lot of Chinese people were showing up, too. Taiwanese clubgoers also preferred not to mingle with mainland Chinese. East-Asians who were born or predominantly raised in Canada are more likely to interact with other nationalities than are new immigrants. “It's really hard for them to mingle because of language barriers,” said David.
Club owners can be prejudiced, too. “They'll be like, I don't want Asians, I don't want any black guys, I don't want any brown guys,” David said. “Turn them all away at the door.” Even though club owners aren't technically allowed to do this, bouncers can refuse entry using comments about clothing, intoxication, or ID. “They will start turning away certain people in the beginning just so they don't start becoming a niche crowd,” David said. He believes that expensive quotas at clubs like Maison are a way to make sure a club doesn’t get too Asian, and says lucrative party bookings are sometimes even turned down for the same reason. “It's kind of crazy,” David said.
Less people are partying, Asian and otherwise: the recent recession, an industry-wide decline in attendance and a rise in the number of promotion companies means club owners willing to host Asian nights are making a lot less money. “Three years ago, at the same spot I am today, I'd see 1,000 people a week,” David said. “Now if I see 400, I'm happy.”
(Note: In quotes, mentions of the word "Asian" specifically refer to people of East-Asian descent.)
Karen K. Ho is a business reporter who was born and raised in Toronto. She recently discovered the joy of Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night and Liberte's coconut yogurt.