Top of the Pop-Ups
Event coordinator, filmmaker, and podcast host, Ken Tsui can't seem to sit still. Ken has hosted events such as "Black Lodge", which reimagined the famed diner from Twin Peaks, "Fei Bing Express", which transformed Gene Cafe into a Hawker Stand, and most recently took over the Alpen Club with a German themed pop-up called "Das Lexicon", in collaboration with Chinatown’s Bestie and Rain City Chronicles. We recently sat down with the event guru to discuss his numerous projects, and why he takes it upon himself to bring Vancouverites together.
Roden Gray: Could you give us the Ken Tsui backstory?
Ken Tsui: I spent my childhood as the token Chinese kid growing up in a small Albertan town of about 3000 white people before moving to North Burnaby, where I experienced the definition of complete boredom, until about 2001 when I was introduced to cinema in a big way. I grew up watching movies all the time, but that year was next level. Mulholland Dr., In the Mood for Love, Memento, The Man Who Wasn't There, Devil's Backbone, Royal Tenenbaums, Little Otik, Ghost World, Waking Life, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Fat Girl, The Piano Teacher, and Amelie all hit theatres. Do you know what happens when you expose an impressionable 16 year old to all those bangers? It convinces him to become a film director. I pursued the dream of being a filmmaker for over a decade before, inadvertently, becoming an event producer.
RG: I've heard people call you the king of pop-ups, how did you get started in the world of event planning?
KT: I wouldn't say "king", more court jester. Anyway, I wasn't happy with the work I was producing as a filmmaker. So instead of sitting around moping about it, I started cooking for friends to stay productive. Then it was for nine strangers, and nine grew to twenty-five, and within three years, I was hosting dinners for over 300 people.
RG: It’s been a pretty fast couple of years for you.
KT: Yeah, I mean, you look at the 5 years I was producing films, to the 3 years I’ve been in food and I’ve been able to accomplish way more.
RG: You had your short documentary "To Scale" debut at VIFF last year. Do you find there are any similarities between running events and directing films?
KT: Both are time-based and the sum of their moving parts with a beginning, middle, and end. Starting off strong and keeping it there can be a challenge, but directing a film or managing an event both come down to staying true to the vision you had in mind and good planning under stressful conditions. Working that way has helped me manage events with consistency without acting like an asshole.
RG: Could you talk a little bit about your working process, particularly your emphasis on collaborations?
KT: I think it's interesting about the idea of collaborations now because it was a big streetwear thing at a time when we were all into it, and now I use it all the time. It’s the only way I think anymore, I don’t ever think about cooking, myself, it’s always with a collaborator. Everyone's doing them now, as a business model. You set up your business and then do separate collobos on top as “cream”. Your brand is bringing people together, and that’s the direction I’m looking at.
RG: Last year you and Tannis Ling (owner of Bao Bei) spearheaded the revitalization of The Chinatown Night Market. How did that opportunity come about, and now that you've moved on to other projects what are your thoughts about how it all turned out?
KT: My name was floating around in a conversation Tannis was having with someone. She contacted me, and over the course of one meeting I hopped onto the project. In retrospect, we had some incredible nights and some really bad ones. But I think that the good nights shined through and I'm proud of what Tannis, myself, and the team did. I never imagined I would learn that much about event planning and Chinatown in such a short period of time. As tough as it was, I would never trade the experience for anything.
RG: What is it that you like about doing all of these events?
KT: The satisfaction of seeing things come together and having people enjoy them. That's it.
RG:Which one out of all of your events are you most proud of?
KT: Fei Bing Express. It was light and easy. It was fun. We had a really great playlist, all gold standard hip-hop. I want to recapture that energy. It felt like a party.
RG: You're also a food writer for Scout Magazine, focusing on hole in the wall joints around the city. Could you name a few of your favourite spots to grab a bite?
KT: La Mezcaleria, Pizzeria Farina, Santouka Ramen, Phnom Penh, and Damso.
RG: I know you're a die-hard Strathcona resident, what is it about that neighborhood that attracts you?
KT: It's next to Chinatown, where I can get pick up a week's worth of groceries for $18 and keep my Cantonese sharp.
RG: Could you talk a bit about style, I remember that the first thing I noticed about you before I met you is that you had a very distinct style.
KT: It’s all about Truffaut. This coat man, Truffaut.
RG: Run us through a day in the life of Ken Tsui.
KT: Everyday is different but it always starts with me waking up later than I'd prefer.
RG: What's next for you?
KT: I've got events coming up all the way until the fall. I’m doing a Kinfolk dinner with the girls from Victory Gardens and that’s going to be at the new Matchstick location in Chinatown. Doing an event at the RIO Theatre called “Guilty Pleasures”, that’s going to have a cover band playing just the worst songs that people love. So, basically Big Shiny Tunes 1-5 (laughter). Another event at The UBC Botanical Gardens, and then The Dumpling Festival in Chinatown this summer with Tannis from Bao Bei.