Once a ‘South Philly secret,’ the Southeast Asian Market returns to FDR Park for another delicious season

“I hope that when people think about the Southeast Asian Market, that it becomes one of those landmarks,” said Catzie Vilayphonh from the Cambodian Association.

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A vendor cooks on a grill at an open stand. Trees and cars are visible behind her.

A food vendor works at the Southeast Asian Market at FDR Park in Philadelphia in 2022. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation)

The Southeast Asian Market in South Philadelphia’s FDR Park returns for another season starting this Saturday, April 1.

Visitors to the park can enjoy sweet, savory, and spicy dishes from over 70 vendors representing countries like Lao, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and many more. Think: Coconut sticky rice with mango. Spicy papaya salad. Barbecued meat on sticks. Fresh sugarcane juice.

For decades, vendors from the Southeast Asian community have gathered at the park and sold food there. This season, however, marks the fourth cycle that the market is hosted in collaboration between the Vendors Association of FDR Park, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia.

“The market wouldn’t be what it is today if we didn’t have these partnerships,” said vendor community cultivator for the Cambodian Association, Catzie Vilayphonh.

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Catzie Vilayphonh poses for a photo in front of a map of FDR Park.
Catzie Vilayphonh, with the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, is one of the leaders who worked to make the Southeast Asian Market happen at FDR. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Back in the day, before there was social media, before there was cell phones, the South Philly community would just drive and find them [the vendors], buy everything we possibly could, and then go back and tell our friends, ‘They’re right there, right now, go!’” recalled Vilayphonh.

Later, “when the informal market started, we just called it ‘the Spectrum,’” said Vilayphonh, referencing the former sports arena, which was demolished in 2010. “That’s how we identified the park. It was kind of like a South Philly secret.”

But the market is far from being a secret now.

A vendor uses tongs to cook meat and other items on a grill in FDR Park.
A food vendor works at the Southeast Asian Market at FDR Park in Philadelphia in 2022. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation)

Over the last three years, a strategic effort has been made to formalize the market in ways that benefit both the vendors and customers. In 2022, the city of Philadelphia granted $100,000 toward a planning process to eventually create a permanent home for the market at FDR Park. It will be years before a design is confirmed and any physical structure is built, so for now, Vilayphonh and her team are supporting the vendors in other meaningful ways, like creating a website, a vendor map, conducting market tours, and promoting vendors on social media.

This approach is a departure from the late ‘80s and ‘90s when there were fewer vendors and the operation was more clandestine, even risky. That’s not the case any longer.

“This is no longer this mythical, magical secret that we have to hide,” said the 42-year-old Lao American. “The market is this community space.”

Catzie Vilayphonh, Kayla Sok, and Roxana Taginya pose for a photo. Trees and grass at FDR Park is visible behind them.
Catzie Vilayphonh (left) and Kayla Sok (center) with the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia and Roxana Taginya (right), the market liaison at FDR Park, worked to make the 2023 Southeast Asian Market happen at FDR. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

FDR Park Director Justin DiBerardinis has been working with the Southeast Asian community on the market’s future and hopes that it will be a place for “all of Philadelphia.” He’s excited to welcome back the vendors to the park for the first time this year.

“It is an incredible community of people,” said Justin DiBerardinis. “Their love for each other, their love for their culture, and their love for this park is moving.”

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Plus, the food is delicious.

“There is this smell of lemongrass and beef and sugar cane, which kind of mixes together. And to me, when I smell that smell, I know it’s spring…that’s springtime in FDR Park,” said DiBerardinis.

Justin DeBerardinis poses for a photo, with a building at FDR Park visible behind him.
Justin DeBerardinis is the Director of FDR Park in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

While the market gets ready to open, Vilayphonh is thinking about all of the future possibilities.

“I hope that when people think about the Southeast Asian Market, that it becomes one of those landmarks,” she said. “‘I’m going to visit Philadelphia, I’m going to get a cheesesteak, I’m going to take a picture of the Rocky steps, and then I’m going to go to the Southeast Asian market in FDR Park.’”

The Southeast Asian Market is open every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. between April 1 and October 29, near the Broad Street side of FDR Park. Visitors are encouraged to bring cash.

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