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Punjabi Market — Past, Present and Future

As the South Asian community in south Vancouver turns 50, there is hope that the exodus to Surrey doesn’t have to be a cultural one.

Christopher Cheung 2 Aug

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him here.

The past

When Sucha Singh Claire arrived in Vancouver in October 1969, he noticed that the Indo-Canadian women visiting the Sikh Gurdwara were wearing Western skirts.

There must not be an Indian fabric shop here yet, he thought, which struck him as curious. He had moved from the Punjab to Coventry, England in 1962 for work opportunities, where he saw many fabric shops open to serve the growing diaspora community.

Despite the increasing number of Indo-Vancouverites, ingredients for Indian cooking were also in short supply. Famous Foods on East Hastings, a supermarket well-stocked to meet the needs of the city’s Italian community, was the main go-to for Indo-Canadians on the hunt for legumes like lentils.

Claire, then 32, didn’t have any business experience — in Coventry, he was a factory machine operator — but he saw that there was an opportunity here.

Two years prior, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau had declared Canada a multicultural nation, with welcoming immigration policies. What better time to start a business serving the growing Indo-Canadian community?

“So I decided I would open a fabric store,” said Claire.

Claire happened to arrive in Vancouver on the eve of historic neighbourhood changes.

For six decades, the Sikh Gurdwara on Second Avenue was both temple and community gathering place for the local Indian community, whether they were of the Sikh faith or not. It was the first Gurdwara in Canada, and was built in 1908 in the Kitsilano neighbourhood when there were mill jobs nearby. The Indian community shared the area with a Japanese community, which also worked in sawmills, until they were interned and had their property seized by the federal government during the Second World War.

In 1969, the Gurdwara was prepping to relocate to a new building on Ross Street in south Vancouver, designed by the famous Erickson Massey Architects.

Knowing that many Indo-Canadians would also be moving, Claire scoped south Vancouver for a space to open a fabric business. A vacant storefront on Main Street between 49th and 50th Avenues, unremarkable to Claire except for its location, caught his eye.

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The lay of the land: Main Street, before the Punjabi Market. Photo courtesy of Orr Development.

“I heard that the owner was living in Chinatown,” said Claire. “So I went over there, gave the deposit, and I got the store. I rented it for $125 a month. There was also a bedroom in the back, so I started living there.”

On May 31, 1970, he opened Shan Sharees and Drapery, the first business in what would soon become the city’s Punjabi Market.

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Sucha Singh Claire, 82, on the block where he opened Shan Sharees and Drapery in 1970. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

That September, a friend of Claire’s from England who worked in the jewelry business moved to Vancouver.

“He didn’t want to go back to India,” said Claire. “He wanted to open a business over here, and there was room. Then later, a grocery store came, called Khalsa Emporium. So in 1971, there were three stores, for fabric, jewelry and groceries.”

Before these three businesses opened on Main Street, the three-block strip between 48th and 51st Avenues was not a destination. It was home to simple shops that served nearby residents, such as a Carson’s drug store and a hardware store.

The trio of stores providing Indian essentials proved enough of a draw to bring Indo-Canadian customers from across the city and beyond, and enticed other immigrant entrepreneurs to set up shop.

Claire did his part to encourage them with the vision of a market. “More businesses, more customers,” he’d say.

It was a great success, with more fabric stores, more jewelry stores and more grocers, along with restaurants and offices. The market might have only consisted of three blocks — nowhere near the length of the Fraser shopping strip or further north on Main — but the concentration of Indian business and community, especially during annual celebrations like Vaisakhi and Diwali, drew crowds.

Footage of the Vaisakhi parade in the Punjabi Market in 1995. Sukhpreet Singh via YouTube.

“It was crazy, out of control,” said Manjit Pabla of Himalaya Restaurant, opened by his father in 1972, who remembers people setting off fireworks right outside the business.

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Kewal Singh Pabla, who opened Himalaya Restaurant in 1972. Courtesy of the Pabla family.

Claire’s fabric store got so busy that he had to hire a security guard to manage the number of customers allowed in the shop at once.

Indo-Canadian families would come from places like Victoria, Nanaimo, Terrace, Williams Lake and Prince Rupert to shop at the market, recalls Harinder Singh Toor, who opened Punjab Food Centre in 1982.

“Surrey was nothing then, the jungle,” said Toor. “This was the only place to do their shopping. They would load up their cars and come here to do the jewelry, do the fabric, do the sweets. If they had family here, they’d stay overnight before going back.”

Ajay Puri, who was a teen in the 1990s, remembers treats like Limca soda, namkeen snack mixes and over 50 flavours of biscuit-like rusk.

“When people told me to get earrings, I went to Punjabi Market to get my ears pierced,” he said.

Puri’s father had a travel agency at a mall in the market, an important business for the diaspora as newcomers landed, families reunited and Indo-Canadians wanted to visit the motherland.

Beyond the market’s three blocks on Main Street between 48th and 51st, desi businesses also opened on nearby Fraser Street between 41st and 51st, and around 57th Avenue on both streets. In the 1990s, there were over 300 South Asian shops in this part of south Vancouver.

“It was really bumping,” said Puri. “On Fraser Street, we used to get meat from a butcher, then pirated Bollywood movies on VHS at the same shop. People would be lining up to get copies of the latest films and you’d have to push through the aunties and the kids. You’d get five of the new releases then come back again the next Sunday for more.”

The vibrant immigrant community was a far cry from what Puri was used to in Winnipeg, where he was born.

But as early as the 1980s, Surrey, south of the Fraser River, began to entice South Asian Vancouverites. Commercial rents were cheaper. House prices were lower, and for larger properties. Vancouver house prices, meanwhile, were rising; these were the years that blame was placed on the influx of Hong Kong and Taiwanese migrants.

Surrey’s South Asian population has grown to be over 4.5 times Vancouver’s, at a population of about 168,000 as opposed to 37,100, according to the latest census in 2016. This shift proved to be a bigger suburbanization of the Indo-Canadian community than the shift from Kitsilano to south Vancouver.

With key businesses relocating and newer immigrants following suit, Punjabi Market suffered in the 2000s.

“There was a singular culture in Punjabi Market which was its strength in the heydays,” said Rob Nijjar, who grew up in the area and has lived there for five decades. “Now, it’s become its weakness.”

Today, Nijjar is the executive director of the South Hill Business Improvement Association on Fraser, which has numerous Indian businesses on one of the city’s most multicultural streets.

In 2008, the city, the province and the federal government supported the creation of a $3-million landmark called the India Gate to try and help revitalize the area in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics. But plans never solidified, and the Punjabi Market Association’s efforts to find out why were ignored.

Rents in the market dropped, and many storefronts sat empty.

The future

When 2020 arrives, it will have been 50 years since Sucha Singh Claire opened his fabric business.

Ajay Puri, 38, has been mindful of this anniversary, and has been consulting with the city and the community for three years to create a vision for the future.

“What will the next 50 years look like?” he often asks.

Many Punjabi Market businesses have accepted that the area will become a multicultural market, if it survives as a market at all. Though in Chinatown, another historic immigrant community, longtime merchants who have embraced this idea have been accused of catering to capital over culture.

But new buildings give Punjabi Market merchants hope, like the six-storey project completed this year on the southwest corner of Main and 49th, formerly a one-story building home to the All India restaurant and Guru Bazaar. On the street level so far is a Tim Hortons and a Royal Bank, with a Freshii on the way. On the upper floors are 75 rental units.

Fraser Street still has a mix of business — international and Canadian, shops and services, big brands and mom-and-pops — but Nijjar of the South Hill BIA says Main is becoming “more generic and service oriented, everything from physiotherapy, a yoga place, medical offices.”

“Whether it’ll have a real culture to it, it’s hard to say, but it doesn’t seem to be going that way,” he said.

Ironically, adds Nijjar, it was a generic area before the Punjabi Market.

The dilution of its cultural landscape has led non-profit Heritage Vancouver to put the Punjabi Market on its annual watch list of vulnerable places.

“It’s not necessarily about taking it back to the ’80s,” said Bill Yuen, the non-profit’s executive director. “You can have development, but how does that development provide people an experience?”

Of the new six-story building, Yuen says that “if you stand there and look at it, it doesn’t give you the impression that you’re in Punjabi Market.”

It’s possible that big brands like Tim Hortons could be complementary to the neighbourhood’s mom-and-pop shops, said Yuen, “But if you have the trend where they take over, then you have an issue.”

The developer of the new building says that when it had an open house, local residents said they wanted to have a Tim Hortons in the area.

Orr Development, a family company that began in the 1930s when founder Reginald Orr opened Orr’s Stores in Vancouver, has owned the property for over five decades.

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The Orr property on the southwest corner of Main and 49th Avenue in the 1960s, 2000s and today Left and middle images courtesy of Orr Development, right photo by Christopher Cheung.

“The company saw the neighbourhood transition into the Punjabi Market,” said property manager Jackson Orr, who is part of the family’s fourth generation to run the company. He remembers painting the buildings in the neighbourhood when he was a teen around the turn of the millennium.

The rental residences have proved popular, with 90 per cent occupancy after three months.

“There’s obviously a dire need for rental,” said Orr. “It’s a mix of students and retirees. A couple of tenants had historically lived in the neighbourhood and ran businesses on Main Street before moving to south Surrey. Now they’re back, to be with friends and family, and downsizing.”

After over a decade of vacant storefronts, the new building signals a transition.

“That’s a few hundred tenants that would not have lived there before to shop in local stores,” said Orr. “Maybe it’ll spearhead other new businesses. We’re really excited to see how things go in the future of the neighbourhood.”

For camps cheering on or worried about new development, the push for city action around the 50th anniversary of the market’s start is welcome.

Green Coun. Pete Fry gave the city a formal push in July, with staff due to report back in the fourth quarter of this year on a Punjabi Market business study, street improvements, the area plan and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary.

Puri, who helped start the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, hopes that beyond quick wins like beautification there is also room for innovation and cultural spaces.

Claire, 82, has since retired. In that time he’s written articles and books, one called The Trailblazers on noteworthy Indo-Canadians of history. As the man who opened Punjabi Market’s first shop, he’ll be a big part of the history celebrated during next year’s anniversary.

“I hope it’ll bring a boom for the market,” he said.

Claire still lives a block away, and on a recent Monday stroll down Main Street pointed to where his shop used to be, the apartments above it where his son and daughter got married and rattled off the names of other businesses that have come and gone. Though not everything has changed.

“It’s still majority Indian shops,” he said proudly.

The present

Ethel Garcia
Roots Cafe, 6502 Main St.

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Photo by Christopher Cheung.

When Ethel Garcia had a stroke, she stopped working as a nurse after 25 years.

“I always wanted to have my own business, so I looked on the internet,” she said.

Garcia found a café for sale on Main Street, right at the corner of 49th Avenue. It felt right to her, because when she moved to Vancouver from the Philippines this was the neighbourhood she first lived in, right on 43rd Avenue.

So in 2016, she bought Roots Café.

“In health care, my work was always about working with people and helping people,” she said. “It’s kind of the same thing here. Every morning I look forward to being here. Making people happy makes me happy too.”

Garcia, who was attending therapy after her stroke, realized that working was actually helping her heal. So she quit the therapy.

“This was the better therapy for me,” said Garica, 50. “When I was a stroke patient, the focus is the cognitive. The more I talked to customers and got to know them the more I more I was able to focus.”

Garcia purchased the business from the Virks, a couple who grew up in the area and met at Langara College nearby (which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary next year).

Many south Vancouverites relate to the memories of the Virks’ childhoods, written on Roots’ window.

we grew up right here. corner of 47h and st. George. this neighbourhood was very good to us. we can still remember waterfights in the laneway, soccer at sunset, bike races at macdonald park. we flocked to main for the big parades. we ran home for dinner with our brothers and sisters. we saw our aunts and uncles at the market. this is home to us. that’s why we’re back again, with our own children, to put down roots right here. you’ll find the richest, best coffee in vancouver, and we know good, fresh food, from cultures near and far. we just hope, in some way, we can give back to this neighbourhood. because it’s worth it. and it’s very good to be home.

Gulzar and Seema Nanda
Hi-Class Jewellers, 6570 Main St.

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Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Mrignesh Nanda was 16 when he dropped out of school to learn how to make jewelry. It took him three years to complete his apprenticeship.

“The reason he was able to open a jewelry shop was because jewelers weren’t paid by salary, they were paid piecemeal,” said his son Gulzar, 29. “So somebody might be able to make 10 rings a day and make $25 a ring. Well, my dad would be able to make twice, three times as much. He could knock out 20, 25, 30 rings, and they’d be really high-quality.

“So the people he was working for, they were like, ‘This guy’s doing too good of a job! We can’t keep paying him this much on a daily basis.’ So they would give him harder projects. ‘Rings are easy, so let’s give him bangles. They take a lot longer to finish.’

“But my dad got really good at that and made even more money. It only took him a few years to get the money together and in 1985 he opened Hi-Class Jewelers.”

Gulzar’s mother Seema was also there at the beginning.

“When I came here I didn’t know anything about jewelry,” she said. “My husband taught me everything.”

Gulzar’s grandfather, also a jeweler, helped out too.

“He was like a rockstar in this space,” said Gulzar. “People would come here just to see him. He had this really rude, brash way of selling and people loved it.”

As for Gulzar, he helped sell jewelry as early as nine years old.

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A history of Hi-Class Jewellers in photographs. Gulzar Nanda points to a photo of his early days in the shop. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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The workshop at the back of Hi-Class Jewellers. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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Gulzar remembers when it seemed like every Indian kid in Vancouver seemed to have a gold pendent similar to the Nike swoosh with their name on it. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

There were over 25 people working at Hi-Class Jewellers at its height. There was huge demand, for both daily wear and celebrations like weddings.

“When a woman gets married, choosing that bridal trousseau and shopping for it is almost on par with the Western ideal of having an engagement ring,” said Gulzar.

Surprisingly, a lot of the people in Vancouver then who had the skills to make jewelry weren’t Indian, but Vietnamese and Chinese, he says.

For Gulzar, Punjabi Market was a great place to grow up, greeting family friends he’d run into with “uncle” and “auntie,” asking his mom to buy trucks from street hawkers selling toys from India and China out of carts and blowing up hundreds of dollars’ worth of fireworks with his dad in front of the family shop.

He began to take on more work at the business in his 20s.

“I love working with bridal parties and parents looking for jewelry for their children,” he said. “That feeling of knowing that the first piece of jewelry that kid is going to wear is from our shop, I really like that.”

Then two years ago, Mrignesh Nanda died.

Like many other businesses, the Nandas considered relocating to Surrey. But Gulzar didn’t want to leave the area where the family built its legacy.

So they’re staying put, and Gulzar’s been helping out with the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective. After a lifetime in the area, he doesn’t want its heritage to die.

“To be able to be yourself in a place,” said Gulzar one recent Wednesday sitting in his father’s chair, “there’s something beautiful about that.”

Manjit Pabla
Himalaya Restaurant, 6587 Main St.

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Photo by Christopher Cheung.

In the Punjab, Kewal Singh Pabla worked at his parents’ restaurant, cooking dishes and making traditional Indian sweets. When he moved to Vancouver and Indo-Canadians heard about his profession, they were willing to pay him for catering.

So in 1972, on the corner of Main and 50th, Pabla opened Himalaya Restaurant.

“They were the first!” declared Parminder Walia, who came from New Westminster to eat on a recent Friday. He’s been a loyal customer since 1985.

You’ll often see three generations of the Pabla family chatting up customers at the restaurant.

“It’s really good for it to be in the family,” said Manjit Pabla, 51, a son of Kewal’s who runs the restaurant with his brother. “Workers might come and go, but family will always show up, you know what I mean?”

At Himalaya, the vast assortment of Indian sweets you can get are all a labour of love.

Manjit points to the jalebi and the imarti, both of which resemble ornate orange coils.

“The jalebi is made from white flour and the imarti is made from lentils. The jalebi is more liquidy, so you can make them in a chain, but the imarti is slower, and you make them one at a time. The jalebi can take one hour and the imtarti can take three hours. They look almost identical, but they taste totally different.”

Harinder Singh Toor
Punjab Food Center, 6635 Main St.

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Photo by Christopher Cheung.

With the proliferation of big box stores, it’s easy to take for granted the thoughtful curation it takes to stock an independent supermarket.

A walk through the Punjab Food Center with Harinder Singh Toor, 62, who opened the business in 1981 with his brother, reveals the on-the-floor action of keeping up with customer demand.

There are bagged snacks by the brand Kurkure, in flavours like Masala Munch and Chilli Chatka, which Toor remembers were especially hot around the millennium when there was an influx of Indian students shopping at the supermarket.

There’s a popular brand of Indian-style yogurt, Himalaya Dairy, that was established in Surrey in 2005. “It’s the same taste as home,” said Toor. “People don’t buy Dairyland’s yogurt anymore.”

There’s produce from India, such as okra, tindora and coveted Kesar mangoes, which were the subject of a Bloomberg writer’s exuberant praise in 2016 — “flesh so creamy and soft it can almost hold a fingerprint.” They’re shipped by plane and cost $35 a dozen. “They’re very special,” said Toor. “A different flavour. There’s no fibre.”

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‘The best mangoes in the world,’ declares Bloomberg. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

With the new rentals in the neighbourhood, Toor’s already seen an uptick in shoppers.

“The young couples don’t want to go to Superstore,” he said, which opened nearby in 1989 and competed with the market for customers. “The young couples run here, buy bread and milk and sugar, and go upstairs.”

Suman Sanan
Grace Beauty Salon & Spa, 6692 Main St.

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Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Need to have your hair cut, coloured or styled? Or get a pedicure or manicure? Have henna done?

Suman Sanan, after working at other salon and spas, including the nearby Mona Lisa Beauty Parlour on Fraser Street, opened her Grace Beauty Salon & Spa in 2007.

“The market was slow then, but not like now,” she said.

Sanan chose to be on Main Street because of the sense of community.

Most of her customers live nearby, and she’s hoping that with the new residents in the Orr building and another development in the works, business will get a boost.

“We’ve thought about leaving,” she said. “But with the new buildings, we’re hoping it’ll be good so that we can stay.”  [Tyee]

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