South Asian community mourns death of Vancouver Punjabi Market 'pioneer'

Balu Thakor opened up one of the first businesses in the neighbourhood now known as Punjabi Market in the 1970s. He died in early January. (Submitted by Gayatri Thakor - image credit)
Balu Thakor opened up one of the first businesses in the neighbourhood now known as Punjabi Market in the 1970s. He died in early January. (Submitted by Gayatri Thakor - image credit)

Balu Thakor's bridal jewelry store, chock full of dazzling diamond rings, earrings and bangles, has been popular among Vancouver's South Asian population for decades.

In fact, Thakor was one of the first Indian immigrants in the area to open up a shop and although he passed away earlier this month, his family hopes his legacy will live on for future generations.

Thakor opened the store in 1975 and laid down the foundation for what is now known as the Punjabi Market, a three-block commercial district located on Main Street between 48th Avenue East and 51st Avenue East.

"He was a pioneer," said Balu Thakor's granddaughter Gayatri Thakor. "He really set the example for a lot of the businesses that came later on."

Thakor ran SK Designs and Jewellers, previously known as Shakti Gifts and Jeweller, for almost 35 years until 2008 when he started dealing with health issues and handed the shop over to his son Jay Thakor.

Balu Thakor, 84, passed away on Jan. 6. He leaves behind his son and five grandchildren, who he liked to jokingly call his "friends." He's remembered as a hardworking, loving and generous person.

"He had a heart of gold ... very caring," said Jay Thakor, who will continue to run the store.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Balu Thakor grew up in Gujarat, India and immigrated to Coventry, England as a teenager in 1955. He worked in coal mines and served in the British Royal Air Force. He then moved to Vancouver in the early '70s and opened his jewelry store amid the second wave of South Asian immigrants to B.C.

His business was a central hub for Punjabi people shopping for weddings and even regularly drew customers from other provinces and the United States.

Satwinder Bains, South Asian Studies Institute (Punjabi Market) became a place for us to feel like we belong

"It was really nice for the South Asian community to have a store that they can trust and people they can trust," Gayatri Thakor said.

Submitted by Gayatri Thakor
Submitted by Gayatri Thakor

A place 'where we belong'

Thakor's store was one of the few businesses on Main Street in the '70s.

Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the community needed a place to gather and get products from back home. The Punjabi Market also created pathways for South Asians in Vancouver to succeed.

"We are who we are because of the collections in Main Street," she said.

"This was a safe enclave where people went not just for business but they actually bought homes in the close-by regions and it became a place for us to feel like we belong."

The Punjabi Market is considered North America's oldest little India. It was an epicentre of the South Asian community in the '70s but went into decline in the early 2000s. The Punjabi Market Collective (PMC) has been working to revitalize the neighbourhood since around 2018.

Kiran Singh/CBC
Kiran Singh/CBC

Daljit Sidhu, a PMC trustee who knew Thakor and his shop well, said Thakor successfully opened the business at a time when it was difficult for South Asians to do that.

"I don't want to shy away from the notion that the discrimination was also at the peak."

Businesses like Thakor's signalled to people that the South Asian community was making Canada home, Sidhu said.

"It sent a strong message to Canadians and our young generation that we are part and parcel of this great country and this province and the city," he said.

Passing the baton 

Many people who started businesses during Punjabi Market's inception have sadly passed away, Sidhu said.

"That is a great loss," he said, urging younger generations to open their own businesses in the neighbourhood.

"We should feel proud of our pioneers and … contribute back to the community."

Jay and Gayatri Thakor said they are hopeful future generations will keep the market alive because Balu Thakor inspired many young people to preserve culture and traditions.

"His legacy lives beyond that and it continues forward," Gayatri Thakor said.