Take a walk through the past, present and future of Vancouver's Punjabi Market

·4 min read
Punjabi Market celebrated its 51st anniversary in 2021.  (Kiran Singh - image credit)
Punjabi Market celebrated its 51st anniversary in 2021. (Kiran Singh - image credit)

If you had visited the three-block strip of Vancouver's Main Street between East 48th and East 51st avenues a couple of decades ago, your senses would have been overwhelmed with the aroma of sandalwood, the bright colours of Punjabi suits hanging from storefronts, the sounds of Indian and Pakistani music blasting on radios, and sidewalks full of people.

But once the South Asian community started moving south of the Fraser River, many businesses followed, diluting the vibrancy of Vancouver's Punjabi Market.

Today only a handful South Asian stores remain but efforts to rejuvenate this once bustling business hub are underway.

Jag Nagra, the creative director of the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, says the group wanted to design a self-guided tour where visitors can take their time and pop into a shop for a meal or chat with the store owners. So they collaborated with the Indian Summer Festival and created an audio tour that is available until Saturday.

Kiran Singh
Kiran Singh

The self-guided tour begins at the intersection of Main Street and 51st Avenue, in front of Frontier Cloth House, and requires nothing more than a cellphone, some headphones, and a bit of free time.

The tour features artists, shop owners and other people from the neighbourhood talking about the history of the market, what it's like today, and what they hope for the future. It is narrated by Gurpreet Sian from Hockey Night Punjabi.

Efforts to re-establish the old charm of the market have been ongoing.

May 31, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of the market, and to celebrate, the City of Vancouver created a special anniversary webpage, which provided an overview of the history of the market and community efforts to revitalize this important place.

Khalsa Diwan Society

Nagra says many South Asian, specifically Punjabi, immigrants settled in the area between the 1960s and 1980s because of the Khalsa Diwan Socety.

"The Ross Street Gurdwara is nearby, and usually with gurdwaras and temples, that's sort of where the population tends to migrate to," Nagra says.

Sucha Singh Claire immigrated to Vancouver in October 1969 and opened Shan Sarees and Drapery on May 31, 1970 with his wife Harbans Kaur Claire. Skeptics questioned who would choose to wear Indian clothes in Canada, Nagra said, but the couple ignored the doubters and forged ahead.

"They were the founders of this place, who helped set the stage," Nagra says.

Nothing like it at the time

Harinder Singh Toor opened the Punjab Food Centre in 1981 after he realized there were no stores that carried Indian spices or specific flours.

Kiran Singh
Kiran Singh

He recalls that people would come from all over B.C. to shop in the area.

And while the store has seen a decline in popularity since people started moving to the Fraser Valley, he says it remains an important piece of the South Asian landscape in B.C.

A different kind of representation

During a walk through the aisles of the Punjabi Food Centre, Nagra picked up a box of imported Indian chai.

"Growing up here as a Canadian, a lot of time you didn't see the representation in stores ... to be able to see this woman in front of this kettle with brown skin, black hair, someone who looks like us, that's really important," Nagra said.

Kiran Singh
Kiran Singh

Nagra says seeing Punjabi labels and words on packaging offers a degree of independence to older people while providing visual representation for all South Asian people.

Community ties

Madan Dhingra of Mona Cloth House, which opened in 1990, recalls a time in 1991 when his shop was destroyed by fire.

"I got a phone call around 11 [p.m.] that there is a fire ... the back of my store was burned down, I said, 'That's it man, this is gone, this is history now,'" Dhingra said.

He had invested all his time and money since coming to Canada into the store and felt lost after the fire.

Kiran Singh
Kiran Singh

"Next day, my landlord came, Mr. Kwan. He said, 'Don't worry man, I'm here, we'll take care of you, we will fix this place,'" Dhingra recalls, noting he was the person who put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and helped him fix the store.

Now that Dhingra has turned 75, he says his kids tell him he should close the store, but he can't because it makes him "tick."

A festive tree

Nagra, of the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, says they were trying to revive the sense of community in the Punjabi Market when she came up with the idea of a garland tree.

Kiran Singh/CBC
Kiran Singh/CBC

"Why don't we get marigolds from one of the shops here, we'll cover the tree with them," Nagra said.

The weekend they were putting up the garlands, Nagra said many older people from the South Asian community stopped by to ask if they were decorating for a festival.

"Throughout South Asia, marigolds are used to decorate temples, homes for weddings or religious ceremonies," Nagra said, noting she wanted to create something that would attract younger and older people alike.

The marigold tree "did the job really well," Nagra said.