Walk through the past, present and future of Vancouver’s Punjabi Market

If you had visited the three blocks of Vancouver’s Main Street between 48th and 51st East Avenues some 20 years ago, your senses would have been overwhelmed by the aroma of sandalwood, the vivid colors. Punjabi costumes hanging from storefronts, the sounds of Indian and Pakistani music on radios, and crowded sidewalks.

But once the South Asian community began to move south of the Fraser River, many businesses followed, diluting the vibrancy of Vancouver’s Punjabi market.

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

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

Mona Cloth House has been present in the Punjabi market since 1990. (Kiran Singh)

the self-guided tour starts at the intersection of Main Street and 51st Avenue, across from Frontier Cloth House, and requires nothing more than a cell phone, headphones, and some free time.

The tour features artists, traders, and others from the neighborhood talking about the history of the market, what it is today, and what they hope for the future. It is narrated by Gurpreet Sian of Hockey Night Punjabi.

Efforts to restore the old charm of the market have been underway.

May 31, 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the market, and to celebrate, the City of Vancouver created a birthday page, which provided insight into the history of the market and the community’s efforts to revitalize this important place.

Khalsa Diwan Company

Nagra says that many South Asian immigrants, especially Punjabi, settled in the region between the 1960s and 1980s because of the Khalsa Diwan company.

“Ross Street Gurdwara is nearby, and usually with gurdwaras and temples, it’s sort of where people tend to migrate,” says Nagra.

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 clothing in Canada, Nagra said, but the couple ignored the skeptics and moved ahead.

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

Nothing like that at the time

Harinder Singh Toor opened the Punjab Food Center in 1981 after realizing that there were no stores offering Indian spices or specific flours.

The lack of Indian spices inspired Harinder Singh Toor to open his own grocery store in the heart of the Punjabi Market in 1981. (Kiran Singh)

He remembers people coming from all over British Columbia to shop in the area.

And although the store has seen a decline in popularity since people started moving to the Fraser Valley, he says it remains an important part of the South Asian landscape in British Columbia.

A different representation

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

“Growing up here as a Canadian, you often didn’t see the representation in the stores … to be able to see this woman in front of that kettle with brown skin, black hair, someone who looks like us, that is. is really important, ”Nagra said.

Jag Nagra says the imported products provided a much needed visual representation in the early days of the Punjabi market. (Kiran Singh)

Nagra says that seeing Punjabi labels and words on packaging provides a degree of independence for older people while providing visual representation for all South Asians.

Community links

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

“I got a phone call around 11 a.m. [p.m.] that there is a fire … the back of my store was set on fire, I said: ‘This is it man, here we go, this is history now’ “, said Dhingra.

He had invested all of his time and money since arriving in Canada in the store and felt lost after the fire.

Madan Dhingra opened Mona Cloth House in the Punjabi market in 1990 after his wife Rajni Dhingra persuaded him to open his own business. (Kiran Singh)

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

Now that Dhingra is 75, he says his kids are telling 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, said they were trying to rekindle a sense of community in the Punjabi market when she came up with the idea for a garland tree.

Jag Nagra, Creative Director of the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, wanted to create a space where young people can feel curious and older people can feel connected. (Kiran Singh / CBC)

“Why not buy marigolds from one of the stores here, we’ll cover the tree with them,” Nagra said.

On the weekend they installed the garlands, Nagra said many older people in the South Asian community stopped to ask if they were decorating for a festival.

“All over South Asia, marigolds are used to decorate temples, homes for weddings or religious ceremonies,” Nagra said, noting that she wanted to create something that would appeal to young and old alike.

The marigold “did the job very well,” Nagra said.

About Elaine Morales

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