Shelina Virani folds a black sari in her colourful shop and recalls the times when the street was filled with pedestrians and parking was scarce in Vancouver’s Punjabi Market.
Business was booming when Virani opened Roshan’s Saree Centre in 1980. Today, the market has fallen on hard times. “I don’t see much of a future here,” said Virani, who is considering closing her shop.
Virani isn’t alone. At least 10 storefronts between 48th and 51st Avenues are papered over and displaying “For Rent” signs.
Business competition from Surrey’s growing South Asian population and difficult economic conditions are leaving shopkeepers with concerns about the market’s health.
The Punjabi Market took off in the 1970s and 80s with businesses including Guru Bazaar, Frontier Cloth House and Roshan’s Saree Centre setting up shop along Main Street in the heart of the Punjabi community.
The first South Asian immigrants settled in Kitsilano to work in sawmills along False Creek, said Kesar Bhatti, senior vice-president of the Khalsa Diwan Society. When the mills shut down in the 1950s, people were attracted to the growing industry along the Fraser River and the residential space available in South Vancouver. The area also gained religious significance when the Ross Street Temple was constructed in 1969.
In the 1990s, “you couldn’t go wrong” with a store in the Punjabi Market said Madan Dhingra, owner of Mona Cloth House. “It didn’t matter what you were selling. Everyone would come to shop. It was the only established market in Western Canada.” He added that people would come from as far away as Calgary.
But today’s changing demographics are challenging Main Street’s dominance. According to Statistics Canada’s 2006 census, Surrey is home to 107,810 South Asians, with just over 32,000 South Asians living in Vancouver.
Shopkeepers report that housing prices in Vancouver have made Surrey an attractive alternative for South Asian families and high gas prices keep them away. South Asian markets such as Surrey’s Punjabi Bazaar on 93A Avenue have popped up to serve these customers.
The economic climate in Vancouver has also taken its toll. Rising taxes resulted in relatively high rent, meaning store owners have had to sacrifice profits to stay in business.
“[Profit] has gone way down,” said Madan Dhingra, owner of Mona Cloth House. “You can still probably pay your mortgage and afford to pay your bills, but that’s about it.”
Learning from Chinatown
Some businesses are now left wondering what to do, but the answer may be closer than they think. Vancouver’s Chinatown, which is 50 blocks north on Main Street in the downtown core, used to be the only place to buy Asian goods in the Lower Mainland. That is until immigration patterns shifted to the suburbs, leaving an struggling economic centre with more than one in 10 stores on Pender Street vacant.
“The new settlers would choose to stay in Richmond, Surrey and Coquitlam,” said Albert Fok, a business leader in Chinatown and chairperson of the Chinatown Revitalization Committee. “Once it gained a critical mass, people had the idea of: ‘Why do we have to drive to downtown Vancouver every weekend to do our shopping for the week?'”
These changes, along with the social problems and the economic decline of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, compromised businesses in Chinatown according to Helen Ma, a policy planner with the City’s Chinatown Revitalization Program.
In response, the City of Vancouver and community leaders in Chinatown launched the Chinatown Revitalization Program in 1999. Chinatown’s leaders built the Millennium Gate, implemented a “We Speak English” campaign, attracted more diverse consumers, restored heritage buildings, beautified streets with lampposts and banners, and increased links with tourist organizations.
The Chinatown Merchants Association also secured a 17-per-cent reduction in property taxes. They also created a popular night market. In 2006, the store front vacancy rate on Pender Street sank to 8 per cent.
Chinatown’s revitalization is continuing and is not meant to compete with merchants in Richmond, said Ma. Chinatown will be a place to experience the history and culture of Chinese Canadians, not just a place to shop.
The Punjabi Market Association has noticed Chinatown’s efforts, met with Fok and started similar initiatives including a $3-million India Gate to be built at 49th and Main.
The Punjabi Market Association is also encouraging businesses to reach new customers through trade shows, new products and new media advertising, according to Daljit Sidhu, former president of the association.
Other merchants are taking the approach of Chinatown and trying to forge a distinct role for Punjabi Market.
“We have tried to give the image that we have better stuff than Surrey,” said Dhingra. “We have better service than Surrey. We have more professionals than Surrey. That is the image we are trying to convey to the traditional market.”
“We hope it will come back to the same height we used to have,” said Sidhu. “We did not even have time to think. There were customers. There were goods. There was excitement everywhere.”