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Vancouver's Punjabi Market prepares for milestone anniversary

The Punjabi Market marks its 50th anniversary in 2020. Community members want the city to recognize the date and commit to the neighbourhood’s revitalization.

Community members look to reinvigorate historic neighbourhood

Kewal Singh Pabla’s Himalaya Restaurant, at the corner of Main Street and East 50th Avenue, is nearly as old as the market itself. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Vancouver's historic Punjabi Market was once the focal point of B.C.'s South Asian community.

As the neighbourhood prepares to turn 50, community members want to return the once vibrant strip of Main Street to its former bustling glory.

In its heyday in the 1970s, the market — which refers to the three-block stretch of Main Street between 48th and 51st avenues — was the focal point of B.C.'s Punjabi diaspora and home to hundreds of businesses.

One of the few surviving businesses from those days is the sprawling Himalaya Restaurant.

Part sweets shop, part buffet and banquet hall, Himalaya occupies the corner unit of Pabla's Trade Center — a half-block long multiplex of businesses at the corner of Main Street and East 50th Avenue. The building has been in the Pabla family for three generations.

Founder Kewal Singh Pabla’s grandson, Aman Pabla, is featured on the takeaway sweets box at Himalaya Restaurant. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Pabla's Trade Center used to be home to dozens of businesses. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Surrey changed everything

As the Southeast Asian community began to shift south of the Fraser River, many of the grocery stores, jewelery shops and boutiques followed.

"When the Alex Fraser Bridge was built [in 1986] and people started moving to Surrey, we started having some bad times," said Harinder Singh Toor. The 61-year-old has run the Punjab Food Center spice market and grocery store since 1981. 

"In those days there weren't many [Indian] grocery stores. Everybody came here to do their shopping."

Harinder Singh Toor, 61, has run the Punjab Food Center since 1981. He claims to have the best mangoes in town. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Celebrating 50 years next May

Times have changed though, and the Punjabi Market of today — while still home to a few decades-old businesses — is largely a shadow of its former self.

Now, with the area's 50th anniversary coming up, members of the community are pouring their energy into a plan to restore their historic neighbourhood.

Ajay Puri, 38, is a big part of that push. "We're celebrating 50 years next May and I'm looking into the next 50 years," Puri said.

Community activist Ajay Puri is behind a motion to have the 50th anniversary of the Punjabi Market recognized by the city. He was photographed in the Punjab Food Center. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Puri was commissioned by the city to conduct a business survey and come up with a revitalization plan. His findings are now part of a motion tabled by Green Party Coun. Pete Fry.

The motion, titled Punjabi Market at Fifty: Celebrating the Past and Planning for the Future, went to council on Tuesday. In it, Fry asks city staff to review Puri's study, come up with a budget and recognize May 31, 2020 as Punjabi Market Day, among other items.

The Punjabi Market has struggled as the South Asian community shifted toward the Surrey area. New construction and residential development has the potential to revitalize the area. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Punjabi Market down but not out

This isn't the first time the community has been on the verge of a revitalization.

The $3 million India Gate proposal envisioned a domed archway across Main, not unlike the Millennium Gate in Chinatown. The arch was meant to be completed in time for the 2010 Olympics, but it never materialized. 

Some change, however, has come to the area. 

Next to Pabla's Trade Center sits a new rental housing complex. Completed this year, the shiny new condo block includes a Tim Hortons.

Directly across the street is Roots Cafe, which Ethel Garcia bought from a South Asian family in 2016.

"I was really sad because it got slow but regular customers kept coming. The community has been very supportive," said Garcia, who immigrated from the Philippines in the '90s.

The Punjabi Market area is also still the main artery of Vancouver's Vaisakhi Parade, one of the largest in North America.

A sure sign of change, a new Tim Hortons opened directly across the street from Ethel Garcia's family owned coffee shop. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Hi-Class Jewellers has been in operation since 1990. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Old school businesses still the heart of the market

Daljit Singh Sidh has had an insurance brokerage in the Punjabi Market since 1978.

"The community has changed big time. It used to be quite vibrant. We've seen all the ups and downs," he said. 

Gulzar Nanda, 29, runs Hi-Class Jewellers with his mother. It's a family business started by his father, who opened the shop in 1990.

"Our business isn't bad, but it doesn't look like what it was before, and it was something great.

"People are in love with revitalizing Punjabi Market. It's an important part of history and I'm super positive."

Daljit Singh Sidh has run an insurance brokerage in Vancouver’s Punjabi Market since 1978. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Musqueam artist Suan Point and Indian artist Orijit Sen collaborated on the lamp post banners lining the Punjabi Market. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)