Can Vancouver’s Little India district survive?


VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – Vancouver’s Punjabi Market has been a fixture on Main Street and 49th Avenue for decades, but business after business is being priced out of the city.

If you take a stroll down Main Street, you’ll see a “for lease” sign for every few shops that remain open. Vancouver’s 2013 Assessment Roll Report acknowledges the district is in trouble.

“We have not observed any abnormal retail vacancy issues [in the city]… except for the Punjabi Market pocket at Main and 49th,” says the report. “Values here are down about 15 per cent as the regional [Indo-Canadian] retail hub continues to shift towards Surrey.”

Guru Bazaar, a bridal boutique store, operated in the neighbourhood for more than 30 years. But now, like many stores around it, there is a sign on the door that says: “Moved to new location in Surrey”

“It’s demographics,” owner Sunny Khuarana tells News1130.

“The population has moved to Surrey and Vancouver has become quite unaffordable for a lot of families.  New families can’t afford to buy. A 33-foot lot in Vancouver is $800,000. Our customer base has moved out to other areas.”

He says the business was doing well in Vancouver, but he feared people who travelled from other communities to his store would have found an alternative that was closer to home.

Khuarana moved his business to 79th Avenue and 128th Street in Surrey on January 20th.

“We were… on Main Street for 36 years,” he tells us. “I was 14 when I started working after school with my mom. What can you do? If the customers aren’t there, the customers aren’t there.”

Even Tourism Vancouver acknowledges Vancouver’s Punjabi Market is struggling.

“Historically, patrons of local shops and groceries have been predominantly Indian, and although gentrification and high rents have left some storefronts empty, it’s still possible to get a taste of the city’s Indo-Canadian identity,” it says on its website.

Daljit Sidhu with the Punjabi Market Association says the district needs some help from city, province, and the federal government if it’s going to survive.

Sidhu was under the impression a monument called the India Gate was going to be built in time for the 2010 Olympics. He tells us it would have given the neighbourhood a much-needed boost, but three years later, he’s still waiting for an announcement from the BC government.

“We were surprised, because suddenly, it died,” says Sidhu. “We tried to reach out to people, but they never called us back. I don’t know what happened.”

City Councillor Kerry Jang says he’s willing to listen if the business community wants to discuss ways to improve the market. He points to the Chinatown Economic Revitalization Plan as a successful model the Punjabi Market can borrow some ideas from.

“The problem with many markets, and Chinatown was an example of this, is they were only catering with products to one ethnic group,” says Jang.

“As the population shifted and changed, you could buy Chinese products anywhere; there was no need to go to Chinatown. What you’re seeing in the Punjabi Market is many of the businesses have moved to Surrey and that’s where the market has gone.”

Roughly 30 per cent of Surrey’s population is South Asian. Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman says her city also offers lower taxes and cheaper rent prices.

“We have 1,200 new people moving into the city every month,” she says. “It’s mostly an immigrant population and it’s mostly South Asians.”

That’s part of the reason why Khuarana didn’t get overly emotional when he left Vancouver for Surrey.

“A competitor of mine, when he left Vancouver, he was in tears, but I look at it another way,” Khuarana says.   “My parents came from two oceans away, looking for a better opportunity and they did pretty well. We’re only crossing a bridge or two, so that’s not as bad as someone who is coming from two oceans apart.”

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