A love letter to Vancouver's Punjabi Market on its 50th anniversary

May 31 2020, 5:08 pm

When I think of Vancouver’s Punjabi Market, I think of enjoying a warm plate of cholay bhature at Himalaya Restaurant on the corner of Main Street and 50th Avenue with family on Friday nights.

My parents would end their busy work week and used these nights as an opportunity to treat my brother and I to dinner at the restaurant and catch up on family time.

We’d usually choose a table by the window and my dad would head straight to the buffet to pile vegetable sabjis (curried dishes) on his plate, while the rest of us would gleefully sip on our cold mango lassis, watching whatever hockey game was on the restaurant’s TV screens, as we eagerly waited for our orders to arrive.

Himalaya opened in the Punjabi Market in 1973, and its interior remained a blast from the past. I remember the old-school glossed wooden tables, the banquet-hall style chairs, and the light-up menu board that would glow atop the cash register. It was all strangely comforting because it was a place that brought my family together.

 

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After a short wait, George — one of the restaurant’s veteran servers — would come out with heaping plates of delicious bhature (deep-fried flatbread) and large bowls of cholay (spicy, curried chickpeas) for my mom, brother, and I.

After dinner, my dad would head right to Himalaya’s famed sweet section, which offered a colourful spread of hundreds of burfis, jalebis, and mithai. The confections glistened like tiny, sugary jewels, which my father would delicately place into a box for us to enjoy at home.

We would leave feeling both happy and full. Sometimes we’d work off our meal by walking to other shops along the Punjabi Market stretch. My mom and I would browse the beautiful fabrics and traditional Punjabi bridal wear at Punjab Cloth House. My dad loved looking through the Bollywood video selection at Mann Music and Video.

The Punjabi Market was a cultural hub where many families in Metro Vancouver — including my own– could find a slice of home and belonging.

But over time, our visits to the Punjabi Market became less frequent. Storefronts on the once-bustling commercial district along 48th and 51st Avenue began to shutter and relocate to Surrey, to serve a larger portion of the region’s South Asian population.

2018 Retail Business Study commissioned by the  City of Vancouver found that between 2008 and 2017, the number of retail businesses in the market fell by 48%.

Eventually, my family ended our Friday night dinners at Himalaya and instead drove to Surrey to frequent the broader selection of Indian eateries and shops that began to open in the mid-2000s.

It wasn’t until I came across the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, (PMRC) that I began to remember just how important the market was to my family.

Punjabi Market

Punjabi Market Revitalization Collective from left: Navi Rai, Gulzar Nanda, Jag Nagra, Pall Beesla, and Aneesha Grewal / (punjabimarketyvr/ Instagram)

The PMRC is a registered non-profit made up of Gulzar Nanda, Aneesha Grewal, Pall Beesla, Navi Rai, and Jag Nagra. The group of passionate South Asian Metro Vancouverites have been working directly with the City of Vancouver to revitalize the iconic market.

In June 2019, city council unanimously voted to pass Motion B.4: “Punjabi Market at Fifty: Celebrating the Past and Planning for the Future,” which aims to work on revitalization and community consultation efforts.

In fall 2019, the group hosted public consultations in Vancouver to gain input from community members on how they would like to see the market evolve.

All of this planning has led up to May 31, 2020, the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Punjabi Market.

The PMRC was initially planning a huge street-style bash to commemorate the monumental anniversary. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebration has now become an online party that will be live-streamed at 7:10 pm PST tonight.

The online event will feature live performances, poetry, and interviews with community leaders and some of the market’s oldest business owners.

The PMRC’s commitment to breathe new life into the oldest Little India in North America exemplifies what can happen when community members care about historic cultural spaces.

The group has revived memories connected to a sense of pride and love for a space that has significance to so many South Asians in Metro Vancouver.

“I feel that nostalgia and memories plays a huge role in storytelling. And especially in Punjabi and a lot of South Asian cultures, storytelling is huge. It’s a way we keep our culture alive especially in a place like Vancouver where we have three blocks to call ours,” said Rai, PMRC’s director of internal relations.

Nagra, the group’s creative director echoed these sentiments.

“We’ve been getting so many messages and emails from people who are sharing their stories. Whether their parents had a shop in the market or from people like me … where it was like a day-trip to come down to the market. And people are just resonating so much with it,” she said.

“We’ve actually had some people submit retro archival photos from the past and I feel like that’s what hits home for a lot of us… It takes us back to our childhoods. And Punjabi Market may not look like that now but we all have an image of what it did look like and that kind of sets the tone for how much liveliness we want to bring back to the market.”

A large reason why the PMRC has been able to spark conversation and action around the market has been because of their willingness to listen to older generations.

 

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“We need to honour the people that came before us and we definitely want to listen to their stories and hear what their goals and plans are. (Over) the last few decades, no one has paid any attention to Punjabi Market and what…the aspirations our older generation had for the market. Like what do they want to see, I think that’s a really important key in the work we’re doing,” said Nagra.

“We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them,” adds Rai. “The way we look, the way we act is all because of our elders and really having them involved is a meaningful part of our process and making sure we do the work properly. I can’t even imagine doing the work without them.”

Looking back, I realize the market was so much more than just shops and eateries. It was a place that bridged the gap between our ancestral home thousands of kilometres away and helped us feel more connected to our hyphenated cultural identity as South Asian-Canadians.

Tonight, I’ll be watching the Punjabi Market’s 50th-anniversary live stream to reconnect to the nostalgia that brought my family together.

I haven’t visited the market for years but now I can’t wait to go back.

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