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Vancouver: Indian-Canadian community launch project to revive city’s famous Punjabi Market

There are several Little India districts or hubs of ethnic shops, restaurants and commercial establishments catering to the requirements of the South Asian community across Canada and America. But the bustling commercial retail neighbourhood along Main Street between 48th and 51st avenues in Vancouver, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, is famous as the very first Punjabi Market (or Little India district) in all of North America.
From humble beginnings, this street transformed into a cultural hub and was home to the first street signs written in Punjabi outside of Asia. At its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, it housed over 300 shops including 24 jewellery shops and Indians from all over Canada and even from the US would go to Vancouver to visit the market to get spices, Indian food, fabrics and gold jewellery.
Last year marked five decades of the Vancouver Punjabi Market. But over the past 15 years, the market faced a decline with many businesses moving out of Vancouver to the neighbouring city of Surrey. In 2019, the Vancouver City Council voted to pass a motion to commemorate ‘Punjabi Market at Fifty: Celebrating the Past and Planning for the Future’.

Last year marked five decades of the Vancouver Punjabi Market.

A group of young second and third generation Indian Canadians in Vancouver have now come together to create The Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective (PMRC) to re-energise the market.
“We are a group of passionate community advocates, artists and entrepreneurs who are working to revitalise Vancouver’s historic Punjabi Market, which was founded in 1970. It was a place where people like my parents — new immigrants to Canada at the time — found a sense of community and familiarity,” said Jag Nagra, an illustrator and graphic designer, who is also the creative director of PMRC.
And it’s not just an economic revival that Nagra and her associates and friends are planning. PMRC’s goal is to revitalise the market from an art and culture-based lens. For Nagra and others like her, it is an opportunity to give back to their community and honour the past legacy.
“We want to create place-making initiatives and public art installations that bring people back to the market and give it a sense of identity once again. We don’t want the market to be forgotten,” said Nagra. Earlier this year, PMRC created an art installation called Marigolds in the Market where a tree was decorated with over 200 marigold garlands.

A group of young second and third generation Indian Canadians in Vancouver have now come together to create The Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective (PMRC) to re-energise the market.

“Marigolds are such a big part of our culture and this was a way to bring some joy to the neighbourhood after a difficult year through the pandemic. And we wanted to create something that not only the younger generation would appreciate, but that the older generation would also understand,” she added.
She now hopes to come up with ways to aesthetically change the landscape of the market and integrate art into all aspects through more community-based spaces to highlight, honour and celebrate the rich Indian and Punjabi culture. PMRC has recently partnered with the Vancouver Mural Festival to bring outdoor public murals to the Punjabi Market.
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit small businesses in the market with foot traffic decreasing and shops struggling to get by. “We’re hoping that through our initiatives, we can draw attention to businesses and bring people back. For those of us who grew up coming to Punjabi Market, we have the nostalgia factor on our sides. We have deep-rooted memories of the shops, shop owners, restaurants and community,” Nagra said.
But the PMRC and people associated with it also want to introduce everyone, including new immigrants and mainstream Canadians, to the history and heritage of the market and the neighbourhood. Nagra said, “We don’t want the neighbourhood to get gentrified and have Punjabi Market be forgotten. We want to ensure that we continue the legacy our elders have started.”

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