Sunset on the Fraser River
An ethnically diverse neighbourhood within Ontario Street on the west and Knight Street on the east, Sunset extends from 41st Avenue south to the Fraser River in southeastern Vancouver, British Columbia. Like most of southeast Vancouver, the area was once mostly working class, but rising prices everywhere have made the area increasingly popular with young professionals and families no longer able to afford houses on the west side.
Formerly part of the incorporated District of South Vancouver, the neighbourhood became part of Vancouver in 1929. As farmland sloping southward to the river with clusters of homes and villages by the 1860s, when the Fraser River was a full day’s journey to the Granville Townsite on the Burrard Inlet by boat or overland through forest and swamp, Sunset welcomed the advance of Westminster Avenue, now Main Street, south from Mount Pleasant in 1910.
The first immigrants from Punjab arrived in Vancouver in the 1890s. Most of them settled in the area around Main Street and 49th Avenue, and many established restaurants and businesses there. Over the years the Sunset neighbourhood has become for Vancouver’s estimated 160,000 South Asian residents a central assembly point of culture and commerce.
The number of Punjabi speakers increased steadily for decades. It is now the most common language in Sunset. More than one in four, 26 per cent of the Sunset population, in 2006 spoke Punjabi as their first language compared to less than three per cent of the general city population, 21 percent spoke Chinese, and 24 percent English. Businesses, restaurants, and services catering to these communities proliferated along Fraser and Main streets; prominent among them was the Punjabi Market.
The Punjabi Market
The Punjabi Market is a commercial district and ethnic enclave in a roughly six-block section around Main Street and 49th Avenue. Vancouver is home to more than 200,000 people of Indian and Pakistani descent, nowhere more vibrant than at the Punjabi Market, a world of glittering bangles, flowing saris, and rich curry aromas. The neighbourhood gives visitors a glimpse of South Asian culture on Canada’s Pacific Coast. Shops sell fine silk saris in a rainbow of bright colors and elaborate gowns with thousands of tiny inlaid gems. Bhangra music from Bollywood films pumps out of storefronts. Fine jewelers offer exquisite gold rings, bracelets, and necklaces. In April, the Punjabi Market celebrates Vaisakhi Day, the Sikh New Year, with a colorful parade through the streets attracting thousands of spectators.
Vancouver’s Punjabi Market has been a city fixture for decades, but the 2013 municipal Assessment Roll Report finds the area in financial trouble: “Values here are down about 15 percent as the regional [Indo-Canadian] retail hub continues to shift towards Surrey.” Even Tourism Vancouver says the Punjabi Market is struggling. Once famous for many jewelry stores, the Punjabi Market now displays lots of empty space for lease. Elsewhere across the city, retail property value assessments rise but decline here as businesses relocate to Surrey.
The Punjabi Market Association says the district needs some help from the city, province, and federal governments if it’s going to survive. The Surrey Board of Trade says its city offers lower rents and taxes than does Vancouver.