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'Little Indias' world-over: Ethnic hubs tackling diverse challenges to reinvent themselves

There are Little Indias around the world, in cities with sizeable population of people of Indian origin, which provide specific ethnic products.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Feb 02, 2014, 04.29 AM IST
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There are Little Indias around the world, in cities with sizeable population of people of Indian origin, which cater to people looking for specific ethnic products.
There are Little Indias around the world, in cities with sizeable population of people of Indian origin, which cater to people looking for specific ethnic products.
Late last year, Indians in Singapore were in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. On December 8, riots — the first in four decades — broke out in the Little India neighbourhood after a bus ran over a 33-year-old Indian. Hundreds took to the streets vandalizing property, torching vehicles and attacking the police.

The Singapore government has come down heavily on the rioters, many of them Indians. Over 20 Indians face court charges and 56 have been deported. The government has also restricted the consumption of alcohol in the neighbourhood.

The 1.1-sq-km Little India district is a hub of ethnic shops, desi restaurants, temples and mosques, and is close to the swanky central business district. Indians in Singapore remain somewhat uneasy about the unsavoury attention they are receiving. But it’s not just Indians who have their own district — like Little India, Singapore also has other ethnic neighbourhoods such as Chinatown and Kampong Glam (for the Malay community). In fact, these ‘ethnic’ zones have been there since the early years of colonialism and were a part of the historical urban plan during the time of Sir Stamford Raffles (who ‘founded’ Singapore in 1819).

'Little Indias' world-over: Ethnic hubs tackling diverse challenges to reinvent themselves


Today, the separate zones serve as cultural districts where Singaporeans and tourists can visit to buy specialized items (like saris in Little India) and eat ethnic food.

In a Pickle

Ethnic Indians, who form a small minority of about 6.5 per cent of Singapore’s population, are currently working towards restoring peace and normalcy in Little India.

“Things are now back to normal, except for some restrictions on alcohol; we recently celebrated Pongal in Little India. We are now gearing up for the Indian new year,” says Rajakumar Chandra, chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, which represents about 1,000 business establishments in the area. He runs his family’s Jothi Store & Flower Shop, which is located on Serangoon Road in the heart of Little India, and is a one-stop shop for cultural, religious and social needs of the Indian community. “I am a third-generation Indian and our family business was started back in the 1960s. Shopping and food in the Little India continue to remain vibrant, especially during weekends, with the Singapore tourism authorities showcasing it as a conservation project of traditional buildings,” says Chandra.

 
And it’s not just Singapore. There are Little Indias around the world, in cities with sizeable population of people of Indian origin, which cater to people looking for specific ethnic products. Many of these have also become historic ethnic neighbourhoods and are viewed as heritage sites which attract tourists.

One such Little India district is in Dandenong in Victoria, Australia. Though not perhaps as dramatic as Singapore, this area too is facing a lot of problems due to the closure and reconfiguration of surrounding streets under a civic project to revitalize the neighbourhood. “Initially, the local council had promised compensation to many of us who were tenants of the shops on the street. There are many heritage buildings which are now being replaced with high-rises. However, we have not received any compensation and have also lost a case which we had filed against the administration,” says Kaushaliya Vaghela, who along with her husband Dinesh runs two clothing stores on Foster Street, which runs through Little India.

'Little Indias' world-over: Ethnic hubs tackling diverse challenges to reinvent themselves

Vaghela (in pic below) has been one of the activist traders protesting against the government decision but now fears that the Little India district will soon close down with many of the shop-owners being forced to down shutters.


'Little Indias' world-over: Ethnic hubs tackling diverse challenges to reinvent themselves



“This used to be a hub for Indians who came here for all their requirements such as food and clothes. The local council had initially promoted this district but is now pulling the plug on us. We have spoken to the Indian consulate but can’t see any ray of hope to save this district,” says Vaghela who moved to Australia in the late 1990s.

The protests by the Indian traders have always remained peaceful and Vaghela feels that had this been Chinatown, the local administration wouldn’t have shut it down because the Chinese community is much bigger and more influential than Indians.

Take the case of New York: while Jackson Height neighbourhood can be called the “official” Little India, there are at least 20 Indian American enclaves in the New York City metropolitan area. On the West Coast, Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, Los Angeles, has the unofficial tag of Little India for almost a decade (in pic below). Largely a business district, Pioneer Boulevard has about 60 Indian-owned shops located on it.

'Little Indias' world-over: Ethnic hubs tackling diverse challenges to reinvent themselves


“Indians from across North America come here to buy ethnic clothes and do their wedding shopping. It’s also a place where young Indians hang out on weekends and get a sense of cultural identity,” says Sakshi Dosaj who owns Dreams Collections, an ethnic-wear store. Dosaj, who is from Delhi, moved to the US eight years ago with her husband Anup, a Kenyan Indian. “In the past couple of years quite a few stores have been forced to shut down because of economic recession. But nevertheless this remains a hub for ethnic activity with people meeting here for an Indian dinner or just kulfi and falooda. The local administration has always been very helpful and we have never had any law and order issues,” she adds.
 

Like the US, Canada too has its Little India hubs, the largest located at Gerrard India Bazaar (in pic below) in Toronto with over 100 shops and restaurants representing regional diversities of South Asian culture, food, music and products. “This market was set up 60 years ago and is in every sense an India away from India. Besides shops catering to the large Toronto-based Indian community’s needs, it also has branches of Indian banks and has been drawing a lot of non-Indians who are interested in getting a taste of the Indian culture,” says Chand Kapoor, chairman, Gerrard India Bazaar Association.

'Little Indias' world-over: Ethnic hubs tackling diverse challenges to reinvent themselves


The association besides looking after Indian business interests also organizes street events during Indian festivals such as Diwali. “These events showcase Indian culture and tradition to second- and third-generation Indians and many students from the local colleges and universities join in a big way,” he adds. Kapoor is an accountant by profession and has his office on Gerrard Street. The association is now trying to rope in the younger business owners to play an active role in promoting the ethnic hub which is the largest Little India district in Canada.

Not Little in UK

Even as Indians in different countries try to promote and conserve the Little India districts, London, with its huge Indian population, has three large areas — Southall, Harrow and Wembley — where a large Indian diaspora has settled. “Unlike the Chinese, Indians are found in every part of Britain. However, there are certain areas in cities like London, Birmingham, Leicester, and Wolverhampton with a huge Indian population,” says Rami Ranger a London-based entrepreneur who runs Sun Mark, a £180-million-a-year FMCG company.

'Little Indias' world-over: Ethnic hubs tackling diverse challenges to reinvent themselves


In his opinion, Chinatowns in the UK are more like ghettos while Indians have integrated much better into the social and cultural fabric of the UK. “Initially, the Little India districts provide reassurance to a new arrival. One feels at home amongst his own people. Temples, gurdwaras and mosques provide comfort when one is most vulnerable. However, Indians are well integrated and are now found in every sphere of British life,” he adds.

Southall, with a huge Indian population, has elected Virendra Sharma, who is of Indian origin, to parliament.
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