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Sunset: Diverse clientele keeps fabric shop on its toes

Loss of South Asians to Surrey doesn’t worry busy owner of Rokko Sarees & Fabrics

Jas Khurana inherited a wholesale fabric business that spans four decades, four continents and a sub-continent. He is also heir to a reputation he’s doing everything he can to uphold.

One afternoon earlier this month, the 46-year-old owner of Rokko Sarees  and Fabrics at Fraser Street and East 46th Avenue was taking calls on two different phones, speaking in English and Punjabi, greeting clients by name and offering tea to a costume designer who was searching for just that right shade of fluorescent green.

“Jas will find it for me,” said Anne Nicholson, the owner of Robans Design who can churn out 50 skate or dance costumes in a single day with her team. “This is the first place I come for fabric,” said the veteran designer of 30 years.

Khurana traipsed from the counter through the store’s cavernous 6,500-square-foot showroom with bright green bolts in different textures and shades of lime, grass and glowworm.

“That will work,” nodded Nicholson. She took an entire roll.

“It can get a little busy in here,” said Khurana, who operates the warehouse and clothing store with his wife Satwant and his older sister Honey. Near the cash register is an aging sign that states: “Prices are fair, fixed and friendly. No bargaining.”

Khurana’s father Sarbjit opened Rokko’s 40 years ago to cater to the small but emerging Indian clientele that was overlooked by other merchants. A picture of the distinguished man hangs in the centre of the store.

“At that time, the Indian community was fairly small. He basically wanted to specialize for the Indian community,” said Khurana.

The neighbourhood is changing again, this time as South Asian families leave Vancouver for the suburbs in search of more affordable housing and the businesses and services they frequent slowly follow.

Property values around the Punjabi Market on Main Street declined 15 per cent since last year, a marked difference from other Vancouver neighbourhoods, but Khurana said Fraser Street is faring differently.

“One thing with Main Street clientele, they were focusing only on one particular client, where we have more or less diversified,” he said. “We have Chinese clientele, Filipino, European.”

The decline of the Punjabi Market, once the premier South Asian shopping district in Vancouver, was accelerated in February when Guru Bazaar left Sunset for Surrey.

Khurana knows Guru Bazaar well. “It was one of the main flagship stores on Main Street. They had a big store, a big selection and a big name. They were there for almost 35 years.”

The store was opened and is still run by Khurana’s older brother, Sunny. It launched in 1977. “The public has been shifting out [to Surrey] and that market started to develop. My brother had no choice but to change location.”

The South Asian population in Surrey totals more than three times Vancouver’s roughly 32,000 residents, according to Stats Canada figures from 2006.
Khurana has no plans to leave Fraser Street.

Rokko’s has a sterling reputation among the professional set and wardrobe designers working in the city’s film and television industries. This status developed more than 25 years ago when 21 Jump Street filmed at locations around the city. Khurana learned how to deliver and found out over-promising can be costly.

“They’re always on such tight deadlines,” he said. “They need it by yesterday.”

Rokko’s currently supplies the fairytale fantasy series Once Upon A Time and its spin-off, Wonderland. A signed cast photo hangs near a rainbow of tassels.

The store takes its name after the Rokko area in Kobe, Japan where Khurana’s father lived and ran an expansive import and export business that connected him to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and India. He knew textiles and he understood customer service, said his son, and was influenced by the courtesy he observed among Japanese merchants.

A truly global citizen, Khurana’s father was born in Indonesia where his Sikh father was the headmaster of a British-run Catholic school. He was educated in India and joined his uncle’s business in Japan before immigrating to Canada with his family. He died seven years ago.

Nicholson, the costume designer, remembers the late businessman fondly.  

“He was an amazing man,” she said. “Then and now, you always feel like you’re coming into family.”

This is the reputation Khurana upholds.