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Boom Ends For South Asian Shops Competition Heats Up in Berkeley’s ‘Little India’ By Riya Bhattacharjee Special to the Planet

Friday January 27, 2006

Sitting in his curio shop on University Avenue, Tsewang Khangsar recalls the onerous journey that he had made almost 45 years ago across the Himalayas from Tibet. 

“We were fleeing from the Chinese occupation,” he said. “The Communist rule was slowly destroying everything that we knew as culture, as sacred, as ancient.” 

After being given refugee status in India, Khangsar completed his education from Cambrian School in Dehradoon and later went on to teach elementary and high school in Dharamshala for 20 years.  

In 1995 Khangsar was uprooted for a second time when he won the green card lottery which allowed 1,000 Tibetan refugees to come to the United States. With the help of a Tibetan support group in California, Khangsar arrived in Berkeley. 

“I washed dishes and ran errands to make ends meet,” he said. “In spite of having a masters degree in education from the University of Massachusetts, I was not allowed to teach in California. Six years ago when I opened Little Tibet, on University Avenue, there was only one other curio shop on Salon Avenue that specialized in Indian and Tibetan handicrafts. Today there are at least 10 such shops in Berkeley.” 

Khangsar said that his business at 2037 University Ave. is slow because of fierce competition. Technological advancements and growing dependence on all things mechanical have not helped either. 

“People have no use for ancient cultures anymore,” he said. “Businesses such as these face a great risk of slowly drifting away.” 

Khangsar says that most of his regular clients are those who are tired of chains like Macy’s.  

Maulin Chokshi of Bombay Jewelry Company (1042 University Ave.) is the president of the University Avenue Association. He agrees that Indian businesses in Berkeley are gradually drifting away. 

“There was a time when people would fly down from as far as Honolulu to do their monthly grocery shopping at Vik’s,” said Chokshi. “The fame of clothing boutiques such as Roopam and Sari Palace spread as far as Reno. In the late 1970s, Berkeley provided the only connection to India in the Bay Area.” 

With Indian markets emerging in Santa Clara, Fremont, and San Bruno, customers no longer have to commute to Berkeley for that exotic spice from Malabar. They can easily get it two doors down at their neighborhood grocery shop. In Fremont itself there are more than 20 grocery shops today. Fremont also boasts of the Naz8 Cinemas, North America’s first multicultural entertainment megaplex which attracts hordes of Indians by showing Bollywood films every week. 

Chokshi however acknowledged that the number of Indian businesses have grown tremendously in West Berkeley since 1989. In the late 1970s there were a mere eight to nine Indian shops. Today the number has grown to well over 50. According to Chokshi, the UC system initially brought in a lot of clientele in the form of the student’s parents. But today the shops have a identity of their own and are not dependent on anything. 

“Indian businesses in West Berkeley have grown because of the tremendous effort each of us put into our work,” he said. “People respect us because of the superior quality of our service and products—be it garments, jewelry, or spices.” 

According to Chokshi, Indian businesses in West Berkeley flourished from 1992 to 2000. He recalls how the dotcom boom brought in the maximum traffic. 

“There was more business to be done, more money to be made,” he said. “Certain stores even had to hire extra help on the weekends. People were spending money like there was no tomorrow.” 

When the bubble burst however, the spending gradually died down and a lot of his clientele even left the country.  

Although business has been slow from 2000 to 2005, 2006 is witnessing a state of rebuilding. Chokshi acknowledges that both environment and security issues are dealt with a lot better by the City of Berkeley than before. In 1990 Chokshi was held at gunpoint and robbed in his shop in broad daylight. Today there are policemen patrolling the area continuously and the streets are a lot cleaner. The University Avenue Association also arranged for Diwali lights last year and it works to maintain harmony within the international market blocks in that area. 

However, Chokshi finds it distressing that the city is not doing anything to promote the uniqueness of international markets in West Berkeley. 

Echoing his concerns is Shaman Ajmani of Karma, an interior décor boutique on the same block. 

“The city should help to promote this part of town as a tourist attraction. We need more lights to brighten up the place in the evening. People are scared of walking here after 6 p.m. Graffiti is also a big menace,” Ajmani said.  

According to both Ajmani and Chokshi parking problems are one of the main reasons for the dwindling businesses. 

“It is not only in the benefit of the businesses but also the city if parking is made easier for tourists and local shoppers,” Ajmani said.  

In 1989, it was Ajmani’s father, Anil Ajmani, who took over Bombay Music which had been a part of Bombay Bazaar and Bombay Travel in the 1970s. An ardent admirer of Bollywood movies, Anil Ajmani worked hard to establish the store and today it is one of the most popular destinations for lovers of Indian cinema in Berkeley. 

Another popular Indian haunt in Berkeley is Vik’s on Allston Way. Mr. Chopra of Vik’s was the first to bring the sighs, smells, and tastes of Indian street food to Berkeley and since then Indian restaurants have been mushrooming all over the city. Bir Thapa of the recently opened Mount Everest Restaurant on Shattuck Avenue finds the cut-throat competition in the Berkeley Indian restaurant industry frustrating. 

Opening a business in Berkeley had not been easy for Mr. Thapa. He fled Bhutan in 1992 to escape from the Maoist regime and had arrived in the United States in 2000. Along with three other friends, he decided to start a restaurant specializing in Indian and Nepalese food that would appeal to international customers. 

“After opening in July 2005, the restaurant did very good business for the first three months,” he said. “It began to sag after new restaurants opened on our street two months back.” 

However, there are others like Chaat Café on University Avenue who refuse to be daunted by competition. Leena, a student of business management at UC Berkeley who works at the café, says that the restaurant is always packed. 

“Competition is good,” she said. “It helps to improve the quality of service.” 

Inspired by the booming business at Chaat Café, Leena said she plans to start her own Indian restaurant in San Francisco after graduating.