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The construction where King Square commercial centre will be built in Markham, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
The construction where King Square commercial centre will be built in Markham, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

commerce

The rise and fall of the ethnic mall Add to ...

They all made boastful, superlative-ridden claims: The Largest South Asian Indoor Shopping Centre in the GTA! The Biggest Chinese Mall in North America! North America’s First Tamil Plaza!

But years after these ambitious projects under the names The Sitara, The Landmark, and T.Junction were announced – all with target opening dates that have since passed – none are open. The projects never got off the ground. Several other new mall developments or expansions of existing ones that would have amounted to millions of square feet of retail space have stalled in construction or been rebranded as mainstream shopping centres.

When 2001 and 2006 census data showed a sharp rise in Chinese and South Asian populations in particular GTA communities, a seed was planted in the minds of developers: ethnic consumers would want megamalls tailored to their community. But a boom in planned development from 2005 to 2010 hasn’t materialized into much, suggesting the ethnic mall bubble of the aughts has essentially burst.

Analysts, academics and even some behind these projects suggest that in a rush to cash in on what was seen as a burgeoning market and to mimic the megamalls of Hong Kong and Mumbai, developers failed to understand the shopping patterns of their target consumers and that the market may have already been saturated.

While Chinese immigrants have flocked to Markham and Richmond Hill and South Asians have created suburban ethnic enclaves in Scarborough, Mississauga and Brampton, the customer bases for these types of Asian megamalls is shrinking, says Shuguang Wang, a Ryerson University geography professor who has studied Chinese commercial activity.

“The younger generation of immigrants are attracted to the mainstream [malls] because of the selection, because of the price, because of the after-sale service,” he said.

The suburban Asian malls proposed in the past eight years are a major departure from traditional ethnic commercial strips of decades before, Dr. Wang explained. In the 1980s, Chinese retail activity was centered at Dundas and Spadina. Then the Chinese migrated east and set up another retail area at Broadview and Gerrard. As immigration from Hong Kong increased in the nineties, they moved to North York and Scarborough and strip malls and restaurants began cropping up. They began settling further north to Richmond Hill and Markham in the late nineties and built the first large, indoor Chinese malls.

A saturated market and poor financing

While Markham’s Pacific Mall, opened in 1997, might have been the go-to destination for electronics a decade ago, now many Chinese-Canadians flock to big-box retailers instead, Dr. Wang said.

“It’s better at the other malls – I don’t like it here,” said Fenny Lin, a 29-year-old Chinese woman who was pushing her four-month-old son in a stroller through Pacific Mall’s maze of tiny shops on a recent weekday afternoon.

Food and doctors’ appointments – she had an appointment that day at Pacific Medical Clinic – are the only things that attract her to Pacific Mall. For clothing and electronics, she goes to mainstream malls: Markville Shopping Centre or Fairview Mall, she said.

For Susan Chen, a 26-year-old who works in retail, a trip to Pacific Mall (on this day to get film developed) is less of a destination and more about convenience – she goes there because she works only 10 minutes away. “We’re already here, so it’s like a one-stop thing,” she said. “I think there’s enough [malls] to meet the demands. I don’t think there needs to be more.”

The trend crosses over to South Asian populations too, says Ezhil Baskaran, a Toronto Geographic Information System analyst.

She tracked the number of South Asian businesses (including clothing stores, grocery stores and restaurants) in the GTA in 2004 and in 2009 and found that in that period, the number of businesses declined in every category except for restaurants (their ranks grew by 28 per cent. She said this is because they attract many non-South Asian customers, too).

South Asians can now find many specialty items from “back home” at mainstream grocers such as Loblaws, which have targeted minority groups. Clothing stores have declined, she theorizes, because many South Asians adapt to a Canadian style of dressing once they land here. Many still travel to India to pick up the saris or salwar kameezes for special occasions rather than buying them in Canada at “exorbitant” prices, she says.

It could be why Taj Centre and The Sitara – two South Asian megamalls proposed in Brampton and Scarborough, respectively – have not been built. But it might also be due to the relative inexperience of the people who proposed them. Taj Centre’s developer was the president of what seems to be a now-defunct marketing agency and The Sitara’s is the president of a seafood importing company.

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