You won’t find a pork-and-fennel ciabatta sarnie here. Southall Market has everything you need; nothing you don’t. String vest yes, snooker table yes — but seven-quid scotch egg of duck, you can jog on for. You will be told as much, and maybe pelted with the greengrocer’s leftover tomatoes, and memorialised in a disparaging rhyme by local schoolchildren. For you’re in a bygone time here.
Until 2007 you could even buy horses at Southall Market. To this day, this functional place feels decades away from the gentrification which has overtaken many other London markets.
Goods are unloaded from Ford Fiestas, and traders compete to locate under the shelter of a giant corrugated iron shed. Taking photos — if you even wanted to — is frowned upon. The ground is uneven, and so too are the moods of the stallholders.
The manager, Jane, reckons the place hasn’t changed because it hasn’t really needed to. “Most of our customers arrive on foot, and we know them by their first names” she explains. “Southall is the centre of London’s Asian community, and many Asians prefer shopping in a marketplace.”
The traders themselves — hailing from all over the world — cater accordingly. “I bring in whatever they want!” exclaims one of them, Nana, gleefully; pound signs in his eyes. “Today, bags and shoes. But — if they ask for it — dresses. Or anything else.”
The local demand governs the supply. Southall Market has those fat tomatoes you’re after; those AAA batteries you ran out of; that fabric you requuested last time. What it doesn’t have is a cute, repurposed shipping container which everyone in London treks over to, in order to buy a Breton-striped child’s bath cap with an anchor embossed on it. Few outside the immediate area consider this market a ‘destination’. But that’s not to say that the place lacks significance to many people.
A safe space
Balraj Purewal, whose family arrived in the area in 1961, is the man behind the Panjabis of Southall project. He’s been cataloguing the history of those first pioneering immigrants who came here to start what became largest Punjabi community outside India, but who faced extreme violence and marginalisation along the way.
“The market was one safe space for Asians,” he says. “Back then, you had major race issues in Southall. And if you left Southall, you just got beaten up — period.
“It became a sort of social thing to meet at the market. It was less intimidating than going in to someone’s shop. The meat and cheese here were things we’d never really seen before. And the vegetables were really boring for us. But slowly, with the growing of the Asian population, the white market traders adapted what they offered. Some of the vendors even picked up Punjabi words.”
The market is one of several institutions — also among them the Indian Workers’ Association — which helped to ‘legitimise’ the Asian population, and to root a key rights struggle squarely in this part of Britain. (It’s worth noting that many in Southall consider it to be a ‘town’ distinct from London.)
Often, bagging a spot at the market was a baby-step towards bigger and better things. “One of the kids who used to work there on Saturdays was my friend’s younger brother,” Purewal recalls. “He now owns the whole damn place.”
Others progressed from the market to nearby Southall Broadway, a shopping hub of international significance. Purewal tells us the first of many Asian clothes shops on that street, Sidhu Textiles, was first a market stall set up to fill a niche that existed for modest, non-Western women’s dresses.
Today, the whole town lives and breathes what one trader labels the “market mentality”. What may once have been a Woolworths or a Marks & Spencer on the Broadway has been subdivided into a miniature bazaar; clothing mannequins march out from storefronts towards the kerb; and spiced sweetcorn sellers fill the streets. The briefest of wanders is the most dazzling of experiences.
While the days of haggling for a cauliflower in Covent Garden are long gone, the practice is not alien to Southall Market — nor is it universally welcomed. “Often the Asian customers want everything cheap, all the time” says one trader who asks not to be named. “Some of us don’t like the bargaining.”
'Visit sunny Southall!'
Britain’s top Asian town has to deal with its fair share of stereotyping. Perhaps the most viral riposte to this has come from local actor Viraj Juneja and his spoof holiday advert. The skit sees him strolling around Southall, seemingly unable to dodge every last cliché. A closing shot sees him by the market, asking the price of a sari.
“I was inspired by an advert for Visit California,” he explains. “It plays around with the stereotype that everybody there does nothing but surfing. I thought, what if somebody did that for a place that’s not a big, exotic holiday destination?”
“Ironically, though, if you watch any Indian television you’ll see programmes which are sponsored by restaurants on Southall Broadway. People actually do travel all the way here from South Asia.
“I don’t like people slandering the place, and the video is a response to that. It’s there to say what you’ve assumed about the place may not be true. People aren’t too proud to say they enjoy living in Southall.”
Juneja’s parents, Mamta and Ramesh, take us on their own tour of the market, and with it a reminiscence of the decades they’ve spent in the area. “Many women would come here to buy their underwear,” says Mamta. “In Indian culture, it has to be done discreetly. The trader would know how to quietly slip you a bra under a pile of other fabrics.
“You’d also come to suggest and swap recipes in the market,” she says. “I came to get ingredients I couldn’t get near home in Finchley. Sometimes it even was the place for an introduction before an arranged marriage. It’s always been a real social spot. Everybody knows everybody here. And I think that’s increasingly a very good thing for older people who feel isolated.”
“I prefer it to shopping on the Broadway,” adds Ramesh. “The Broadway is more famous, but buy something there, and that’s the end of that. Here, people actually get to know you.”
The high street's revenge
Somali, Afghan, Polish — the spoken languages and signs all around this part of the London Borough of Ealing testify that the story of immigration here is far from over.
Asif, from Kabul, has a market stall which sells a bit of this and a bit of that. Mostly he’s sighted tinkering with some electrical item or other, refurbishing anything from steam irons to guitars. His daughter tells us he once worked as a vet in Afghanistan.
“I came here in September 2007,” he says. “I do want to return to Kabul. But for now, it’s better to be here. I like Southall Market. Everything you need is available here.”
Even to this day, a stall at Southall Market can represent a fresh start for someone. It only runs three days a week, but sellers have been making a success of it here for over 300 years.
However, ask a trader and they’ll tell you the threats to this institution are unprecedented.
“People talk about the death of the high street, but the high street has evolved,” says Luke, a trader who says he moved here after his business in nearby Hayes met its demise. “Pound shops hurt us. They offer what markets do. So we all worry Southall will be sold off one day.”
“Once I’ve paid the rent, it’s touch and go whether I break even each day," says Sothy, who sells kitchenware. “That’s even after I buy my goods wholesale. So it’s a hard life for me.”
The manager, Jane, says she’s confident that Southall Market and its giant corrugated iron shed have many good years ahead. Surely there can be no guarantees. There’s no arresting the forces of change in London. But Southall is both within and without London. This ‘town’ is doing a roaring trade in fat tomatoes, AAA batteries, fabrics and all the other things we all need. Whether you come down to buy them or not.