Sham Singh

Village Powadara, Dist. Jalandhar, Punjab
Lived In:
Vancouver, BC

Sham Singh was born in 1883 in the village Powadara, PO Bilga, District Jalandhar in Punjab, India. When he was a young boy Sham Singh had gone to visit a cousin in another village, and at this time, there was an outbreak of a deadly plague in which his mother and twin brothers died, leaving him as an only child. When he was around 18 years old he left the village with a friend and joined the British Troops who were engaged in a war with Burma at the time. After their service they returned home to their village but eventually he decided to leave the because he saw no future in farming as poverty was common.

Sham Singh had heard about others leaving and going to Canada; however, he could only get passage to the United States of America. As such, Sham Singh arrived in San Francisco via the Empress of Japan on May 30, 1906. He had $60.00 in his pocket and upon his arrival he started work picking fruit. After several months of working he heard that there was a group of Sikhs living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. So, with his friend Braim Singh and another person they made their way up North. It was a long journey and upon arriving at the border, they had sheets of metal tin laying across the road to hear of anyone crossing without checking in at the border. They were taken into the border office and one of the fellows accompanying Sham Singh had a pistol. This person pulled out his pistol but Sham quickly apprehended the gun and with that action the officer let him and Braim Singh cross the border into Canada.

Upon arriving into Canada they made their way to New Westminster, B.C., where there was a sawmill that went by the name of Fraser Mills. They were hired to work in the sawmill but as the Fall weather neared it became very cold and he decided that he’d like to return to San Francisco. However, at the border they would not let them cross saying that they were British subjects and now he had to stay in Canada.

Sham Singh then went back to work at the sawmill and started saving his money. He returned home by sea on a Freighter to India every 5 years to visit his father and family. On Sept 18, 1933, he came back to Canada with his wife Basant Kour from the village of Diah and their infant son – John Harbhajan Singh.

He continued to work at Fraser Mills which was located in New Westminster, BC. He lived on Fraser Street in Vancouver, sharing a small house with another family.

His main goal was to save money and start his own business and eventually he was able to purchase a truck in 1941 and establish himself as a businessman with customers who purchased wood for their stoves. In the evenings he worked at the Robinson Hackett sawmill in Vancouver and during the day he was busy selling wood and establishing customers. At the start of the Second World War the Canadian government interned all Japanese people from the Lower Mainland to other parts of British Columbia. The majority of the Japanese men were fishermen and therefore many of their homes were close to the water in the Kitsilano area. After the internment, the Canadian Government sold these homes for low value enabling many South Asian immigrants, including Sham Singh, to purchase their first homes which were located between Burrard Street and the existing Granville Street Bridge.

With his business enterprising knowledge he decided to start purchasing property as he had a growing family. He now had 4 sons so he was concerned about the future. The family lived in Kitsilano and attended the original Sikh Temple located on West 2nd Avenue. Life was busy and Sham Singh purchased properties all through his working life: for example, two houses on 2nd Avenue, an apartment complex, 2 houses on 4th avenue which were later expropriated for the Granville Street Bridge to accommodate the off ramp to 4th avenue. He also purchased property along the Fraser River on Lu Lu Island, now known as Richmond, B.C.

In 1948 Sham Singh purchased a dairy farm in Dewdney, B.C. which was approximately 450 acres, one of the largest farms in the Fraser Valley. The farm consisted of Holstein milking cows, all types of equipment for the growing of oats, grass cutting, and preparing the soil for the planting of one of the main crops being corn, which was later sold to a farm market in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The original owners of the farm were the Gardom family, whose son Garde Gardom would go on to be the Governor General of British Columbia. At this time Sham Singh and his family became very involved with the Abbotsford Gudwara financially and supported all events and special occasions.

A big part of Sham Singh and his wife’s life was sending monies home to relatives because they knew of hardships and the difficult life many relatives endured because of poverty. They also sponsored many relatives to Canada because they always felt that Canada was a land of opportunity as long as you were willing to work hard. There are many family members, (Gill, Dhaliwal, Turre, Jawanda) that Sham Singh and Basant Kour housed, clothed and financially helped giving them a new start upon arriving in Canada.

Many families when they emigrated from the Punjab did not use a surname. The men were known by Singh and women used Kaur. Therefore it was in the early fifties that children at school were being asked for a surname. Sham Singh’s son, who was at the University of British Columbia chose the spelling of their surname as Dusanj.

The farm was sold in 1959 and the family moved back to Kitsilano. The youngest of the children, 3 girls, Ranjit, Deso, and Surjit attended High School in Vancouver and graduated.

By 1963 the demographics of the landscape was changing. The Punjabi population had grown substantially and many families were moving to the East side of the City where housing was less expensive and therefore the decision was made by the gurdwara committee to purchase land at Ross Street and Marine Drive. At the time Sham Singh along with a small group of gurdwara attendees pooled their money, and with the sale of the existing temple, purchased the land in 1963 and selected Arthur Erickson & Associates to design the building.

Sham Singh went to the property every day to stand and pray, unfortunately he did not see the building completed as he passed away June 24, 1968.

Related Family Stories