Every Sunday in 1919, the Sikhs of Queensborough on the Fraser River would stroll over to the house of Bhai Bishan Singh for worship.
Singh, like many Punjabi immigrants, settled in the New Westminster neighbourhood because he worked upriver at a sawmill. A devout Sikh, he had the holy scripture installed in his home, the Guru Granth Sahib.
Singh was a bachelor and gave much of his earnings to the local Khalsa Diwan Society, which in 1908 had built B.C.’s first gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, in Vancouver. In March 1919, Singh helped the Sikhs of New Westminster start a gurdwara of their own.
For $250, Singh bought the property next door and donated it to the society. Later, he would donate his house as well.
Today, over a hundred years later, the Sukh Sagar Gurdwara still calls Queensborough home.
The long story of the gurdwara — illustrated by community interviews, photographs, music and treasured objects — is now being told at the New Westminster Museum in an exhibition called An Ocean of Peace: 100 Years of Sikhs in New Westminster.
Sikh Canadian pioneers are featured, but equal attention is given to the intimate memories of faithful families who helped build the Sukh Sagar community through the decades.
Much of New Westminster’s identity is still tied to its past as the capital of the Colony of British Columbia. The city’s logo is a golden crown. Walk into its museum and you’ll see displays with the British flavour of its younger years, when New West was more populous than Vancouver.
To have an exhibition of South Asian Canadian history so prominently displayed alongside those well-known mainstream histories is an important reminder that these lives played, and continue to play, a role in the building of the city.
“It’s a big part of New Westminster history,” said Oana Capota, the museum’s curator, “and we’re a bit late in collecting it, but we’ve been really lucky that so many people have met with us to very generously share their stories.”
The gurdwara today is much more than “just a religious institution,” said Sukhninder Singh Sangha, 44, the director at Sukh Sagar. “It’s a community hub,” he said. The era of lumber mills on the Fraser has passed, but Sikhs still settle in Queensborough to be near the gurdwara.
For Sangha, who grew up in Scotland, the weekly trip to the closest gurdwara wasn’t easy. His family had to take a ferry from their small town and then drive to the gurdwara in Glasgow.
“Everyone looked forward to going into the city, going to the gurdwara, seeing relatives, doing shopping,” he said. “It was a very special moment.”
Sukh Sagar was likewise that hub for New Westminster Sikhs when it was established in 1919. The name comes from Sikh scripture, meaning “ocean of peace.” It was well suited to the times.
“The gurdwara was that safe refuge from racism that many Sikhs were feeling in the community, and also a place with a sense of home,” said Naveen Girn, one of the exhibit’s two guest curators.
The exhibition name is a nod to the gurdwara, but it also reflects the role of water at the beginning of South Asian Canadian history, noted Girn.
Punjab, from which the majority of immigrants came at the time, is a land of rivers, and in B.C. they mostly worked and lived in mill communities by water.
Queensborough, where Sukh Sagar Gurdwara is located, is on the eastern tip of Lulu Island, giving the community space from downtown New Westminster on the other side of the Fraser.
The tragic story of Bhai Mewa Singh, which ends in early-19th century New Westminster, is shared at the exhibition.
A larger-than-life figure, Singh was a mill worker; a granthi (or ceremonial reader) at the Vancouver gurdwara in Kitsilano by the Burrard Inlet; and an anti-colonial revolutionary who was a member of India’s anti-British Ghadar party.
In the 1910s, Singh and other Ghadarites were at odds with informants from the Punjabi community who reported to Inspector William Hopkinson of the Canadian immigration branch.
In 1914, one of those informants opened fire in the Vancouver gurdwara and killed two prominent Sikhs. At the following murder trial, Singh marched up to Hopkinson, who was waiting outside the courthouse to testify, and shot him dead.
Singh pleaded guilty, and said, via a translator, “Christians, would you think there was any more good left in your church if you saw people shot down, and killed in it.... It is better for a Sikh to die than to bring such disgrace and ill-treatment in the temple.”
On Jan. 11, 1915, with about 400 Sikhs gathered outside the New Westminster jail, Singh was executed by hanging. His body was turned over to his fellow Sikhs, who carried him in a procession for three kilometres until arriving at Fraser Mills by the river, where Singh was cremated. (His death is still commemorated today.)
In the exhibition’s largest photograph, members of the Sukh Sagar Gurdwara celebrate the end of British rule in India in 1947.
The memories and memorabilia from day-to-day life chronicle how different waves of immigrants and their children have settled and made a home in the city.
“One similarity that stuck out in the stories that we weren’t really expecting was the struggles,” said Sangha at the gurdwara.
Some themes from the 1970s and ’80s were racism and how hard it was for working immigrant parents to find time to spend with their families.
A section of the exhibition shows an important aspect of culture that the gurdwara helped parents pass down — the Punjabi language.
You can step into a mock classroom, like at the gurdwara, with the alphabet on a chalkboard. A little trophy is on display, the kind given out to students. A photograph shows a proud moment from an awards presentation.
In the 1980s, classes proved so popular that parents from neighbouring cities would drive their children to Queensborough.
“I remember my brother Paul and I got Punjabi lessons when we got home from school,” said Arwinder Kaur in a collected interview.
“We had to learn the alphabet and how to write it, and read it, and say it, which I actually really liked. At that time, I didn’t realize how important [it] would become because when my father stayed in India for 10 years, that was my only means of communicating with him, through letters.”
Many of the items on display in the exhibition are generously loaned from local families, from photo albums of celebrations to Sikh weaponry, such as a 19th-century tulwar sword with patterns inlayed in the steel, used recently for a wedding at the gurdwara.
The exhibition explains that weapons are “a constant reminder to a Sikh in their duty to serve and stand for justice.”
The exhibition space itself — with sky blue walls and a prayer written on a banner that wraps around the space — is a recreation of the interior of the old gurdwara.
“It’s something that everyone who remembers the old building keeps talking about,” said Capota.
Girn hopes exhibitions like this one will help open up the scope of stories that B.C.’s communities of colour can tell about themselves.
“Sometimes, for the mainstream, they’re only allowed to share one story,” he said.
For example, mainstream Chinese Canadian history might focus heavily on the head tax, Japanese Canadian history on the internment or South Asian Canadian history on the Komagata Maru, but not much beyond that.
There is also the tendency to privilege older stories rather than more recent ones, and hear from leaders over community members. This can result in a narrow, dated, outsider’s view of a group.
Giving community members a chance to talk about day-to-day life flips the balance of power, said Girn, and shaped the exhibition.
“It was what people wanted to share about their life in New Westminster and their life in B.C.,” he said. “All stories are valuable.”
You can visit “An Ocean of Peace: 100 Years of Sikhs in New Westminster” at the New Westminster Museum inside the city’s Anvil Centre, 777 Columbia St. The opening night is Friday, Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. The exhibition runs until May 31. Admission by donation. More info here.
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