My grandfather, Karm Singh Manak, came to Canada in 1921. He was an active member of the East Indian Citizens Welfare Association and the Khalsa Diwan Society in Victoria and Duncan. He believed in equality for all Canadians regardless of their background and fought for voting rights and immigration law changes through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
My grandpa was an amazing storyteller and I was lucky enough to hear many stories about the early days of our community in Canada. One story I loved to hear was the story of the barber shop. This story is also published in the book Becoming Canadians by Sarjeet Singh Jagpal. For me, this story reflects a number of themes in BC history. It speaks to the connections between communities that were excluded from the mainstream society, it gives us some insight into kind of racism that existed in everyday life at that time and it demonstrates the strength to find ways to overcome challenges. Here is the story in my grandfather’s words from Becoming Canadians (p.58):
Before the war there was a Japanese barber shop here in Duncan. That was the only place that would cut Asiatics’ hair, as well as the local Indians’ hair. There were only two white barber shops, here at that time and they would never cut our hair, so we went to the Japanese barber. During the war the Japanese were moved, so there was no one who would cut our hair. My own experience, I went to one of the white barbers, I went in and he said, “I’m busy now,” but he was just dusting the place. So I realized he wouldn’t cut my hair. I knew one guy who owned a half share of one of the barber shops and his partner wanted to leave. So I bought half interest in the barber shop [laughs], so that way we got our family’s and our people’s hair cut there. That solved the barber shop problem [laughs]. – Karm Singh Manak