Karnail Singh grew up practically around the corner from Vancouver's very first gurdwara. It was a scant two blocks away from his family's sprawling home on West 2nd Avenue, where three siblings lived comfortably with their assorted children. The proximity was hardly a surprise since it was his father and his father's friends who had collectively purchased the land for the temple. Years later, in another first, Karnail would continue this family tradition by helping to establish Richmond's only gurdwara at that time.
When he was just five years old, Karnail Singh's mother passed away. Karnail and his three young siblings were raised by their aunt with the same loving devotion she gave to her own three children.
The family hauled wood and sold it in the streets, hiring a who's who of future Indo-Canadian business owners and deal-makers to assist them in manning their fleet along the way. At first, they had heavy, patient Budweiser Clydesdale horses to cart the wood from the lumberyard. The Budweisers, which were Scottish draft horse breed, were selected for their hauling capacity. Karnail's brothers and sisters gave the horses handles that were very reflective of the era; he remembers two that were known as Henry and Sam. Eventually, the family acquired trucks to take over from the equines. And they had always had cars to service their delivery route in Vancouver neighbourhoods, the first of which was that defining classic, the 1926 Chevy.
Karnail learned to drive when he was just 13 years old. "The limit at that time was 15, and my father put my age up two years," he confesses with a chuckle, "so that I could haul in the streets and go to work." It was a common practice in a time when boys often altered their date of birth because they were eager to enlist in the army.
For fun, Karnail and his group of friends, which included White, Japanese and Indian kids, would head down to Kitsilano Beach, where the historic Showboat was sponsored by the City of Vancouver. The Showboat was a summer entertainment area with an incredibly long run; it was cancelled by the city only a few years ago. There was no charge to swim in the pool, watch plays and listen to live music.
Another favourite pastime was going to see westerns at movie houses such as the Strand, Rex, Royal and Fantagius Theatres. Karnail reminisces fondly about watching Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Tom Ecks and Gene Autry. It was great fun, but there was one thing that rankled: in those days, turbaned individuals were not allowed in, and if you were seen with someone wearing a turban, you wouldn't be let in either.
Karnail also listened to the wireless. His recall is so sharp that he even offers up the call signs of his two preferred radio stations in the 1950s: CJWX and CJOR.
Although, his childhood sounds idyllic, the Second World War was a grim spectre. Karnail describes it as a "tough time." Japanese families that he'd known all his life approached his father and begged him to buy their homes for sums like $200 as the houses were otherwise slated to be repossessed by the government. Karnail Singh's father bought 35 homes at far below market value, but there is a stark sadness in Karnail's voice as he describes those days. He never saw the Japanese people he had grown up with again, except for one family he ran into in a restaurant in Richmond decades later.
Karnail speaks nostalgically of some of the quaint details of everyday life in that bygone era: A Chinese laundryman used to shout his arrival outside the houses on West Second and pick up clothing, returning it washed and folded the next day, all for 90 cents, an amount that was fairly affordable in those days. And there was a bread wagon that went through the streets a couple of times a week, coming straight to one's door with fresh-baked bread. When his interviewer wonders enviously why this wonderful service stopped, he responds with his ready laugh, saying: "I don't know why it did, either."