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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Son reflects on dad’s experience as a first-generation Punjabi Sikh migrant

An exhibition is being displayed at the National Science and Media Museum exploring the life of Akbal Singh Kang, a first-generation Punjabi Sikh migrant who moved to Bradford as a boy in the 1960s with his parents.

In 1961, an 11-year-old boy alongside his younger brother and mum, embarked on a 4,000-mile journey from Punjab, India, to Bradford.

They moved to join their dad and husband, who had moved to England a few years prior for work opportunities after India gained independence and Europe was recovering from the Second World War.

The young boy, Akbal Singh Kang, son of Sarwan Sing Kang and Bibi Parkash Kaur, went on to achieve incredible things, becoming the first South Asian Head Boy in an English school, graduating from the University of Bradford with a degree in Textiles, and becoming an informal leader in socialist and Marxist political groups within the Punjabi community in the district. Mr Kang worked his whole life, retiring only two years before he sadly passed away in 2008.

Mr Kang’s son, Gurjinder Singh Kang, an independent curator, and director of a live theatre production company, Thickskin, based in Manchester, has explored his father’s experience as a Punjabi Sikh migrating to Yorkshire by putting together an exhibition in the National Science and Media Museum, displaying the many photographers his dad took throughout his lifetime.

Akbal Singh Kang pictured in a class photo aged 11 in Barkerend.

The arrival of Punjabis into the UK has been documented since the Victoria era, but the mass migration of people post-Indian Independence in 1947 and the ending of the Second World War in Europe meant Britain was open for workers from Commonwealth countries, namely, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

In 1932, around 7,000 South Asians were living in the UK and by 1961, this number grew to around 100,000, with men and their families settling in the West Midlands, the North of England, and London, readily finding work in factories and textile mills. Today, around 5% of people living in the UK are from the South Asian community.

Once arriving in Bradford, Akbal Singh Kang joined Barkerend Primary School before moving on to Fairfax Community School.

Ambitious, bright, and talented on the football pitch, Mr Akbal Singh Kang went on to become the first non-white Head Boy in England, which was celebrated in Bradford, but was up against a backdrop of political challenge for immigrants during the decade.

Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his now infamous Rivers of Blood Speech in 1968, strongly criticizing mass immigration, especially from the Commonwealth, and raised the spectre of a “race war”.

Mr Kang said: “My father was 11 years old when he arrived. He had a level of the English language when going into the school system but not an awful lot. It was a strange and difficult time. Bradford has always had immigration, but this was a type of immigration, which my father addressed in an essay that he wrote at the end of the 1960s.

“People from South Asia, especially from Punjab, had connections with Britain historically because of the empire and the Punjabi army recruits. This wave of immigration represented something that was from the Commonwealth but different in terms of its faith and traditions. Their whole vision was to find work, to contribute, and to grow in the UK.”

Mr Akbal Singh Kang was the first non-white Head Boy in England.

From an early age, Mr Akbal Singh Kang was fascinated with photography, being given a box brownie camera to document his family, the community, and life around him. This passion never went away, and thanks to his innate curiosity, people now can enjoy an insight into what life was like for the first generation in Bradford in the 1960s.

Mr Kang mentioned: “Coming across as an 11-year-old, my dad absolutely loved the camera. He was an early adopter, he had a box brownie, it wasn’t an accessible piece of kit, but it was one of those things when children are naturally proficient with technology.

“He found it magical, it wasn’t just a phase, he took pictures and documented stories of his community and his family throughout his whole life. He realised the power of the photograph and capturing the moment and a memory, he was very much ahead of his time.”

Known for its approach to textile research, Mr Kang believes his dad was one of the last students to study textile technology at the University of Bradford. He said: “I still have my father’s dissertation from when he studied at university, and it is incredibly scientific, it is all to do with the motion of sewing machines and trying to get efficiency out of systems. Textiles became the fabric of his life and contributed to shaping the city.”

The contribution to society in Bradford by first-generation women is as equally important as those of the men. The women, who were not only economically active at this time, were also responsible for ensuring that the culture, traditions, heritage, and religion would continue to thrive in their new life.

Mr Akbal Singh Kang was involved in the Indian Workers Association and Socialist political groups within Bradford.

He added: “Before the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Act that tried to limit migration, my grandfather, who was slightly ahead of his time, managed to bring my grandmother and their two sons, my dad and uncle, over from Punjab.

“The women, my grandmother, were instrumental in the community.

“As Punjabi Sikhs, people congregated together. There was a real strong sense of community, and the women were key to that.

“Not only did they bring about a sense of community and tradition, but they also brought about a true marriage of the two cultures. Instead of seeing it as transitory, they saw it as being a permanent move.

“When the women came to the country, they were economically active, they didn’t stay at home. My grandmother became an informal leader and helped others to integrate. She helped women get jobs and got them accustomed as to how things worked in Bradford – even where to shop and to get things that they needed.”

Mr Akbal Singh Kang was involved in the Indian Workers Association and Socialist political groups within Bradford, helping to unionise employees and provide more support outside the law. Mr Kang commented: “My grandfather had been active as a socialist and communist in Punjab before he came across.

“He brought these ideas across, and it was important because my grandfather would lead symposiums around employment laws, which my dad was also heavily involved in. It became a quite educational experience for everybody, with people sharing poetry, traditional music, and engaging in debates.”

Both Mr Gurjinder Singh Kang’s parents and grandparents have provided him with unlimited amounts of inspiration and influence in his career and family life. He said: “Both my parents were amazing creatives. My dad loved visual images and my mum was a creative on every single level. They provided me an authentic sense of inspiration, ambition, and passion. They instilled the idea that I could achieve anything, and they proved that through their journeys.”

The exhibition, 4000 Miles Home, is being displayed at the National Science and Media Museum until May when it will then go on tour to other locations. For tickets or more information, please visit here.

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