World View: Successful immigrant achieves American Dream

I've accumulated thousands of business cards throughout my career, but few stand out quite like the one belonging to Surat Singh Randhawa.

The card of the Costa Mesa resident and small-business owner is a 2-inch-tall by about 3.5-inch-wide résumé. It wastes no space and conveys a dizzying amount of information.

Above his business' name, Angels Auto Spa & Auto Repair, and beneath his own name, Surat Singh — as he is known about town — the card lists his credentials and life's highlights: "Ex-Border Security Force, Volley Ball Player, Volley Ball Coach, 1996 Olympic Security Officer."

I visited Singh on a recent Monday. He handed me the card as he welcomed me into his office at his carwash at 2285 Newport Blvd. in Costa Mesa. He greeted me warmly and smiled down at me, both his hands clasping my outstretched right hand.

His smile wasn't a salesman's or politician's smile. He seemed genuinely happy to meet me.

But before I could sit and get down to the business of interviewing him, the South Asian in me couldn't resist Singh's invitation to join him for a cup of homemade chai. Besides, in the cultures of the Indian Subcontinent, it's rude to refuse such an offer.

He stepped outside and returned within minutes, bearing two steaming mugs. The brew that he handed me was the real deal.

Frothy, creamy and wickedly sweet, the concoction was spiced with cardamom seeds that floated to the top. If you've never tasted real chai, it's nothing like the overpriced drain water retailing by that name at your neighborhood Starbucks.

Singh's office is modest and cluttered, but the clutter contains proof enough that the 62-year-old, naturalized U.S. citizen has done well for himself since emigrating from his native India in the early 1980s.

Because Singh works "eight days a week," he was in workman's clothes for the interview. His appearance that day contrasted with the pictures of him on his office wall.

Those show the towering Singh, ramrod straight in tie and suit, and in the company of the likes of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. In the framed photos, he also appears alongside Sen. John McCain, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

There are pictures, too, of Costa Mesa politicians and leaders, whom he counts among his friends, including Mayor Gary Monahan and former Police Chief Dave Snowden.

"In this country, if you want to become a millionaire or a billionaire, it is up to you," he told me in an English accent as thick as curry, with inflections unique to his Indian home state of Punjab. "If you want to become a beggar or homeless, the choice is yours. It is up to you."


An immigrant's tale

Singh's story, indeed, is that of an immigrant's American Dream come true. Among the next generation of Singhs, his son will soon enroll at Golden West College's Criminal Justice Center in Huntington Beach to train as a police officer. His daughter is in India, training to become a doctor.

Singh was born into a poor family in rural Punjab. He spent most of his 20s as a border guard stationed on the volatile and tense Indo-Pakistan frontier. His experience on the border and his high-ranking connections through India's Border Security Force helped him be recruited decades later as part of the security team protecting dignitaries at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Because of his tall height for a South Asian man — 6 feet, 4½ inches (Singh is careful to note the extra half-inch) — back in the 1970s Singh was picked to play on the All-India Border Security Force's volleyball team. He went on to earn a degree in the sport, which allowed him to coach volleyball professionally.

He arrived in Southern California in 1982 via Germany, where he had played for a professional volleyball club.

Like many immigrants, the first step toward his American Dream started at the bottommost rung. He got an entry-level job at a carwash on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, washing and detailing at least a dozen cars per day, he recounted.


Settling in Newport-Mesa

Over the years he made his way to Costa Mesa. In the "City of the Arts," he formed a business with a local carwash owner and operator. But when his partner, Alex Polonski, died in the mid-1990s, the Russian immigrant entrusted the carwash, which was then at 17th Street and Tustin Avenue, to the Indian.

Singh recalled his dying friend telling him, "Surat, what I have earned my whole life, it is in your hands. You know what to do."

In 1998, Singh said, he sold that property for $2.3 million to the Ralphs Grocery Co. and bought the 1.1-acre site for $1.2 million where Angels Auto Spa now stands.

Singh could have kept his money to himself, but he has donated to local politicians' electoral campaigns (for the record, Singh's politics are right-leaning) and charitable causes anchored in his adopted hometown of Costa Mesa.

In a column last December, Daily Pilot columnist Peter Buffa, a former mayor of Costa Mesa, praised Singh for his charitable donations over the years that have paid for thousands of dollars worth of holiday-season celebratory meals for the elderly who frequent the Costa Mesa Senior Center.

"He's a very smart man and he's got a heart bigger than the city," said Snowden, Singh's friend who's now the police chief in Beverly Hills. He met Singh one day when he brought his car in for a wash. "He's just a good man."


Eyes on the council

Singh, like most successful immigrants who've become American citizens, is deeply patriotic.

His office has a memento to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia killed in March 2003. The deaths of the seven astronauts saddened him, partially because one of the doomed shuttle's two female crew members, Kalpana Chawla, was a fellow Indian-American.

He also grieved after the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

As a young man, the logo of the now-defunct Pan American World Airways — which appeared on the tail fins of the airline's 707s and 747s that used to fly to India as part of Pan Am Flight 001, which circumnavigated the globe — symbolized the promise of passage to a better life in the United States.

And as is true with many patriots who have succeeded in the U.S. materially, Singh has political dreams as well.

He has pulled papers for past City Council elections and has backed Republican candidates for the council. Now, he says, he's thinking of making a serious run for it himself.

"I always enjoy listening to Surat," said Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who received donations from Singh for her 2006 campaign.

"As a Costa Mesa businessman and resident, he always seems to feel the pulse of our community," she adds. "I respect his wisdom and ideas about government and the future of Costa Mesa."

One doesn't have to agree with Singh's politics to warm to him. Like his political hero, the "Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan, it's hard not to like the man.

At the very least, I can guarantee that if you pay him a visit, Mr. Singh will welcome you in and be pleased if you accept his offer of a nice cup of chai.

IMRAN VITTACHI is the Daily Pilot's city editor. Readers can reach him at (714) 966-4633 or via e-mail at

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