The annual Powell Street Festival is one of my favourite events. It’s the one time of the year when the city’s Japanese-Canadian community, scattered by the devastating gales of internment, returns to its long-ago roots in Japantown. Few, if any, Japanese-Canadians live there now. Today, it’s part of the mostly-bleak landscape of the Downtown Eastside. Except for the still thriving, and well-preserved, Japanese Language School on Alexander Street , the imposing Buddhist Temple opposite Oppenheimer Park, and some ghostly lettering on a couple of buildings, the once bustling, tight-knit community of more than 8,000 people, has simply vanished.
Yet, every year during the B.C. Day long weekend, Japanese-Canadians come back for the Powell Street Festival at the old Powell Street Grounds, now known as Oppenheimer Park. Until internment, this was the historic heart of Japantown and the home diamond of the famous Asahi baseball (a rusting screen behind home plate is all that remains).
But this year, the Japanese-Canadians were evicted from their old stomping grounds once again. Less than two weeks before their festival was to begin, tents of homeless protesters filled the park. Organizers had no choice but to move – at exceptionally short notice — from the site that had been their base for 36 of the past 37 years. Much to their credit, organizers issued a statement supportive of the homeless protest, even if they didn’t hide their “disappointment”. As a long-time attendee of the Festival donor, I was disappointed, too. The protesters’ reluctance to temporarily move off-site to accommodate an event that has been a fixture of the park for nearly 40 years, commemorating a group of Canadians seeking to reclaim their own heritage from a grim chapter of racism and outright theft of land and possessions, was ill-conceived, in my opinion.
Be that as it may, organizers and volunteers did a miraculous job shifting the entire Festival to nearby streets with barely a hiccup. Opinions on how well it all worked out will undoubtedly be mixed, but it was far from a disaster, and the overall mood was good, if a little less festive.
Before tucking in to some delicious gyoza and chicken karaage, there was time for an instructive walking tour of old Japantown. As our guide talked about the hum and buzz of the large community that once dominated Powell Street and surrounding blocks, I felt renewed shame for what “we” did to all those innocent Canadians. Not only were they forcibly removed from the Coast to hard lives in work camps, desolate internment locations and the sugar beet fields of Alberta, their homes, possessions and businesses were sold off for a song. And then, just to put a ‘wow’ finish to this dark chapter of Canadian history, they were banned from returning to the West Coast until 1949, four years after the war ended. Only after a long, concerted campaign by determined members of the Japanese-Canadian community did the Canadian government finally say ‘sorry’ nearly 40 years later and grant modest reparation to surviving victims. Even now, after all this time, it still seems incredible that Canadians were capable of doing this to 22,000 British Columbians, simply because they were Japanese.
“This was the High Street of Japantown,” said our guide, gesturing down Powell Street, lined by gloomy, run-down buildings and seedy rooming houses. “There used to be a building here, but last year, it was destroyed,” he added, pointing to the empty lot beside another ancient wooden structure at 439 Powell. That building was saved from the city’s wrecking ball only at the last moment by a vigorous community fight-back.
On the other side of 439 Powell were four rickety, false-front, yellow structures, which our guide called one of the city’s last examples of so-called “Boomtown architecture”. In the 300 block, we observed the poignant remains of Japantown’s main department store: the broad awning overhanging the sidewalk and the faint art-deco lettering splashed across the front identifying owner Tomekichi Maikawa. And the kind of stuff I love: two surviving Japanese names neatly emblazoned on the tiled entranceway to long-lost businesses — Morimoto and Komura.
Sunday morning, there was another tour, this one out at the PNE, where thousands of Japanese-Canadians were quartered in appalling conditions before being transported out of the city. We looked at the buildings, and were told how they were treated, folks who had not committed a single unpatriotic act. The men were segregated from the women and children by chain link fences. Bathrooms and washing facilities were few, though conditions did improve somewhat later on, after protests. The food was Western and basic: milk, bread and butter, stew, boiled potatoes, etc. Many of those accustomed to a Japanese diet suffered from dysentery. The entire area was fenced off from the general public, leaving hundreds of idled Japanese-Canadian men with little to do but peer through the fence at the world outside. Meanwhile, authorities from the so-called B.C. Security Commission had moved into abandoned offices in Japantown and begun the methodical task of stripping residents of their property and businesses. Those who returned in 1949 found nothing left for them to reclaim. It was as if they had never set foot there at all.
So, every year, the Powell Street Festival does two things. It celebrates the survival of a revitalized Japanese-Canadian community in the Lower Mainland. And it makes sure the past is never forgotten. Long may it run.
Here is a 2007 look at Japantown by Heritage Vancouver: http://www.heritagevancouver.org/topten/2007/topten2007_10.html
And this is a story I wrote for the Globe and Mail in 2000 on one of the last attempts to keep a small Japanesese presence in old Japantown. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/civilitys-last-stand/article4165411/#dashboard/follows/