By Joanna Lee, Modern Mix Vancouver writer
The 36th Powell Street Festival took place earlier this month at Oppenheimer Park on the Downtown Eastside. The festival celebrates Japanese Canadian arts, culture and heritage and some of this year’s highlights included a photo exhibition by Tamio Wakayama Kikyo, collaborative performances by various Japanese artists and talents, and many filmed screenings, literary and dance performances. Food vendors included Mogu Mobile Foods, Hapa Izakaya, and Sunrise Soya Foods.
Modern Mix Vancouver participated on a historical walking tour of Powell Street and Japantown, as the area is commonly known. The tour explored the neighbourhood’s buildings, stores, and people of the pre-war district and looked at the bustling community of Japanese Canadians who settled, lived and worked in the area. This area grew and thrived over a 50-year period from the 1890s and ended in 1942 with the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII. Very few returned to settle in the area while some stores and restaurants reopened. The Japanese Language and Japanese Hall reopened, which helped to attract Japanese Canadians to move into the area. Both buildings have undergone extensive renovations and are still being used today.
Vancouver had about 4,000 Japanese residents living in or within walking distance of the area, where streets were busy with vegetables and fish markets, traditional bath houses, and food stores. What was interesting was seeing where Japanese-style bath houses existed back in the day, learning about the tofu makers, the Maikawa Department Store on Powell Street, and other successful businesses which anchored the community. The heart of the community was Oppenheimer Park or Powell Grounds, which was and still is, home to the Vancouver Asahi baseball team.
What was surprising was learning that the Powell Street area had a strong First Nations presence as the land is actually within the Squamish and Musqueam native bands. The area served as a major trading hub between the Coast Salish and other groups. Today, Powell Street and Japantown is a vibrant community home to families of various ethnicities. Community involvement along with some government assistance have revitalized the area, improving the neighbourhood both socially and economically.
To support the Powell Street Festival Society or to learn more about the Festival, visit powellstreetfestival.com.