Monogatari: Tales of Powell Street 1920-1941
You didn’t have to move beyond that three-four blocks if you didn’t want to – entertainment and food, a bookstore, the Japanese bath. There were concerts and theatre and Japanese films, particularly at the Language School. Tom Shoyama
This summer, the Japanese Canadian National Museum is celebrating Vancouver’s 125th birthday through an exhibit looking at the pre-war history of Powell Street.
Why Powell Street? It is one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods—first settled in the 1870s. It was also home to over 8000 Japanese Canadians until their forced removal from the coast in 1942. As JCNM Director-Curator Beth Carter points out, the city’s birthday celebrations provided a great chance to give a clear picture of the many contributions the Japanese Canadian community has made to the history of Vancouver and the province since the 1880s—before the city was formally established.
Even though the majority of residents were Japanese, Powell Street was a multicultural neighbourhood and many other nationalities lived in the area. Situated near the waterfront, the community was always welcoming—offering accommodation to First Nations or immigrants who had nowhere else to stay.
With the forced departure of Japanese Canadians in 1942 due to the Second World War and the sale or dispersal of all their property, the local economy took a downturn. Since then, the area has suffered through fluctuating economic and social conditions. Only a few Japanese Canadians returned to Powell Street after the war. However, after substantial community lobbying, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall on Alexander Street was returned to the community in 1952 and continues to provide language lessons and cultural opportunities. The Vancouver Buddhist Temple also remains active in the community.
For many people in the Japanese Canadian community, Powell Street has a certain mystique—it is a place they have heard about from parents or grandparents. For some it is a place of fond memories and for others, it is a symbol of racism and discrimination and the fight for equal rights. Yet today, if you visit the area, there are almost no signs of the large Japanese Canadian community and the activity that once filled the streets.
Over the last year, museum staff noticed an increasing number of people visiting the museum or participating in walking tours to research and ask questions about the history of this unique area. Says Carter, “We realized that there were so many untold stories—and in order to hear them, there was some urgency to speak with older members of the community who remembered living in the Powell Street area before the war. We set out to record new oral histories, talk to many people, and research existing sources in archives and museums.”
With the help of the BC Arts Council, Vancouver 125, and the Vancouver Foundation, the museum’s part time archivist, Linda Kawamoto Reid, was hired on a full time contract to delve into the history. Working with curator Beth Carter, she collected 12 new oral histories, found many wonderful early photographs and used the wonderful historic artifacts already in the museum’s collection, in combination with some new donations.
The end result is a new exhibit full of wonderful monogatari—stories—telling stories of shopkeepers, families, and children—that help to illustrate the diversity and vitality of the community. It focuses on 1920-1941—which was really the heyday of the area. The Museum hopes that this exhibit will help previous residents rekindle some memories or younger generations imagine what life was like as you walked down Powell Street.
10 things that made Powell Street unique!
Powell Street was a vibrant commercial and residential district which was constantly mingling traditional Japanese culture with contemporary Canadian convenience. Here are some of the things that made this area unique . . .
1 Powell Street was a family neighbourhood. Many families lived in small apartments above or behind their storefronts. Larger homes lined East Cordova and Alexander Streets. Narrow alleys, or breezeways, connected the front of the street to the back alley.
2 With both parents working, children had a huge amount of independence. They played freely in the lanes and empty lots. They attended both English and Japanese school. Many children took music, odori or judo classes as well.
3 Powell Street was a treasure trove of special Japanese foods and ingredients. At least twelve Japanese restaurants served the area, confectionary stores sold freshly-made manju, and several tofu-ya were active.
4 Powell Street was a thriving commercial district offering specialty Japanese goods and services. By 1921, the area bustled with over 578 ethnic Japanese stores and businesses.
5 Japanese style ofuro (bathhouses) were found on almost every block. Many people did not have private baths in their homes.
6 Both Christian churches and a Japanese Buddhist Temple were active in the Powell Street area. All the faith organizations on Powell Street were important social gathering places.
7 Powell Street was alive with sound! From contemporary pop to traditional Japanese songs, music of all styles and genres could be heard on Powell Street.
8 During special occasions, young odori dancers would dress in their finest kimono and proudly represent the Japanese Canadian community in elaborate parades.
9 People on Powell Street loved baseball! Huge crowds loved to watch the Asahi baseball team at Powell Grounds, later renamed Oppenheimer Park.
10 Sports and social clubs were popular among all age groups on Powell Street. Shibai (plays) or concerts were held at the Language School hall. The kenjinkai (prefectural association) hosted annual picnics.