Powell Street Festival 2015
On August 1 and 2, this year’s Powell Street Festival returns to Oppenheimer Park with its patented blend of tradition and innovation. Jazz will rub shoulders with taiko, taiko will share a stage with street dance, and it will all make sense. Butoh and odori, ramen and hot dogs, anime and slapstick, kimonos and t-shirts – the Festival is one big glorious mash-up that celebrates what it means to be Japanese Canadian in the twenty-first century.
In a special appearance, author, broadcaster and activist David Suzuki will read from his newly-released book Letters to my Grandchildren. Out in the park, four local taiko groups will collaborate with First Nations artists to create a large-scale work inspired by the life-cycle of salmon and the immigrant experience.
The irresistible smells from 17 food vendors will make meal-time decisions difficult, while the lovingly-crafted items for sale in the craft market will make it hard to go home empty-handed.
In other words, it’s business as usual for Vancouver’s longest-running community arts festival, now celebrating its 39th year.
Behind the scenes, there have been many changes, with a new crew coming on board to take the Festival bravely into the future. New Board President Colin Chan brings a new energy, as do Emiko Morita and Mark McGregor, the new Executive Director and Artistic Director, respectively. Together, the three are building on a strong core that has been carefully nurtured over the past 39 years.
Colin, Emiko and Mark sat down with The Bulletin to talk about this year’s Festival.
Colin Chan • Emiko Morita • Mark Mcgregor
The Bulletin Interview
Maybe we can start off by you all introducing yourselves . . .
Colin Chan I am a nisei Japanese and Chinese Canadian, born and raised in Vancouver by my immigrant parents as well as my Canadian-born grandmothers. Multicultural environments have always been where I have felt most at home. I have a large extended family with roots in the Strathcona and Grandview-Woodland neighbourhoods, and have fond memories of cultural events like the Powell Street Festival, Chinese New Year parades, and big Italian family gatherings. As an adult and father, I now have a child who further enriches the cultural pluralism of our family through her own mixed heritage as well through our connection to Vancouver’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
Emiko Morita I’m hapa sansei, third-not-born-a-boy so I was the lucky one to be given a Japanese name. I generally go by “Emi” because I’ve never pronounced my name well. That said, I’m always thrilled to hear “Emiko” in its proper intonation. My father was born in Greenwood, my mother in small-town Ontario, they met as teenagers in Kitsilano. I was raised in the suburbs but am utterly a creature of this beloved city–not the one of glass but of diversity.
Mark McGregor I’m Hapa sansei, Vancouver born to an Australian dad and a Japanese Canadian mom. My Japanese grandparents lived in Steveston and were very much connected to the fishing community there: my grandfather was a fisherman; my grandmother was a shore worker; even I had a summer job gutting fish at BC Packers (I will never forget the smell!). Professionally speaking, my background is in music. I trained as a classical flutist in Montreal, Australia, Poland, Germany, and at UBC here in Vancouver. My big love is contemporary and avant-garde music; to this end I co-ran the Redshift Music Society here in Vancouver until 2012.
Can you tell me a little about your history with the Festival?
Colin I attended the Festival as a child with my mom and her family. I have vivid memories of fishing for yo-yo tsuri balloons and being pulled into the tanko bushi dance circle by my cousins. The Festival was a unique touchpoint to the broader Japanese community I had as a child; the Japanese Canadian side of my family is much smaller and spread across the country compared to the larger Chinese Canadian extended family I have centred in Vancouver.
Emiko I have a vivid memory of my family driving past Oppenheimer Park when the festival was in full swing. I was old enough to see out the car window and I remember bright kimonos and swirling BBQ smoke, I remember how badly I wanted the car to pull over so that we could experience it all. As a university student in 1990, I was an intern festival coordinator. This was my first immersion in the Japanese Canadian community and I have fond memories of meeting the festival founders. Now, 25 years later, my return to the festival has felt every bit a homecoming.
Mark My connection to Powell Street Festival came later in life. Having grandparents in Steveston we were very much connected to the Japanese Canadian community there: kendo at the dojo, Salmon Festival… I had heard of Powell Street Festival as a kid but never experienced it until I was invited to perform there in 2003. To be honest, I was actually a bit shocked: until then I had no idea that such an intense expression of Japanese Canadian identity existed in Vancouver – or anywhere, for that matter.
The Festival has been remarkably resilient over the years and consistent in its vision, this despite having many different individuals at the wheel. How has it managed to achieve this?
Mark My personal feeling is that Powell Street Festival has always managed to be relevant due to its ability to look both forward and back. Many cultural festivals emphasize the preservation of tradition – and of course, this is a very important thing. But what I love about Powell Street Festival is how we re-examine those traditions through a contemporary lens. The Festival isn’t afraid to fuse the old with the new: taiko with hip hop; experimental jazz inspired by wabi sabi; the Japanese Canadian internment told through contemporary dance and storytelling. PSF has always treated our histories with tremendous dignity and sincerity, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be daring or playful with them.
All three of you are new to your positions – what is it about the Festival that drew you to it?
Colin I think initially, as an adult, reconnecting with the Powell Street Festival Society was a way for me to reconnect with a part of my heritage that I had grown away from in my teens. Now, several years later, I feel extremely fortunate to be President of such a unique and celebrated organization that contributes to and connects various communities in our city.
Emiko The opportunity to apply my skill and experience as an arts administrator to an organization that’s facilitating such meaningful and innovative artistic work. The humbling surprise has been the welcoming embrace of a family that I didn’t even know I had, the PSFS family.
Mark You know, as a kid I had a really ambivalent relationship with my Japanese heritage. But more recently – particularly since the death of my mother – rediscovering that connection to my Japanese heritage is something that’s become extremely important to me. So the position of artistic director at Powell Street Festival is, for me, a real godsend: it nourishes my interest in creating new artistic work, and it also immerses me in a history that is rich, engrossing, and evolving. And it’s been both delightful and reassuring to find myself working alongside people with similarly complex relationships with East/West culture and who are doing really incredible things to address the bridge/divide.
What has been your biggest challenge in your new role?
Colin Because we’re such a multi-faceted organization, we’ve always had to make difficult decisions regarding our activities based on the resources available to us. Expanding our staff to divide roles has been a great way to address that, and we hope to continue to expand our activities while maintaining the financial sustainability of our organization.
Emiko Shifting to PC computers, some of which are old and crash, and all of which contain a dense archive of DIY Powell Street Festival files.
Mark Learning Japanese from Holly and Dempsey, our festival coordinators. So far I’ve been taught some rather, uh, “colourful” phrases…
What has been the biggest surprise?
Colin For me, I’ve been floored by the passion and dedication of our volunteers. From the board, to our committees, to our Festival crew, everyone cares deeply about the work they’re doing, and allows us to accomplish so much with a relatively modest financial resources.
Emiko As I mentioned above, the awesomeness of the PSFS family is humbling and inspiring. What an experience to be amongst people with such commitment and vision.
Mark I agree with Colin and Emi: at least once a day I’m knocked sideways by the generosity, spirit, and enthusiasm of the Festival’s board, committees, volunteers, and community partners. We work with exceptional people.
What is the one thing you are looking forward to most at this year’s Festival (besides sleeping afterwards)?
Colin Since joining the board, I’ve been leading our Zero Waste campaign and I’m really looking forward to improving our recycling rates this year. In past years, we’ve had a 75-80% rate of recycling festival waste, and I’m excited to beat that this year in collaboration with our volunteers, food vendors, and festival attendees!
Emiko Against the Current, the taiko extravaganza. Those thundering drums stir my soul and make me so happy! If you see me crying, they’ll be tears of joy.
Mark I won’t lie: I’ve been a huge fan of David Suzuki since I was a boy. I’m thrilled that he’ll be speaking at the Festival this year.
Is there anything that’s really outside the box this year?
Mark Souldaiko – it’s a collaboration between Tetsu Taiko, Eileen Kage, Leslie Komori, and a crew of street dancers called Project Soul. That’ll close the Saturday festivities. And on Sunday we’ve got Against the Current, which tells the life cycle of the salmon through music, featuring First Nations artist Rosemary Georgeson, Salish music ensemble Tzo’kam, and more taiko drummers than you can shake a bachi stick at.
If you were describing the Festival to someone who had never been, how would you entice them to try it?
Colin Are we a Japanese Canadian Festival? Yes, of course we are, but we’re so much more than that. We’re an annual reunion of a community spread out across the region, and a community that grows every year. We’re part of a preservation of a neighbourhood legacy that once thrived along Powell Street, and a story of upheaval that resonates with communities past and present in this area. And even now, in 2015, we continue to provide a large, diverse, iconic cultural celebration that is and will always be free to attend, with accessibility and community engagement as our core values. Come and join the party!
Mark Lure them in with the promise of takoyaki and SPAM nigiri. Surprise them with a weekend jam-packed with free performances. Sign them up for a sumo match. Have their child put the fear of God into a watermelon at the suika wari. Find another unsuspecting victim. Repeat.
Emiko Mark nailed it.
If someone wanted to get involved in the Festival this year (or in the future), what’s the best way to help out?
Colin As I mentioned earlier, the lifeblood of our organization is in our volunteers. We have annual calls for over a hundred Festival volunteers in the spring, but throughout the year, we welcome volunteers to join one of our committees (Advocacy &a Outreach, Programming, and Fundraising), or apply to join the board of directors. There are so many ways to get involved in our organization, so drop us a line at email@example.com and we’d love to have you aboard!