Saving 439 Powell Street
An important piece of Japanese Canadian history, and one of the last remaining original buildings of Japantown, is in danger of being demolished.
– Friends of 439 Powell • January 7, 2014
439 Powell Street is one of the earliest surviving buildings in Japantown and one of the last “Boomtown” working-class buildings left in the Powell Street area. It is an Italianate-style building, which was a significant structure when it was built, and was one of the first brick-clad buildings in the Powell Street area. It was home to the Uchida family whose daughter, Chitose was the first Japanese Canadian woman to attend UBC, and whose niece, Dr. Irene Uchida, became a world-renowned geneticist and was awarded the Order of Canada. It also housed a Japanese Hospital.
When the City of Vancouver recently apologized to the Japanese Canadian community for its role in uprooting Japanese Canadians from their homes, including those who were living at 439 Powell, they promised to ensure such things would never happen again (please read Grace Eiko Thomson’s letter to Councillor Raymond Louie on page 25 regarding the historical context of the building and this issue). And yet, the City’s actions regarding the building at 439 Powell are at odds with that promise and don’t acknowledge the building’s historical significance. For some reason, the City seems to be making every effort to have the building torn down.
For the past 90 years, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society has provided shelter and a community gathering space, library resources, news and information, translation services, and vital family support services on Powell Street. It has owned 439 Powell since the 1970s and up until this past July, when the City unnecessarily evacuated the building, the society provided eight single-room occupancy units at below welfare-rate rents, and affordable studio space for the Instant Coffee artist collective.
In July, without warning, the owners and occupants of the building at 439 Powell were told the building next door was being demolished and they were to leave the building immediately. Tenants, most of whom were seniors, and some who could not speak English, were put out onto the street; some wandered for hours. They were not able to take their belongings with them. City workers cut power and water to the building and removed all doorways, making the building vulnerable to vandalism and the elements.
David Wong is the spokesperson for Ming Sun Benevolent Society, a non-profit organization run by Chinese Canadian seniors in their 70s and 80s. His family has been associated with the Society for three generations. He and the members he represents have deep roots in the community and feel that the City has not only betrayed Vancouver’s Chinese and Japanese Canadian Communities, but also the low-income seniors evicted from their homes in the building, the Instant Coffee artists who rented affordable studio space in the building, and the community as a whole.
“This building has more than just personal historical significance,” said Wong, “It has architectural significance in the interior, and it’s worthy because it’s a working-class building. The people here are not the privileged, they are just ordinary people who helped build our city.”
Ming Sun has negotiated with the City in good faith for months, hoping to gain back access to their building, but the City’s demands were financially impossible for Ming Sun to meet. Although the City has insisted that the building poses a danger to the public and has consistently advocated for its demolition, the building was and still is structurally sound and had been carefully maintained and upgraded over the years by the Ming Sun Benevolent Society.
The dilemma of the Ming Sun building raises all kinds of concerns about heritage buildings, the extreme shortage of welfare-rate social housing, disappearing affordable artists’ studio space, and how the City is going to preserve historically important buildings in a community-based and culturally-sensitive way. The threat of losing this building and all that it represents has rallied diverse community members, including other Chinese Community Associations, many members of the Chinese and Japanese Canadian communities, heritage experts, members of the Downtown Eastside low-income community, artists of all kinds, activists for social housing, business people, and concerned citizens from all walks of life.
The building has not been saved yet and it needs to be secured by January 31st or there is still the possibility of demolition. There are significant repairs needed to protect it from further damage, and bring it back to where it was. Community members are volunteering their time and resources to guard the building and make minor repairs but it is not enough. Major funds need to be raised and more volunteers are needed in order to meet the requirements made by the City. Please consider joining the ever-growing group of supporters. There is power in numbers. Here are some ways that you can help:
• Consider making a donation and signing the Petition at friendsof439.wordpress.com
• Join the Friends of 439 Powell Facebook Page to show your support and find out more information about how to save this building. Encourage everyone you know to do the same.
• Follow us on Twitter @439powell
• Come to a media event at 439 Powell on January 28th in conjunction with Chinese New Years and show the City that this building matters. Tell everyone you know to do the same. Details will be posted on the Facebook page.
• Contact David Wong at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can offer carpentry or plumbing services, safety training, help with overnight security, donations of fencing, plywood, and/or scaffolding services, financial resources and any suggestions and advice.
Together, we can save the building and re-establish it as a place where the community meets, where seniors are housed, where artists create, and where our histories are recognized and remembered.
Grace Eiko Thomson’s Letter to the City re: 439 Powell Street
Dear Mr. Raymond Louie,
Thank you so very much for your prompt response. It is very much appreciated. What you are informing me of events to date are those that are pretty well known to me, regretfully. I think for the people who wish to save Ming Sun building, it has not been easy to find the funds to do all that is necessary to save it from demolishment, and for continued use as it were.
My main concern here, is not necessarily this building only, though I appreciate very much what this Benevolent Society has been doing and wish it could continue to do so.
This block on Powell Street is one that is filled with archival memories of old Japantown. As you well know, ’towns’ such as Japantown and Chinatown (perhaps even Little Italy in New York) were formed at specific times in our history when Asian immigrants and their children were treated as second class (or perhaps third class) citizens. These towns with their own infrastructures developed out of necessity to give support to their communities, particularly with respect to jobs, but largely protection from outright discriminatory and racialization practices promoted by the government and politicians (i.e., White Canada Only, 1907 Riot.).
Japantown thrived for several decades to do just that, but for the second generation, those born in Canada, this place was nothing more than a ghetto, a place from which they wished to escape. They made an attempt by forming a League from which they sent representatives to Ottawa in 1936 to appeal for the right to vote. But with the expelling of all Japanese Canadians from Vancouver in 1942, (based on racism, not, as documented, security risks), this town was never allowed to develop to become what Chinatown is today, a place of pride.
Our children and grandchildren are slowly beginning to realize the importance of this place to their history. And I credit Powell Street Festival Society which reminds us all annually that a Japantown once existed here, and those who volunteer annually to work to the success of this event, now not only see this area as a site of memories that should not be forgotten but also as legacy of injustice that should not be repeated on those who currently live there (DTES).
Particularly the unique architectural façade of this block, the New World building (also known as the Tamura Building), and the few colourful homes that line Jackson Street (already saved as heritage buildings), together make up what remains of the old Japantown, which surrounded the centre of activity, Powell Ground, where the famous Asahi Baseball Team practiced and played their games. These are seen as backdrops in archival photographs of Japantown. It is an inheritance only of memory, if such physical traces are erased through demolishment without care of history and stories that need to be remembered about Canada`s development into this Multicultural nation. It is to be remembered that this area began with the Squamish Nations being displaced by the early European immigrants who moved to the middle class areas to the west, and soon after Japanese Canadians establishing residences, thanks to Hastings Mills which hired Asian immigrants.
Unlike Chinatown, which was able to flourish in time (though its residents during the Second World war, despite China being an ally of the West, continued to be treated as second class citizens, not allowed enlistment until later when both Chinese and Japanese Canadians were invited to join the Canadian armed forces), physical memories of Japantown are now being proposed to be erased totally with demolition of buildings or transfer to developers without (it would seem) much knowledge or care not only of lives once here, but of the precedent-setting Government of Canada’s Redress Acknowledgement and Apology, and of the City of Vancouver’s Apology.
As a senior with early memories of this area, who lived through internment and dispersal, and who returned to Vancouver to spend the rest of my life here, I appeal to you, and all honourable Council Members, together with His Worship, Mayor Gregor Robertson, to take leadership and acknowledge a City with heart and responsibility to its residents. If we miss the chance offered at this moment to remember the significance of this area and its residents, we will have erased an important part of Vancouver’s (and Canada’s) history. I trust that the City`s proclaimed Year of Reconciliation is based on courage and spirit to act on such issues of history and present supported by ordinary citizens, not only economics, as the driving force.
Again, thank you very much for your kind consideration.
A Very Happy New Year to you and all Members.
Grace Eiko Thomson