Spirit of the “People of Powell Street” Lives On. Why Do We Keep Repeating the “Same Old” Year After Year?
Like many of you, going to Oppenheimer Park for the Powell Street Festival in early August has become an annual ritual for me in the 16 years I’ve lived in Vancouver so far. I’ve been going just about every summer except for one or two…but the recent 2013 festival turned out to be quite a special occasion because of three first time experiences.
First of all, it was the first time I had to help man, if only for a few hours, one of the many displays put up by various organizations and groups. This one was for a memorial fund dedicated to the late Mr Harry Aoki – a musician, musicologist, philanthropist and teacher who passed away in January, and is still missed by many musicians, artists and others, myself included, whom he played with and helped out in so many ways over the past half century.
It was also the first time that I took a bus to get there, as I didn’t have use of our car, so I ended up walking the last 10 blocks or so. When I’m driving, my habitual route to the park is up north along Main and turn east at either at Hastings or Cordova. Perhaps I was in a mood for a stroll this time, I turned north from East Hastings, purely on a whim, into unfamiliar Gore Ave., one block before Dunlevy Ave. where I normally turn when I’m driving.
At this point, I should explain what this area – the “Japan town” of pre-WWII Vancouver then known as “Paueru-gai (Powell Street)” means to me. Apart from attending the annual festival and small commemorative events at the park, I used to take my son and daughter to classes on Saturdays at the Vancouver Japanese Language School on nearby Alexander Street, when they were still in primary school. And for the past year or so, I’ve also been going to Patricia Hotel at the corner of Dunlevy and East Hastings from time to time to enjoy live jazz performances.
But my infatuation with the whole area – once the site of the biggest concentration of Japanese-Canadians and Japanese immigrants in Greater Vancouver along with Steveston – has been aroused more by the bits and pieces of personal accounts in various historical documents and other materials that I’ve been translating, usually from Japanese into English, over the past decade or so.
And now my third “first time” experience. This was the first time I felt almost the almost mystical pull of the spirit of the folks whose lives were once centred there. Just the night before, I had translated a note written by a member of a Nikkei fishermen’s association back in the 1920s when anti-Japanese exclusionist sentiments were strong in the fisheries sector as well. The note mentioned a meeting at “Orenji Horu” in katakana which I translated as “Orange Hall,” wherever that was.
Well, as I turned into Gore Avenue I happened to glance up to the left and there it was, engraved in large letters over a wide portal: ORANGE HALL! What kind of coincidence brought me to the very building only hours afterward? As if someone was calling me, I quickened my pace as I turned east on Cordova and the park with the familiar festive throngs amid the stage and numerous booths came into view. At the corner of Dunlevy Avenue, busy with people queuing up in front of takoyaki, onigiri and other food stalls, I paused, as I always do whenever I pass that spot on foot, remembering that this was the right field boundary of the rectangular-shaped ballpark where the famous Asahi baseball team used to draw hundreds of excited fans during the 1920s, 30s and into the 40s. Whenever a deep flyball was hit to the right, the outfielder would wade into the crowd shouting “Out of the way, out of the way!” All that came to an end with the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Canadians and Japanese migrants in 1942 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
I strolled through the park as musicians sang and played on the stage and as aikido devotees were demonstrating their drills on the central grass patch, greeting a couple of familiar faces, both “seniors” like myself, both active volunteers in community groups. The mingling of the happy young and old, families, groups of teenagers, Nikkei, non-Nikkei and mixed couples is a familiar scene by now, but this time I had to be at the Aoki Legacy Foundation display set up on one side of the Buddhist Church hall on Jackson Avenue. It was simple affair, just a desk atop which were a monitor and speakers playing a recording of a CBC show from the late 60s of Harry plucking his upright bass and singing with a famous folk singer, along with some printed materials about Harry’s career and the memorial foundation.
As I sat there, a people stopped by from time to time to look and ask a question or two. Some were friends and acquaintances of Harry. One elderly Japanese lady kept repeating the same episode over and over as we chatted. She likes to sing and there was one song in particular that she wanted to sing. She mentioned this once to Harry during one of the First Friday Forum (FFF) sessions he used to host every month at the Nikkei Heritage Centre, and he gave her the chart of that song that he happened to have, and urged her to “Please learn it.” “Well, I still haven’t learnt it and Mr Aoki has passed away,” she sighed. So I said: “Well, you can still learn it…I’m sure Harry-san would have wanted you to.”
The display was put up by Wayne Soon, current chairman of the Aoki Legacy Foundation at St John’s College, UBC, assisted by several of Harry’s friends who also took turns manning the display. It was home-coming of sorts for Wayne, a fourth generation Chinese-Canadian, as he used to live with his family across the park on Dunlevy Avenue when he was growing up in the 1950s. That Sunday afternoon, Wayne and I were joined by cellist Kira Vandeusen, who used to play with Harry and other musicians at the FFF. Having moved its venue to Tonari Gumi, the FFF is one of Harry’s legacies that we intend to keep alive.
Next to our display was a huge one put up by the National Nikkei Museum at the Nikkei Heritage Centre in Burnaby, featuring many sepia-colored photos of street life, group gatherings and families from pre-WWII years along with a large street map showing the locations of Nikkei-owned shops and various services that used to thrive there. Talking to young volunteers in charge of the display, I suddenly found myself wondering: “Why do we keep putting up the same old displays year after year, and why do we, from teenagers to seniors, all help out willingly? It can’t be just a sense of obligation.”
The answer, perhaps already obvious to many readers, is that the experiences of the Issei and Nisei generations must be made real by whatever means available – literature, films, historical events, various displays, programs and write-ups in the media – for every new generation.
(If you would like to contribute, please send a cheque made out to St John’s College, UBC with the memo “Aoki Legacy Foundation” to St John’s College, UBC, 2111 Lower Mall, UBC, Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z4. Those of you interested in the FFF, please contact Wayne Soon at email@example.com.)