The Open Doors Project: discovering the diverse histories of Powell Street
Wouldn’t it be great if visitors to the Powell Street Festival could also walk up and down Powell Street and explore some of the businesses and workshops in the area?
This was the simple idea that started the Open Doors Project – a multidimensional project to help commemorate and animate the Powell Street area. Led by the Powell Street Festival Society in collaboration with the Japanese Canadian National Museum, the initial idea has grown and expanded over a two year period to include permanent panels, a self-guided walking tour and an interactive website.
We started out small. In the summer of 2010, we gathered historic information for six buildings along the street. Temporary panels were produced, including a timeline, photographs and archival information. The six businesses agreed to open their doors during the festival, so visitors could experience both the outside and inside of each space. The response was extremely positive – and visitors were definitely interested in seeing the project expanded.
For the second phase, we wanted more community collaboration, and hosted several meetings to try and engage different residents and building owners. We posed several questions:
• How can we commemorate the Japanese Canadian history along Powell Street?
• How can we recognize the multicultural communities who also live in the neighbourhood?
• How can we let the public feel informed about the many homes, workshops and businesses in the area?
The community members who attended the meetings were full of creative ideas. There was a definite desire to recognize the Japanese heritage in the area without being too stereotypical or kitschy. They wanted something artistic and creative. They also presented a very strong mandate to be inclusive and recognize diverse histories over the last 125 years. How could we bridge these many needs?
The addition of Cindy Mochizuki to the project team was key. As a multidisciplinary artist with personal roots in the area, Cindy brought a unique perspective to the project. She was able to merge the historical information with contemporary artistry. The resulting panels are individual artworks which share snippets of information – of history, culture, stories, and memories. They hint at connections to the land and changes through time. Each panel engages the passersby through colour and imagery. If visitors take the time to do a complete tour of all 16 panels, they can be read together like a graphic novel – a mini history of Japanese Canadians and the Powell Street area.
The physical panels are supported by a website (opendoorsproject.weebly.com/) which will contain additional research materials and links to other resources. We know that this project is only one step towards a larger goal to commemorate and revitalize Powell Street. With limited space, the panels only provide a small amount of information – an introduction into the intricate history of this fascinating neighbourhood!
Thank you to the many community members and businesses that supported this project! Team members include Project Coordinator Carmen Lam, Kristen Lambertson and Julia Aoki from the Powell Street Festival, Beth Carter and Linda Kawamoto Reid from the JCNM, and Cindy Mochizuki. Chisaki Muraki-Valdavinos and Kira Gerwing from the City of Vancouver Planning Department have been a huge help. The Strathcona Business Improvement Association has agreed to assist with long term maintenance of the panels. Japanese translation was provided by the Vancouver Japanese Language School. Thank you to the City’s Great Beginnings program for funding the project.
In Their Own Words
Carmen Lam & Cindy Mochizuki – Interview
Cindy Mochizuki is the artist responsible for the panels that make up the Open Doors Project and Carmen Lam is the Project Coordinator. The two spoke to The Bulletin about the project and what it means to them.
A project like this always unearths surprises in the research process—what did you discover while working on the Open Doors Project?
Carmen Lam That there are still some amazing historical elements dating from pre-war Powell Street found in the community. We came across one of the existing Japanese bath houses at 259 Powell Street. It’s currently the York Hotel, one of many rooming houses found along Powell Street today, but inside on the basement level you’ll find two single-person bathtubs, with the original tile backsplash.
Then there’s the old Fuji Chop Suey restaurant, which is currently owned by Sunrise Market. Inside on the second floor the original crown mouldings and Wedgwood blue-painted walls are still there.
It’s wonderful to know that many businesses kept these architectural elements, providing these pockets of histories. Even just walking along Powell Street, you’ll find floor tiles with names—like Morimoto and Komura Bros—signifying the businesses that used to be there.
How did you decide what approach to take when constructing the panels that make up project?
CL We had multiple community meetings and did research on the types of materials to consider. Having other community projects and their members give us tips and advice was extremely helpful and necessary. The main concerns were constructing panels that weren’t too intrusive and large scaled, something that encompassed the community as a whole, something colourful and artistic—and I think Cindy did an amazing job! Our goal wasn’t to try and fit all 125 years of the community’s history, but to provide sound bites and encourage people to engage the community further.
Cindy Mochizuki I arrived at the panel design after much discussion with the committee on what I was feeling was an ethical and artistic dilemma around how to represent the history of place/space; and understanding that the artistic form alone would never be able to re-present the complexity of this neighborhood. Also the framework of the Open Doors Project is about an engagement through the storefronts of these businesses and organizations along the 300 block Powell. There is a weight or a burden to representing history that I wished not to re-present in a manner that would monumentalize—I really wanted to approach the concept of commemoration with a different engagement. The panels are designed in a way that engages both memory and history; there is a layering of archival images and fragments of interviews combined with a very strong illustrative element much like pages of a comic. Because of this illustrative element I think the form talks about the way in which these histories are passed down to us; either through an encounter or through historical research and story. I was also trying to imagine who the audience might be and how they would encounter these panels and what purpose the panels would serve at that moment. I see the panels working as pages of a graphic memoir—part illustration and part historical documentation. I also see the panels working individually but also being read as a set and so I chose to follow a contemporary rendition of the Japanese hanafuda cards, only the cards follow four seasonal motifs as a repetitive pattern.
Do you have any personal connections to the area, either through your families or otherwise?
CL For me, I remember shopping at Sunrise and Riceworld with my parents when I was a little.
CM My father’s family resided in Walnut Grove and then were interned in Slocan, Bayfarm, Popoff, and Sandon. When I ask him about Powell Street he doesn’t remember much about it since he was very young and he wasn’t sure if their family even came into the city very much before the war. When the Japanese Canadians were released from the camps and given the ‘choice’ to move east of the Rockies or to Japan my father’s family moved to Japan and didn’t return back to Vancouver until 1959. In the eighties my father played in a Japanese Canadian baseball league (he played for Hatsushiyo Wave and Titan Steele) and they played at Oppenheimer Park for Vancouver Shimpo Green Cup. I remember playing at the old playground in Oppenheimer Park while my father practiced and played games there during the spring and summer seasons. My other recollection of the Powell Street area was going with my family every week to Mihamaya, which was a small Japanese food store and Noguchi Denki, where my family would rent their favourite Japanese videos. Both stores closed down somewhere in the late eighties. There was a gap since that time in my life in terms of a connection to the area. When I was in my twenties I found myself attending the School For Contemporary Arts which had its third and fourth year studio classes at a studio on Alexander Street very close to the Vancouver Japanese Language School. Right about this time was when I also got involved with the Powell Street Festival Society and really began to think about the space and its history through an artistic and cultural perspective.
What do you hope people will take away from viewing these panels?
CL That they’ll take away an understanding of the community’s history, how it‘s shaped by the camaraderie and types of people that were and are there today.
CM The panels are really one surface and one entry point into the complex histories of a neighborhood that is constantly shifting and changing. I hope that the panels themselves will open up the possibility for more dialogue and the possibility for the Open Doors Project to take on many other kinds of cultural forms in order to continue this discussion of history and community.
What is your favourite Powell Street story from the project, and why?
CL Fuji Chop Suey. In particular Shirley Omatsu’s memory of all the kids running from one photo studio to the next throwing confetti at the bride, and then collecting the confetti for the next wedding. Too cute.
CM Several of the Powell Street stories are bittersweet. So it is difficult to place a favourite. As you go through the oral histories you get a sense of the struggle and racism that the Japanese Canadians endured but also as an individual listening to these stories you really get a sense of the time or how the time turned. I remember reading about the kind of mixed Asian fusion meal you would get at Fuji Chop Suey but then also reading that the very banquet hall was used to administer the uprooting in 1942. It was also interesting to read that at Nimi Shokai (which was a pharmacy/general good store), since Asians during this time were not allowed to practice pharmaceuticals because of ‘fear’ of sabotage – it was the place where you could get your 78 rpm records.
When I was working on the panel for Yamamoto Fruit Store and Kawasaki Confectioner the infamous red, candied ginger story came up again. I think I have encountered several Japanese Canadians who have distinct memory of this particular candy that was eaten on Powell Street. I know it is a very small detail; but it is about a taste that you won’t be able to find any longer but it made me want to do further research on the kinds of confectionary on Powell Street.
The Open Doors Project will launch at the Powell Street Festival. See the Festival program guide for details.