Tracing Lines in Strathcona
Unlike many Japanese Canadians, I have no ties to the prewar BC community, no extended family – no cousins, second cousins uncles, aunts – to situate me in the rich, sprawling, intertwined history of those who laid the foundation for the community we have today. My maternal grandparents, both from near Sendai in Miyagi-ken, did touch down briefly on the west coast, but soon followed the railroad east to Moose Jaw, where they set down roots far from the sea.
I myself was born in England, but my parents moved us back to Canada when I was three. It was not a settled extistence, though, as we moved often, never staying in one place long.
Eventually, though, they moved us into a brand new housing co-op on Union Street in the Strathcona area, a few short blocks from the Powell Sreet area. As I have written about previously in this space, it was here, in the mid-seventies that my mother began to reconnect with her long-dormant sense of Japanese-ness, and to build up a network of connections that lasted until her death in 2011 – her own extended family. And it was here that I finally found my own sense of home and, eventually, found my own way into the Japanese Canadian community.
When I first heard about the Cross-cultural Strathcona Walking Tour from organizer and JCCA board member Carmel Tanaka, I was intrigued. I had walked these streets, played music here, gone to high school here, taken photos in back alleys, discovered my own sense of identity, made lifelong friends, and even started several careers here.
At Carmel’s invitation I joined the VIP/Media tour on May 5, camera in hand. I hadn’t realized, until that day, just how much of my life was tied to these streets and alleyways. The two-hour tour essentially traced my youth, like following the lines on the palms of my hand.
We gathered on the steps of Strathcona Elementary School, which started the flood of memories. My brother Rafael had attended the school for a number of years, and I remembered the care and kindness of one of his teachers, Glen Nagano, now a volunteer at Tonari Gumi. Tucked in against the school is the Strathcona Community Centre, where Katari Taiko practised three times a week for many years, forging an identity as Canada’s first taiko group, before the noise finally got to be too much for them and we were forced to find a new practise space.
After a welcome by Elder Larry Grant, our next stop was a building I had known as the Gibb’s Boys Club, where my brother had also spent many hours. I had no idea it had originally been constructed as B’nei Yehuda Synagogue, Vancouver’s first purpose-built synagogue.
The next leg of the journey took us past the Union Street co-op, bringing back more memories, and then on to Benny’s Market, directly across the street from where I once lived (in a building that once housed the Venice Bakery – or so I was told). Benny’s was where I used to buy everything from sandwiches to shaving cream, dropping in almost daily. The family patriarch, Ramon Benedetti, who everyone called Benny, would wish gung hay fat choy to every vaguely-looking Asian person who walked through the door. Somehow he got away with it. Everyone loved Ramon. I was saddened to find out that he recently passed away.
Vanessa Richards, one of our tour hosts, spoke passionately about the Benedettis and their role in the neighborhood, bring up not only memories, but passing on knowledge that was new to me.
Carrying on westward, we stopped at the former Fountain Chapel, co-founded by Nora Henrdix, Jimi’s grandmother. It was a building I’d passed by many times without knowing its history as Vancouver’s first black church, and its importance as one of the few remaining structures to remind us of what was once a flourishing community.
A few blocks west we stopped at another landmark, at the foot of the Georgia Viaduct, the site of the former DOA house, what could perhaps be called the birthplace of punk in Vancouver, or at least its unofficial headquarters.
Like Hogan’s Alley before it, and the music that came out of that world that existed at the edge of the mainstream, DOA and their fellow punks gave voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized, finding in Strathcona a safe haven.
The rest of the tour took us through Chinatown, past the Firehall Theatre and on to Oppenheimer Park, home of the fabled Asahi baseball team and the birthplace of taiko in Canada. It’s where I myself heard taiko for the first time and where we were inspired to form our own group, right there on that dusty diamond.
Walking down Powell Street, with Laura Saimoto as our guide by this point, there were so many memories it was almost overwhelming. That’s where Tonari Gumi had its office, and where I began working at The Bulletin; that’s where I had my first ever donburi at Aki’s, courtesy of the late artists and family-friend Roy Kiyooka; that’s where The Japanese Deli used to serve good, cheap Japanese food before that was a thing; that’s where Kokuho Rose, the band I played in, used to rehearse.
By the time we reached the Vancouver Japanese Language School, everyone was hot and tired and toured out. Fortunately there were drinks and snacks to revive us.
The Downtown Eastside has been called the heart of the city. The tour showed that that heart beats strong. Our guides were passionate and articulate and kept us engaged for over two hours. For myself, it was a revelation to walk those familar streets and to see them with new eyes.