Walking Powell Street
I know people who have a strong emotional attachment to their childhood home. It was the place where they were born and raised; the place where they went to school, made friends, had their first kiss; often it’s the home where their parents still live. For those people, home has a meaning that goes beyond four walls and a roof—it’s a place where their memories are stored.
As a child, my family moved often, never staying in one place, or even one city, for long, so I never developed that same sense of place. My parents were living in London, England when my sister and I were born; we moved back to Canada when I was three. My first vague memories are of Montreal in the winter, my first vivid memories are of Toronto in the summer—one was very cold, the other very hot. We moved to Vancouver when I was ten—the same year the Vancouver Canucks joined the NHL. My father’s friend Roy Kiyooka was living here and convinced my folks that it was a great place to live. So we packed up a U-Haul trailer and made the trek west.
We lived in several different rental houses before settling in the Strathcona neighbourhood, becoming founding members of Chinatown’s first housing co-op. It was here, a few blocks from Powell Street, that my family found a real home. My parents soon took an active role our new community, joining the fight to stop the freeway from destroying Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood.
A number of Japanese and Japanese Canadian families took up residence in the small co-op and my mother, Fumiko, began to reconnect with her Japanese roots, getting involved in numerous community initiatives like the Dream of Riches exhibit and book project and the Japanese Canadian Centennial celebrations.
I came of age in the area, roaming the streets and back alleys of Strathcona—it was place rich in character and history. Even when I left home I stayed in the vicinity for many years—doing my shopping in Chinatown and Powell Street, at Benny’s Italian Market and further west at the Woodwards department store.
It was on Powell Street that I was introduced to my dormant Nikkei heritage through people like Takeo Yamashiro, Rick Shiomi and Linda Hoffman who welcomed me into the community with open arms. I joined my first band at the Tonari Gumi coffeehouse on Cordova. I saw my first taiko group at the Powell Street Festival and subsequently helped found what would be Canada’s first taiko group—Katari Taiko. Roy Kiyooka bought me my first donburi at Aki’s on Powell Street. My favourite chicken karaage was served at the Fuji Restaurant right next to the Sunrise Market and I was heartbroken when it left the area; in fact, to this day I’m searching for its equal to no avail. In those days, Powell Street was still home to a number of Nikkei-owned businesses. Tonari Gumi was open for business, served its senior clientele from its storefront office just steps away from the old Powell Grounds.
When I began editing The Bulletin in the fall of 1993, the JCCA was still on Powell Street, although we relocated to East Broadway soon afterwards, the area in steep decline.
Like the fertile fishing grounds that Nikkei fishermen plied up and down the coast, Powell Street as the centre of the Vancouver Nikkei community is but a fading memory, its glory days remembered by fewer and fewer. The closest any of us come now to reliving those days is attending the Powell Street Festival once a year, when the air is once more filled with the scents and sounds of the matsuri, Canadian-style. Taiko drums pound out their furious rhythms and tako-yaki beckons hungry throngs.
With the Powell Street Festival just around the corner, a beautiful new exhibit at the Japanese Canadian National Museum allows us to rediscover Powell Street in its pre-war glory. Monogatari, Tales of Powell Street (1920 – 1941) captures, through artifacts, photographs and stories a Powell Street that most of us can only imagine. It’s well worth a visit.