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Terminal City Confidential: Celebrating 40 years of the Powell Street Festival

By Susanne Tabata
Powell Street Festival circa 1977. Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Powell Street Festival circa 1977.
Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

VANCOUVER — Forget the fact that the first official punk concert in Vancouver took place at the Japanese Hall on July 30, 1977, the very day the Powell Street Festival held its first event in Oppenheimer Park. The bigger story is that this annual festival is celebrating its 40th year, serving as a reminder that what was once home to many Japanese Canadians forcibly removed from the west coast in WWII, can also be a place for celebration of everything that makes the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community spirit work.

The Powell Street Festival is a grassroots festival. Executive director Emiko Morita notes, “The festival was established by young Turks who were passionate about self-expression and human rights. They were reclaiming their cultural identity through the very act of celebrating. Their commitment to social justice established deep roots for the Powell Street Festival Society, which is palpable to this day. One of the most unique aspects of the festival is its community involvement, from groups running food booths as fundraisers to children’s dance performances to the festival’s engagement with the local neighbours. Some of our community groups have been participating for 40 years.”

Powell Street Festival circa 1977. Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Powell Street Festival circa 1977.
Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Mayumi Takasaki is one of those participants who stepped up as the first festival volunteer coordinator. “I gathered 150 volunteers from wherever I could find them in the community. We all just came together. The first fest was in celebration of the Japanese Canadian Centennial, recognizing our community’s first 100 years in Canada. There were events all over the city including the Dream of Riches exhibit at the Vancouver Museum. Rick Shiomi was the first festival director and he had a terrific spirit. It was a homecoming, a way to celebrate our Japanese Canadian culture.”

Tamio Wakayama, a well-known civil rights photographer, describes the first festival as a ‘spontaneous combustion,’ citing he was part of a group of activists who were already working in the DTES to provide social support services to Japanese Canadian seniors who had returned from the war, alone and without a place to call home.

Photo: Peter Wong, Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Photo: Peter Wong, Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

What can you expect at the festival? Yes, there is cosplay, sumo wrestling and martial arts demonstrations. For the 40th year, programmer Mark Takeshi McGregor wanted a slate “that looks back at our past and ahead into our future. So you’ll see this amazing juxtaposition of traditional Japanese Bon Odori dancing, followed by DJs and hip hop. We have people who have been performing at the festival every year for four decades, alongside emerging artists like jazz singer Kaya Kurz, or the Yukon based folk/rock singer, Diyet. So you’re always seeing and hearing something really different. All entertainment and performances are free.“

Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

“Hands down, Powell Street Festival is home to the tastiest and most diverse selection of Japanese street food outside of Japan,” says McGregor. “We all know about sushi and ramen, but the festival is the only place in town where you can get things like okonomiyaki, imagawayaki, yakisoba, takoyaki, chicken karaage and spam masubi, all within a two block radius. Plus, our salmon barbecue and gyoza dinners are second to none.” Note that there is no bottled water on premises so bring your water bottle or be prepared to purchase other refreshments.

At the suggestion there is competition with Pride, which always runs on the same weekend, McGregor won’t hear of it. “I wouldn’t say we go head-to-head with Pride! The two festivals have co-existed very happily for many years now. But I do think that, because Powell Street Festival was born out of a social justice movement, we’ve always felt strongly connected to the LGBT community and it’s something you see in both our programming and in the diversity of our festival attendees. I think we’re a great complement to Pride.” Festival original Takasaki agrees. “Even in the earliest days, crowds would go to Pride and come here to Powell Street to eat. We have always welcomed the LGBT community.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

No doubt everyone wants in on the festival’s recipe for success, with new players steamrolling into the DTES. For Morita, who is also an artist and activist, “we’ve created a safe space for artists to showcase their work and push artistic boundaries. Powell Street Festival Society has played a significant role is nurturing the careers of many Japanese Canadian artists. With regards to the DTES Oppenheimer Park neighbourhood—one of the most vulnerable populations in all of North America—members of PSFS’s Advocacy & Outreach committee actively assert their agency as historically displaced people to ensure the current marginalized populations are not displaced as a result of efforts to make improvements to the neighbourhood. We would like to participate in an economically viable, vibrant community on Powell Street but not at the expense of the current community.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Photo: Courtesy of the Powell Street Festival

Mark Takeshi McGregor sums it up. “For me, the festival is so important, not just because of its commitment to traditional and contemporary music, dance, art and food, but because it serves as a reminder that Japanese Canadian history, particularly since World War II, is a dark and complex thing. The festival is an act of solidarity as much as it is a celebration.”

The Powell Street Festival runs July 30 and 31 at Oppenheimer Park. Free admission. All ages welcome. Sorry, no beer!

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