Asian Heritage Month events filled up our calendar for May. It was especially significant this year, because it is the 75th anniversary of the internment or as some of us are calling it, the incarceration. Words are powerful, and the government used many euphemisms to soften the harsh reality faced by 22,000 children, women, and men who were forcibly uprooted, dispossessed, and incarcerated.
We shared some of those stories at our Discover the Stories of Japanese Canadians in Surrey event, and we also shared the stories of the pioneers, the Japanese Canadians who came to Surrey and their contributions.
What is particularly disturbing about the incarceration is that the Canadian government acted against their own citizens. Most of those incarcerated were Canadian born, and Japanese Canadians arrived in Canada long before 1942. 2017 marks the 140th anniversary of the first documented Japanese arrival to Canada, but we now know there are accounts of earlier arrivals and indigenous oral history that appears to refer to even earlier contact.
In the late 1800s, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Surrey. For our event, we highlighted some of their stories. Some young men came to work in sawmills that were located in present-day White Rock, South Surrey, Crescent Beach, and Hazelmere. Some started boat building in Brownsville, the north shore of Surrey, directly across from New Westminster. Others settled in the Cloverdale area where they eventually purchased land. Japanese Canadians also had farms in other parts of Surrey including where we held the event at Surrey City Centre Library. One of the major stories is about the Strawberry Hill area.
I’ve lived my entire life, so far, in Surrey and I studied the history of our city in elementary school and I do not remember any stories about Japanese Canadians. I didn’t know that Strawberry Hill referred to the strawberry farms that used to be owned by Japanese Canadians. I also don’t remember any history of Japanese Canadians in our high school studies. This was the reason why I started this GVJCCA project. I was curious about the history of this city I live in, and I want to have the history of Japanese Canadians made accessible at community events and in our education system. Our history is BC and Canada’s history.
It was an inspiring afternoon that started off with recognition of the traditional and unceded Coast Salish land (Kwantlen, Katzie, Musqueam & Semiahmoo) and a warm, indigenous welcome from Roxanne Feeney, and then a rousing performance by Chibi Taiko at the Surrey City Centre Library. I was explaining to Shinobu Homma that his group would be performing in the plaza just outside of the library and as I was trying to point it out to him he said, “I know the design well, I looked after it, I am with Bing Thom Architects.” The Japanese Canadian community is always surprising me. There are so many talented individuals and we don’t always hear about their accomplishments. Another reason why sharing our stories is so important.
GVJCCA is thankful to have received a grant from the City of Surrey (thanks Sean Bindra) so we could carry out this project. The GVJCCA is a non-profit organization that depends upon our membership and donations. The grant helped us to do more including hiring a researcher/writer, Christine Kondo, who has over 10 years of experience including her time on the editorial committee for Nikkei Images, a publication of the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre.
Christine provided some highlights of stories of Japanese Canadians in Surrey which we shared at the event, and will be shared in The Bulletin and on the GVJCCA website. Sumi Kinoshita attended and shared her family story. Art Miki emailed and let me know about his father who was born in Surrey. It’s not too late, if you have a story of your Japanese Canadian family in Surrey, please let us know.
We also had a special guest from the Yukon, Lillian Nakamura Maguire, and we did a reading of a few scenes from her play, Hidden Memories. The play is the story of a Japanese Canadian family who was once in Surrey, inspired by her family’s story. Thanks to our volunteer readers Yoriko Gillard, May Hamanishi, Ron Nishimura, and Garin Fahlman.
A special note of thanks to Surrey’s Poet Laureate Renée Sarojini Saklikar who co-hosted the event and also did a session inspiring us with some ideas on how we can write, and use poetry to tell our family stories.
Thanks to all who participated, our wonderful speakers/presenters including Renée, Lillian, Roxanne, Chibi Taiko, Bruce Ralston who is a great supporter of our events and is the MLA for Surrey Whalley in which our venue was located, our project assistants, Christine Kondo research/writing, Kayla Isomura photography, Matt, Kevan and Jake film crew, and our volunteers, May Hamanishi, Ron Nishimura, Perry Nishihata, and Susanne Tabata. Thanks also to Surrey Libraries who were a wonderful support for the event (Carolyn, Ellen and Meghan for their help during the planning), Surrey Archives, and Nikkei National Museum (Linda for her help with the photos). The event is over, but the sharing of our stories will continue.
We also held a walking tour of the Powell Street area for Asian Heritage Month. Thank you to Grace Eiko Thomson who shared her stories of the Vancouver Asahi, and her personal remembrances of living in the area. I shared some stories from my family and from Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs who has partnered with me on previous walks. Geoff was unable to join us this time, but he kindly helped me with the handouts and map for the walk.
Thank you to Jeff Chiba Stearns for his support to show his film One Big Hapa Family at a community and labour Asian Heritage Month event the GVJCCA helped organize. The film really resonates with Japanese Canadian families as we see our families experience the highest rate of mixed unions (Statistics Canada term for a couple where one spouse or partner belongs to a visible minority group and the other does not or both belong to different visible minority groups).
We had lots to be thankful for during May, the month of celebration and remembrance of our Asian heritage. It’s only one opportunity to share our stories and work towards eliminating racism. Let’s make sure it continues throughout the year.