Book review: Opening Doors revives Strathcona's rich past

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      Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona
      Compiled and edited by Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter. Harbour, 192 pp, softcover

      Strathcona has long seemed like the still point in a hurricane of land development. Decades after stately West End houses and Yaletown industries were flattened to clear ground for glass towers, a great many of Strathcona’s wood-frame homes remain, survivors of scuttled municipal plans for expressways and social-housing projects.

      Even so, Strathcona has seen as much upheaval and change as any other part of Vancouver. Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona, compiled and edited by poet Daphne Marlatt and artist-author Carole Itter, is an invaluable record of the neighbourhood’s early evolution. This heavily illustrated collection of oral histories first came out back in 1979 but eventually fell out of print. Now it’s being revived as the inaugural work in the 125 Legacy Books Collection, a series of 10 volumes slated to be released this year. The project, driven by municipal poet laureate Brad Cran and the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., is dedicated to bringing back important out-of-print titles about Vancouver, in honour of the city’s 125th anniversary.

      In 1977 and ’78, Marlatt and Itter tape-recorded interviews with dozens of the neighbourhood’s pioneer residents, many of whom were elderly by then. Some had been born in B.C.; others belonged to overlapping waves of immigration that arrived in the early decades of the 20th century. With roots in China, Japan, Scandinavia, Italy, Eastern Europe, Russia, the U.S., and elsewhere, most of these people were not moneyed or privileged, and East Vancouver was a place to start again, to dig up fresh options.

      “The people who came here were the people who needed a new life and opportunity,” says Angelo Branca, one of the more than 50 residents recounting life stories in Opening Doors. Branca himself proved how far you could go. His father had left Milan to work in the coal mines of Vancouver Island. By the time Branca spoke to Marlatt and Itter, however, he was a newly retired B.C. Supreme Court justice.

      As story after story in Opening Doors makes clear, such ascents were often stalled by what Branca calls “a very definite distinct type of racism” that thrived here. Gordon (Won) Cumyow—whose father “was reputed to be the first Chinese person born in Canada,” according to the introductory note at the head of his chapter—recalls the professional-society resolution that put an end to his ambitions to become a lawyer: “It was very simple—if you haven’t got the right to vote, you can’t study law.” And until 1947, people of Cumyow’s ethnic background did not have the right to vote.

      Even more dire is the tale of George Nitta, a third-generation Canadian citizen of Japanese descent born in 1903. Nitta remembers how his fish-processing plant and small fleet of boats were seized and sold off by the government during the infamous internments of the Second World War. “Those things my grandpa, my father, and I myself built up before the war are all gone,” he says. “I’ve had to work hard enough for three generations in my time.”

      But there’s far more to Opening Doors than memories of injustice. Each passing chapter adds to a deeply layered, almost kaleidoscopic vision of Strathcona as it was from the early to mid 1900s, with all its strange confluences and paradoxes. On one street, a woman shoots mallards from her back verandah. On another, an army of runners sells tickets for daily—sometimes hourly—Chinese lotteries. Elsewhere, children play while wearing necklaces of garlic to ward off a flu epidemic.

      The sacred and profane regularly jostle. Nora Hendrix, originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, and grandmother of Jimi Hendrix—who, as the editors point out with near-comic understatement, “became a noted musician in the 1960s”—describes not only the succession of preachers at her church but also the neighbourhood’s carefully maintained red-light district. Myer Freedman, who came to Canada from Poland in 1914 when he was four years old, reminisces about the makeshift synagogues of his Orthodox Jewish community, as well as about the neighbourhood’s many purveyors of opium and bootlegged liquor.

      Human recollection is a notoriously selective, subjective, fickle thing. But it would be hard to evoke the past more directly, with a more natural blending of everyday detail and overarching attitudes, than the first-person accounts of Opening Doors do. The fact that much of what is recalled here has since slipped from living memory makes this fascinating collection all the more worth saving.