Growing up, Zarah Martz never felt like she fully belonged. With an Indonesian father and a German mother, she spent part of her childhood in Germany before moving to the Okanagan, enduring many questions about her mixed-race background from her peers.
“The Okanagan doesn’t have many Asians. Germany might have Asians, but not a lot of mixed,” she explains by phone from her home in Vancouver, as her 10-month-old son, Kai, gurgles happily in the background. “The Asian population is so small and the mixed population is even smaller.…You come from a union of two very different people and cultures, and so then, like, you don’t look like either, really. With my family it’s always been, like, ‘Is she adopted?’ You really have to work through it in terms of identity.”
Moving to Vancouver a few years ago to go to UBC, where she has just completed a master’s of science in traditional plant use, Martz suddenly discovered a city full of people like her. “In Vancouver, especially, you see people of all heritages mixing, whether they’re in a mixed relationship or they’re mixed themselves, or in a mixed community.”
In May, inspired by the cultural diversity of the city, she and her friend Anna Ling Kaye decided to launch Vancouver’s first celebration of mixed identities. Hapa-Palooza, which runs to Saturday (September 10), launches today (September 7) with a spoken-word night at the Vancouver Public Library featuring writer Fred Wah, and continues with short films by Jeff Chiba Stearns and others at the library on Thursday (September 8). On Friday (September 9), a cabaret night at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre will feature Kokoro Dance, circus artist Chris Murdoch, and GreenTaRA, among others. The festival wraps up Saturday at Robson Square, with a youth cabaret, stage performers such as hip-hop artists Ndidi Cascade and Deanna Teeple, and visual art. All events except the cabaret are free.
The festival, funded in part by a Vancouver 125 celebration grant, takes its name from hapa, originally a Hawaiian word for someone of mixed Pacific Islander heritage. It’s a term that’s been embraced by people of various mixed ethnicities to define themselves. “I think it identifies a lot of different angles on one issue, which is just that our ideas of cultural boundaries are changing,” observes artist Michael Tora Speier, whose interactive Hapa Big Board—a giant skateboard with compartments featuring work exploring identity and hybridity—will be on display Saturday.
Speier, a Vancouverite of mixed Japanese-Jewish-American descent, says that when he first exhibited the artwork 10 years ago at Centre A, the public seemed confused by the hapa concept. Today, he feels the city is ready to accept it. “Back in 2000, people were interested and people liked it,” he observes. “The whole thing around mixed-heritage, multiracial cultures, multiracial families—it was out there in the States, but here, it was kind of a new thing. I only knew a few people who were really into it. Ten years later it feels like in Vancouver it has really arrived. Hapa-Palooza is funded by the city of Vancouver, and it’s definitely a mainstream-feeling kind of thing.…It seems much more easy to kind of put together in a package that people understand.”
While most of the performers and artists taking part in the festival identify as hapa, Martz insists the event is open to all. “It’s really for everyone, because in some way I think all Canadians are mixed,” she says. “It’s really a matter of identification. The Canadian identity, by itself, is a new identity, because Canada isn’t that old. All of us have roots somewhere, and have some kind of cultural mix.”
Hapa-Palooza is at the Vancouver Public Library on Thursday (September 8), the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Friday (September 9), and Robson Square on Saturday (September 10).