Powell Street Festival artists look at Japanese community’s fishing past

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      Every summer they come, congregating off the mouths of the Fraser and the Columbia and a thousand smaller streams, waiting for the rains. We’re talking salmon, the iconic fish of the Pacific Northwest—a vital component of our environment, and of our economy.

      Salmon were what drew Japanese settlers to B.C. toward the end of the 19th century, and there’s a parallel between those piscine voyagers and the Lower Mainland’s Japanese-Canadian population. Dispersed by internment and then by integration, Japanese Canadians make their own summer migration to Oppenheimer Park, adjacent to what was once a thriving Japanese community.

      This year, that connection gets explicit with the Powell Street Festival’s flagship presentation, Against the Current, aka Fishstix. A collaboration between four local percussion ensembles—Chibi Taiko, Katari Taiko, Sansho Daiko, and Sawagi Taiko—along with interdisciplinary artist Rosemary Georgeson and Salish vocal group Tzo’kam, this multimedia production explores the links between Japanese immigrants, B.C.’s First Nations, and our abundance of salmon. Links, it seems, that encompass not just our region, but the entire North Pacific.

      “I guess in some ways you can trace this to the Japanese tsunami [of 2011],” explains Sansho Daiko’s John Endo Greenaway, in a telephone interview from his home. “[Filmmaker] Linda Ohama spearheaded a benefit concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and all the taiko groups got together and created a large-scale extravaganza for that event. Previous to that, we’d never actually worked together as a collective unit, and it was really exciting and really fun.”

      This year’s Powell Street Festival seemed like a good opportunity to revisit that connection, Greenaway adds. “We were seeking a theme or a concept to wrap it around, and we picked salmon,” he says. “I think that’s partly because we’re not Japanese, we’re Japanese Canadians, and salmon is what drew a lot of Japanese Canadians to B.C. in the first place. So we ended up loosely wrapping it around this theme of salmon and migration—the immigrant experience of having to struggle to gain a foothold in a new country, often in the face of hostility.”

      According to Greenaway, Against the Current, aka Fishstix has grown organically from that initial idea. “There’s been no conscious direction from anybody,” he says, laughing. “Each taiko group has been told, ‘Hey, you guys write your own piece, and then we’ll put them together and weave a thread through it.’

      “We based our section on a fellow named Gihei Kuno,” he continues. “It’s actually a fascinating story: he was a shrine-builder, and his village was quite poor. They were trying to build a breakwater to farm fish, but they couldn’t get permission from the local council, so they were basically starving. And his vision was to, basically, save his village. He’d heard stories about the Fraser River and these fish that were leaping into the boats, and he tried to convince the villagers that they should come to this new land and make their fortune, but they laughed at him and told him he was a dreamer. So he came over on his own, saw that there were in fact fish leaping into boats, and kept writing letters back home saying, ‘You’ve got to come.’ Eventually, some of his relatives came over, and they wrote letters back, and before you knew it half the village was in Steveston. He was really the father of Steveston’s Japanese community—a real pioneer, and a visionary.”

      Kuno’s saga fits well with the Powell Street Festival’s aim of celebrating and preserving Japanese-Canadian history, but the event is also a decidedly inclusive undertaking. Georgeson and Tzo’kam are not the only non–Japanese Canadians involved in Against the Current: the production has also been opened up to Downtown Eastside residents through a series of art workshops, focused on the production of giant papier-mâché salmon to decorate the festival grounds.

      “This has really been a multicommunity, multigenerational project,” says facilitator Kathy Shimizu, in a separate telephone interview. “And many of the artists that have been participating are First Nations. Salmon has a very special place in the history of the two communities. Japanese Canadians and First Nations people fished for salmon side by side, and our communities have faced similar kinds of injustices, so we want to stand with them to see what we can do to be allies in their challenges.

      “Art is a really great way of bringing people together,” she adds, “and the Powell Street Festival has always had that as part of its mandate.” 

      The Powell Street Festival takes place at Oppenheimer Park and nearby venues on Saturday and Sunday (August 1 and 2).



      Mika (mikakennedy @ gmail . com)

      Jul 30, 2015 at 11:04am

      For those unable to attend in person, do you know if there will be any video of the performances available? And/or do you know who I might be able to contact? I'm very interested in this project, but unfortunately cannot make it. Many thanks!


      Aug 4, 2015 at 9:57am

      This was a very moving event.
      A parade to the stage was led in by Indigenous people then came DTES residents and others holding aloft their paiper-mâché Salmon.
      Wonderful performances and storytelling.
      A highlight of the Festival!