Cindy Mochizuki’s paternal grandparents once lived on a farm, growing strawberries and raspberries.
They were part of a thriving community of Japanese Canadian farmers who settled in the Fraser Valley in the early 1900s.
During the Second World War, they were all driven away, their land sold by the government. Branded as enemy aliens, thousands of Japanese Canadians were either interned in the B.C. Interior or sent to labour camps in Alberta and elsewhere.
Mochizuki’s grandparents were not able to return to their farm.
When Mochizuki was doing a project for her graduate studies at SFU, the Vancouver artist asked her father to take her to the old farm site, in the Walnut Grove area of Langley.
“It’s hard to imagine what that time would be like, because it’s completely changed and transformed,” Mochizuki told the Straight in a phone interview.
Residential developments, including condos and townhouses, stood where there used to be an idyllic rural setting.
Her father was about two or three years old when the war started. Now deceased, he was in his sixties when he and his daughter took a walk at the site of the old farm.
The family spent four years interned in a B.C. camp, from 1942 to 1946.
“He has a very different recollection of the memories than, say, my aunts who were older,” Mochizuki said.
After the war, the family chose to be repatriated to Japan. However, they came back to Canada one by one, starting in the late 1950s.
Her grandmother was a second-generation Japanese Canadian, and she and her husband were raising a third generation before the war interrupted their lives.
By the time Mochizuki’s father returned to Canada, the Vancouver-born and –raised artist recalled, he was already a young adult.
Through her multimedia installation currently on display at the Surrey Art Gallery, Mochizuki brings back to life the memories of the Japanese Canadian pioneers in the Fraser Valley.
The show, Autumn Strawberry, derives its name from a variety of strawberry—developed by Japanese Canadian farmer Bunjiro Sakon—that can be grown during cold weather. To produce the work, Mochizuki spoke with second- and third-generation Japanese Canadians whose parents and grandparents farmed the Fraser Valley.
The work features 60 minutes of animation projected onto the gallery’s walls, with images painted by Mochizuki.
On the floor are sculpted tree stumps where visitors can sit, a reminder of the hard work Japanese Canadian farmers did to clear the wild country. Patrons can also see replicas of old farm houses that were abandoned when Japanese Canadians were forced from their land.
Autumn Strawberry also offers glimpses into her paternal family’s experience at their old Langley berry farm.
Her father had four sisters, and Mochizuki interviewed one of her aunts. The woman remembered once being bathed by her mother in a barrel of water as a young girl and seeing a dead frog in the tub. She screamed and her mother threw the amphibian out.
The frog had been scooped out of the farm’s well when the water was drawn to boil for a bath. “That’s a vivid memory for her from the farm,” Mochizuki said of her aunt.
Her aunt also remembered that cameras and radios were burned at the time because Japanese Canadians were not allowed to bring them to internment.
The show is being presented—in partnership with the Powell Street Festival and Burnaby’s Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre—with artist Henry Tsang’s Hastings Park work, which also showcases a part of Japanese Canadian history during the war.
Mochizuki started to hear stories from her grandmother and aunts about their family’s experience when she was a young girl. “It probably influenced my choice as an artist,” Mochizuki said.
She said that knowing about these stories as part of the “traumatic history” of Japanese Canadians makes one keen on issues around self-identity, “cultural identity or place”, and of being “in between cultures”.
“I think it definitely influenced my path to also become a storyteller and also become somebody to explore these difficult histories inside an art-making practice,” Mochizuki said.
Her family’s history has a “layer of hardship or discrimination…and displacement”, hence an inherent interest in how conflicts and wars impact the lives, livelihood, and mobility of ordinary people.
When her grandmother returned to Canada, the old farm was lost. She supported the family by working in a cannery.
Mochizuki said her artistic work is not only a “way of bringing these stories back to life again” but it has a restorative aspect as well. “There is also an element of healing, because I’m also working with other seniors that come and tell stories and speak about their experiences,” she said.
After returning to Canada from postwar Japan, her father met a Japanese immigrant to Canada, and they built a family.
The artist’s mother has seen Autumn Strawberry, and Mochizuki said that she liked her daughter’s work.
“I think, for her, it was very emotional because it’s her husband’s history,” Mochizuki said.