(This story is sponsored by the Powell Street Festival.)
This year, for the first time in its 44-year-history, you can experience the Powell Street Festival from the comfort of your home. The action-packed celebration of Japanese Canadian culture has pivoted to a livestream telethon format to encourage social distancing during the pandemic.
Instead of heading down to the Powell Street neighbourhood, or Paueru Gai, where the multidisciplinary extravaganza usually takes place in both indoor and outdoor venues, the public is invited to tune in on Saturday, August 1st from 2 to 7 p.m. PST via the Powell Street Festival website. From taiko drumming and martial arts to culture-crossing contemporary dance, the telethon will serve up the same rich variety of performances you’ve come to love at the region’s longest-running community arts festival.
Look out for musical guests like flute-and-guitar masters Mark Takeshi McGregor and Adrian Verdejo of McGregor-Verdejo Duo, the jazzy Hammond-powered De Couto/Say/Arai Organ Trio, the ukelele-strumming pop-R&B choral trio Banana Bread, and more. And while you may not be able to visit the food and arts vendors that usually draw crowds at the Oppenheimer Park site, they’ll be on hand to deliver special messages during the event.
At the same time, the event will direct its proceeds to support people in need in the Downtown Eastside district where it traditionally takes place. Japanese Canadians have deep historic roots there, where they built a thriving community before being forced out during the Second World War. For that reason, the fest has committed to standing in solidarity with the people currently living in the neighbourhood, which stands on the traditional unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil- Waututh First Nations.
“The health of the DTES neighbourhood is directly linked to the health of the Powell Street Festival,” says Emiko Morita, executive director of the Powell Street Festival Society. It’s a bond that will be movingly recognized at the Telethon in a Giving Ceremony to honour the Powell Street neighbourhood.
“The area surrounding Oppenheimer Park has such a long history of struggle and displacement,” points out Telethon emcee Tetsuro Shigematsu, the well-known broadcaster, filmmaker, and playwright who’s hosting the event with artist and voice actress Yurie Hoyoyon. “It used to be meeting grounds for First Nations until the Europeans came. It was home to Japanese Canadians until Pearl Harbor, and now the homeless struggle to remain at the park, many of whom are Indigenous.”
With COVID-19, those struggles continue in the neighbourhood. That’s why all of the proceeds from the Telethon will go to launch the PowellStFest Community Kitchen, a new Downtown Eastside meal program starting in the fall of 2020. It will find Japanese Canadian community members employing four peers from the neighbourhood each week to cook 200 meals for the unhoused and precariously housed. It will join the Powell Street Festival Society’s DTES Community Care Program, which offers employment opportunities and community-engagement activities that bring the neighbourhood and Japanese Canadians together to build trust, community, and resilience.
“Through programs like the PowellStFest Community Kitchen, we’re dedicated to bringing wellness and health to our beloved neighbourhood,” says Morita. “Meals and cultural sharing activities are the crux of our purpose, the heart of what defines our Japanese Canadian identity, and it propels us into the future.”
The strong and meaningful connection between Japanese Canadians living within Vancouver and the DTES is something that a fair number of people are unaware of. “Working alongside residents of the DTES has taught me the true meaning of community—how to look out for your neighbour, laugh together, respect one another, and how to find dignity and courage in the midst of personal struggles and systemic inequities. I’ve learned that discrimination comes in countless forms and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect upon my own privileges while learning how to call out discrimination and stand in solidarity with marginalized people.”
“This Telethon has created an opportunity for historically marginalized groups to come together and work side by side as allies, creating nourishing meals that will feed body and spirit,” says Shigematsu.
One of the Telethon highlights is a collaboration between Onibana Taiko and the contemporary dance artists of Company 605 to curate the Paueru MashUp Dance—taking traditional Tanko Bushi dance and Radio Taiso morning exercises and spinning them into a fun and accessible collective line dance. You can learn the dance on your own here.
And don’t miss the screening of Greg Masuda’s inspiring documentary Spirit of Nihonmachi, which follows the experience of two Downtown Eastside residents who volunteer at the fest each year, and how the formerly homeless men feel a part of the inclusive program of art music, dance, food, and sport. Other Telethon events provide a deeper look into Japanese Canadian history here, including artist Henry Tsang’s 360 Riot Walk, an interactive walking tour of the 1907 anti-Asian riots that took place in Vancouver. The Telethon is free to watch and the Powell Street Festival Society hopes that viewers will show their support through a one-time donation or by becoming a monthly donor.
As usual, the Telethon will feature unexpected new cultural and artistic fusions. Filmmaker and animation artist Jeff Chiba Stearns shares his hapa-animation, combining Japanese anime and western comic illustration techniques. Performers Kisyuu & Shion will also meld the forms of traditional Japanese calligraphy (projected onscreen) with dance.
There is much, much more to link cultures, celebrate the arts, and stay connected even while we’re forced to be apart. To view the entire list of Telethon entertainment and for more information on the Powell Street Festival, visit www.powellstreetfestival.com/.