Powell Street Festival: Artist Henry Tsang peels back hidden Japanese Canadian history in Hastings Park
Most people don’t give much thought to the Pacific National Exhibition Livestock Building when they’re passing through Hastings Park.
But for Vancouver artist Henry Tsang, the 100,000-square-foot structure retains a special fascination. And that's not only because he spent a great deal of time at the PNE as a child, gobbling minidonuts and watching baby-pig races.
“The Livestock Building is such an odd structure,” Tsang recently told the Straight by phone. “It’s like Janus—the Roman god’s name—it’s literally two-faced.
“From the south side, which is what most people are used to, it looks like these ramshackle, cobbled-together different buildings,” he continued. “It’s red on that side with all the wood. Then the other side is this neoclassical, somewhat imposing structure stretched out with tall stone columns with steps going up to it, which is the main entrance.”
It wasn’t until Tsang became an adult that he learned about the building’s sinister history as the site where Japanese Canadians were detained in 1942.
This was before they were shipped to overcrowded internment camps in the B.C. Interior or to work on sugar-beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba. The following year, the government liquidated their assets, selling property, boats, and other possessions. They weren't allowed to return to the Pacific Coast until 1949.
Back in 1942, celebrated local photographer Leonard Frank was commissioned by the B.C. Security Commission to document the warehousing of Japanese Canadians at Hastings Park.
This led Tsang to take a series of his own images a few years ago of four remaining PNE buildings from 1942.
“Basically, my series are in conversation with his,” Tsang revealed. “I wasn’t trying to emulate his images.”
In fact, they’re radically different in that Tsang used a construction-industry infrared camera, which could also take video. He came up with the idea after this technology was used to analyze his house for energy efficiency.
The image of the Livestock Building was displayed on the CBC Wall in 2018.
Currently, 11 of Tsang's images and video are in an installation called Hastings Park at the Surrey Art Gallery (13750 88 Avenue).
“I thought, ‘What is it that I can’t see on the surface?’ ” Tsang said.
The results aim to peel back the hidden history of what took place in the four buildings.
Tsang shot one video as if there were four surveillance cameras at 90-degree angles from one another, each capturing a quadrant. Then the images are projected onto a screen in the gallery, but people cannot see them with the naked eye.
At the other end of the exhibition, however, there’s a large TV set. Because this monitor is connected to the cameras, people will see themselves as they approach it, creating a sense that they’re being watched.
“It’s as if it was a camera sweeping the grounds and checking to see if people are breaking curfew or trying to escape,” Tsang explained.
Hastings Park is being shown until August 28 in partnership with the Powell Street Festival and the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre along with artist Cindy Mochizuki’s Autumn Strawberry exhibition.
The Mochizuki show features hand-painted and digital animation depicting Japanese Canadian farm life prior to the Second World War.
Remembering Vancouver's race riot
Tsang, an associate professor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, also created the 360 Riot Walk, which is part of the Powell Street Festival. It evolved out of a 2018 project called Riot Food Here, in which people could sit at tables and eat different types of cuisine along the route walked by members of the Asiatic Exclusion League of B.C. when they attacked Chinese and Japanese residents in Vancouver in 1907.
There was food from five cultural perspectives: European, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Indigenous. Then people were asked questions like: "What would you have eaten as an angry white man before you attacked the Asians?" or "What would you have eaten just before you got attacked by the angry white men in Chinatown and on Powell Street?'
There was a growing population of Punjabi-speaking residents in Vancouver in 1907, including some who had moved to escape violence against this community in Bellingham.
Tsang said that someone of Indian ancestry might have been asked: "What would you have eaten if you were watching them as a Punjabi South Asian?"
An Indigenous person might have been asked: "What would you have eaten before you got to watch the angry white men attack the Asians on your land."
As part of this year's Powell Street Festival, the 360 Riot Walk includes upcoming guided tours in Japanese, Cantonese, Punjabi, and English. It can also be experienced online through 360riotwalk.ca.
“I hope it opens up a way of questioning how we see the world around us and how we consider the place where we live,” Tsang said. “Through the lens of hindsight, we have the benefit of saying, ‘Those people, they did things that were wrong.’ Well, what are we doing now that’s wrong? How will we be judged in the future?”
Hong Kong memories
Tsang's art works are included in an exhibition called Light Hours: 11 Artists Looking at Hong Kong at the Hotam Press Gallery (218 East 4th Avenue).
He was born in Hong Kong and immigrated as a three-year-old to Vancouver with his parents following large-scale riots in the former British colony.
His father had a good job in Hong Kong's lands office but the unrest was very worrisome. Tsang said that about 8,000 unmarked packages were left along various streets and in other locations, including on buses. According to him, about a quarter of them had bombs.
"Little kids would have their arms blown off or their heads blown off when they picked up these packages," Tsang said. "It was a pretty scary time. My parents thought 'okay, it's time to go.' "
At the Hotam Press Gallery, Tsang's triptych Lineage addresses three conflicts in Hong Kong's history. He employed the Sabbattier effect when printing all of the images in black and white in a darkroom, which partially or wholly reverses the tone.
The most recent is a New York Times photograph of a demonstrator in 2019, who shares Tsang's first name, "Henry".
The second is from the 1967 riots, showing someone trying to defuse one of the packages.
The third features two young warriors. Tsang said that it's likely that they would have fought against the British in the Six-Day War of 1899 against British claims to the New Territories in Hong Kong.
He still remembers flying out of Hong Kong and arriving first in Japan and then in Vancouver with his family.
"It was kind of a radical shift for my little body to go from one place to the other, not just in terms of weather but also not being part of the dominant culture," Tsang recalled. "We moved from one British colony to, basically, another British colony just to be surrounded by people who weren't Chinese anymore."
This history of migration has led him not to take anything for granted, which is reflected in his various art projects.
The Straight asked Tsang if his work focuses on decolonizing minds.
He replied that different people have different ideas about what decolonization means.
"Some people are really clear about what it means," Tsang said. "I'm not one of those people at all. I don't know what it means to be decolonized."
Then he elaborated on this thought.
"I would love for a society to be decolonized but I actually don't know how to imagine a world where there are no power differentials," Tsang continued. "And I can't imagine human beings operating and functioning in a way where some people don't take advantage of others.
"And maybe that's where I'm not as optimistic," he added. "It doesn't mean I don't want to work toward that goal and that ideal. But I think we have to be ever vigilant to resist those power differences and exploitation and so forth. To decolonize just means to work against those power dynamics."