By Irene Zhang, Heritage Programming Coordinator UBC summer student

In Feb this year, I was one of 20 UBC students who volunteered for the UBC Community Engaged Learning Reading Week Project at the Vancouver Japanese School and Japanese Hall.  Like many of us, what I knew about the Internment of Japanese Canadians was limited to a single paragraph in my Social Studies 10 textbook. Although this event was a significant turning point in Canadian history and an important lesson about how racism impacted a thriving community, the textbook description of the Dispossession and Internment was underwhelming. It lacked in the complexities of history, and did not capture stories of the human experience.

Now I’m working as a summer student to lead the historic walking tours as the Community Programming Coordinator. In front of the entrance of the 1928 Japanese Hall, I ask the tourgoers this question, “What would you pack into a single 75-lb suitcase if given 48 hours to leave the place that you called home?” When asked this question, we are suddenly thrown back in time to 1942 and thrust into the shoes of a Japanese Canadian who faced Internment. Although I will never be fully able to comprehend the challenges they faced, their resilience and integrity as a community is something that I greatly admire.

Whether it be sewing a graduation dress in an Internment camp or holding AGMs through postal mail in order to retain ownership of the Japanese Hall building, in a time of crisis and uncertainty, Japanese Canadians adapted to their circumstances and stayed strong. Despite being victimized and marginalized by the Canadian government, the Nikkei community normalized their experience in the Internment camps and fought for redress and justice afterwards, maintaining that what the government did was wrong. It takes incredible courage to stand up against mainstream society and assert that your community was treated unfairly.

As the saying goes, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it’. Today, we are experiencing the same feelings of crisis and uncertainty with COVID-19 and seeing the same actions for justice being taken through the Black Lives Matter movement. History can repeat itself; it is our duty to learn from it. This is the main lesson that I want people to take away from the Historic Powell Street Walking Tours. If the point of holding these walking tours was to simply tell people about the stories behind some old buildings in Nihon-machi/Japan-town, people might as well just go online to learn more about the different historic locations on Powell Street.  However, the true value of doing these tours is to understand:

  • Vancouver heritage – the effects of removing a community of 8,000 people from an area;
  • Societal issues – the impact of systemic racism and discrimination;
  • What the Nikkei story means for us today – recognizing our privileges and the role that we play in ending any cycle of injustice.

Leading these walking tours, I focus on adapting the content to suit various audiences and communicate these messages. However, one part of the tour that remains the same across all sessions and attendees is the following question: What would you pack in a 75-lb suitcase if you were given 48 hours to leave home? Answers ranged from family heirlooms to a scooter, depending on who was answering. Regardless, this question never failed to spark reflection about what was important to them and what made up their identity. Taking it a step further, as the group progresses through the tour, I focus on painting a picture of the vibrant and thriving community that existed on Powell Street, connecting it to places in their own lives.

At the very least, by the end of the tour, people will walk away with some new fun facts about the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. At best, they will have opened their eyes to the real story and human experiences of Japanese Canadians untold by the history textbooks and acquired a new sense of conviction for navigating the current socio-political landscape.

Japanese Canadians were forced to pack their entire lives into a single suitcase. Now it is time for us to unpack the suitcase. I invite you to join me on a walking tour to unpack the hidden history of Historic Powell Street.


Tours: Thurs (11:00 am); Sat. (11:00/ 1:30).  Until Sept. 17!

Register here: