2002 Powell Street Festival celebrates Japanese Canadian culture

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
August 3-4, 2002

The Powell Street Festival is an annual event that celebrates the history and cultural traditions of Japanese Canadians. Each year’s festival has a theme. This year marked the 26th anniversary and its theme was “Living Communities.”

The PSF usually takes place the first weekend in August. Great food, lots of Taiko performances, literary events, film/video, butoh, innovative music, traditional stuff, arts and crafts, a festival sales booth, interesting people…great food. The festival takes place in Oppenheimer Park (funny/odd: the Atomic Bomb guy was Oppenheimer — that name weirds me out especially cuz the festival sometimes coincides with A-bomb day) in Japan Town (now only a few shops) which, in the past seven years, has become the most dangerous part of Vancouver. But for these two days the park is relatively clean of discarded hypo-needles. The well-mannered homeless Native population (First Nations People) are not as aggressive as the ones we have in Seattle (you can buy them a salmon dinner and its appreciated).

The people you have to watch out for up there are the WHITE people: strung out, and yelling for money. If you are too well dressed or have a camera, vagrant types will follow you for up to three blocks. They’ll grab on to you or throw things at you if you slow down so glare and march forward, like hardcore New Yorkers.

Chinatown was horrible; I had to walk with a friend who knew where the bad streets were. It’s way worse than anything in Seattle is. Stepping over half-dead-looking men and women (white, Asian, native), putrid smells wafting all over.

I never see any police when I am in Vancouver. The police station is near Chinatown. I’ve often wondered which Chinatown is the smelliest – I think Vancouver’s is maybe Numero Uno. The only other Chinatown stench that comes close is New York City’s.

I’ve been going to PSF since 1992, mainly to watch the Taiko, meet artists and eat the massive handrolled sushi for a mere $3 Canadian which comes to a flat US $1.00-$1.50 over the years. The best exchange rate is at Safeway. You can also use your Safeway card for discount prices. Their prizes are better than ours, you can trade up your Safeway points for Air Travel miles. Cool, eh? The best deal was the buy one Claritin (38 tabs) and get one free. A $42 can is like 23 U.S. clams. So stock up on the codeine cough syrup, Allegra, whatever you need cuz it’s well worth the hassle at the border!

PSF was screening my video about AIDS, earth, and splayed molecular time. They weren’t well received. The conservative, and mostly queer audience, wanted to see porn, but they got pieces about DEATH and the Atomic Bomb. I was heckled continuously by a Chinese Canadian dyke and her white girlfriend, and two white men and their Asian friend. I didn’t want to tell them what my work was about; I wanted a reaction. And reactions I got:

“Go back to America, we don’t need you.” – two white guys and Asian friend
“What the hell is this?” – Chinese Canadian dyke
“ITS TOO LOUD…YOU SHOULD HAVE WARNED US! ” – white chick with Chinese Canadian dyke

Like the atomic bomb victims had time to complain? What are these people thinking?

While the heckling was going on, the ongoing war with the tech booth snotty white boys added to my anger, and I had to go in the booth to yell at them for not letting me adjust the sound in the booth. On my way out of the booth, I heard the hecklers, so I flashed my bright blue halogen beam of flashlight into their faces and yelled, “WHY DONT YOU GET UP AND LEAVE IF YOU DONT LIKE IT? NO ONE IS FORCING YOU TO STAY!” I wished they had a panel discussion afterwards. It was needed.

So many angry people tripped and pushed me. Seventeen people came up and told me they understood “what” it was I had in mind in my works. The majority of the feminists and queer folks that were audience were very racist and ignorant. I proved my point: that racism and ignorance exists within the so-called Left of Center.

Tamio Wakayama, the Japanese Canadian photographer who documents all facets of life in the Japanese Canadian community. In the early 1990s, a book called KIKYO was published. It contained the photographs and historic information of what it means to be Japanese Canadian. I believe it was the first of its kind. The Japanese American Cross-Cultural Center in Los Angeles had the exhibition of the same name. In the 1960s Tamio documented the civil rights protests and demonstrations in America’s South. “The Civil Rights Movement, A Photographic History” is another exhibition that features many of Tamio’s stunning documentary photographs.

Here is a unique pairing of musical talent, pianist and Taiko/percussionist Eileen Kage with the classical backed Allyson Nishihara. You had to be a real fan of Eileen Kage, because at times throughout the three-part piece, I was really straining to hold my video camera and manage to shoot this still. The afternoon of August 3, 2002 was scorching and I was at the edge of the stage, fighting off a flood of yellow jackets, two drunks breathing on me, and six annoying/aggravating Chinese photo bugs, with no photo etiquette skills. The piano and Taiko make an interesting match, yes. Did it work? Very well. EK’s beats were right on the money, long gaps of silence ending with a carefully placed bow on the edge of the cymbal, just a whisper. This is what I took a photo of, I thought that this moment was the most INTENSE moment of the whole piece, which I think was 45 minutes long. I hand held my video camera the whole time up to this point because the sun was frying me alive, and the reflected heat off the stage was cooking my face. I suppose I am a diehard fan not just of Kage, but of new forms of music that incorporate Taiko. Hey it’s 2002, Taiko doesn’t need to stay in the constraints of strictly Japanese traditional forms. When people immigrate, their music comes with them, and their experiences here are what informs the music of people here.

[When I returned to Seattle, some of EK’s diehard fans who couldn’t make the trip up north, viewed the tape and screamed out, “Special effects, where’s the special effects? I can’t believe you held on so bravely!” This Peanut Gallery of Critics was not ill-meaning; they wanted more of the kick-ass drum-skills of Kage.]

Curious onlookers watch the spectacle unfolding before their eyes: Jay Hirabayashi of KOKORO Dance performs a site-specific Post-Butoh dance. JH wears a white button down shirt and black pants, with Butoh white body paint on his head and limbs. With a slow and purposeful movement – and a thundering ethereal soundscape surrounding the center of the park – he moves slowly through the numerous people sprawled out on the grass. The people he moves through are of all ethnicities (Asian, Native, white) and from all economic backgrounds and lifestyles. JH’s style is his own. The basis is Butoh, with many forms of dance infused. JH’s face contorts from idyllic bliss, to confusion, to fear, and wonderment of simple pleasures.

The dance roves around and throughout the park…then, at the mid-point of his wonderful dance: THE ONSLAUGHT OF THE RED GIANT and her three accomplices! I was thoroughly enjoying this fantastic dance, when all of a sudden this Large Boned Woman in Red Velvet slammed into me and shoved me aside and did the “home-run” slide! So during the rest of the dance piece, this photo parasite BECAME the dance and JH used her extreme tactics, and she thought he was doing a private dance. I tried to stay low-key and stay in one spot, but SHE and her posse were UNSTOPPABLE! I ended up videotaping the rest of the performance-pretty funny.

In some of the video shots you can see a wheelchair in the background. She was wheeling her “assistant” in the wheelchair and wheeling her own gear in a baby stroller. When the action came near her, the “assistant” would leap out of the chair, grabbing a good spot to shoot from. She would hurl her camera bag to him and he’d pull out her other camera. It was truly a weird scene. Maybe you will see the indie video version of this sometime?