Letter from Grace Eiko Thomson to Councillor Louie

The following is a letter that Grace Eiko Thomson, a long-time activist in the Japanese Canadian (JC) community wrote to Councillor Raymond Louie, to share with Vancouver’s Mayor and Council). She and Judy Hanazawa spoke at the City of Vancouver’s apology to the JC community (Sept 25, 2013) about the City’s role in the injustices of 1942 during the internment of Japanese Canadians. Saving the Ming Sun building would be one small way that the City could back the apology with some action to give it meaning . 

Dear Mr. Raymond Louie,

Thank you so very much for your prompt response. It is very much appreciated. What you are informing me of events to date are those that are pretty well known to me, regretfully. I think for the people who wish to save Ming Sun building, it has not been easy to find the funds to do all that is necessary to save it from demolishment, and for continued use as it were.

My main concern here, is not necessarily this building only, though I appreciate very much what this Benevolent Society has been doing and wish it could continue to do so.

This block on Powell Street is one that is filled with archival memories of old Japantown. As you well know,`towns’ such as Japantown and Chinatown (perhaps even Little Italy in New York) were formed at specific times in our history when Asian immigrants and their children were treated as second class (or perhaps third class) citizens. These towns with their own infrastructures developed out of necessity to give support to their communities, particularly with respect to jobs, but largely protection from outright discriminatory and racialization practices promoted by the government and politicians (i.e., White Canada Only, 1907 Riot.).

Japantown thrived for several decades to do just that, but for the second generation, those born in Canada, this place was nothing more than a ghetto, a place from which they wished to escape. They made an attempt by forming a League from which they sent representatives to Ottawa in 1936 to appeal for the right to vote. But with the expelling of all Japanese Canadians from Vancouver in 1942, (based on racism, not, as documented, security risks), this town was never allowed to develop to become what Chinatown is today, a place of pride.

Our children and grandchildren are slowly beginning to realize the importance of this place to their history. And I credit Powell Street Festival Society which reminds us all annually that a Japantown once existed here, and those who volunteer annually to work to the success of this event, now not only see this area as a site of memories that should not be forgotten but also as legacy of injustice that should not be repeated on those who currently live there (DTES).

Particularly the unique architectural façade of this block, the New World building (also known as the Tamura Building), and the few colourful homes that line Jackson Street (already saved as heritage buildings), together make up what remains of the old Japantown, which surrounded the centre of activity, Powell Ground, where the famous Asahi Baseball Team practiced and played their games. These are seen as backdrops in archival photographs of Japantown. It is an inheritance only of memory, if such physical traces are erased through demolishment without care of history and stories that need to be remembered about Canada`s development into this Multicultural nation. It is to be remembered that this area began with the Squamish Nations being displaced by the early European immigrants who moved to the middle class areas to the west, and soon after Japanese Canadians establishing residences, thanks to Hastings Mills which hired Asian immigrants.

Unlike Chinatown, which was able to flourish in time (though its residents during the Second World war, despite China being an ally of the West, continued to be treated as second class citizens, not allowed enlistment until later when both Chinese and Japanese Canadians were invited to join the Canadian armed forces), physical memories of Japantown are now being proposed to be erased totally with demolition of buildings or transfer to developers without (it would seem) much knowledge or care not only of lives once here, but of the precedent setting Government of Canada`s Redress Acknowledgement and Apology, and of the City of Vancouver`s Apology.

As a senior with early memories of this area, who lived through internment and dispersal, and who returned to Vancouver to spend the rest of my life here, I appeal to you, and all honourable Council Members, together with His Worship, Mayor Gregor Robertson, to take leadership and acknowledge a City with heart and responsibility to its residents. If we miss the chance offered at this moment to remember the significance of this area and its residents, we will have erased an important part of Vancouver`s (and Canada`s) history. I trust that the City`s proclaimed Year of Reconciliation is based on courage and spirit to act on such issues of history and present supported by ordinary citizens, not only economics, as the driving force.

Again, thank you very much for your kind consideration.
A Very Happy New Year to you and all Members.

Kind regards,
Grace Eiko Thomson


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