Life of the Building

What stories do you have to share about 437, 439, 441 Powell Street?
What do you recall about living or visiting the building?
What are you afraid will be lost?
What do you hope for?


Uchida Building (437-441)

This building began as the Russ House Hotel, housing a variety of European residents. In 1902,Kinu and Chiyomichi Uchida bought this site and converted it into a boarding house. Retail space was rented as a tobacco or grocery store for many years, and from 1910 to 1912 there was a pool room in the building. By the 1930’s, one of the Uchida’s sons, Matasaburo became a doctor and set up a practice in the building. Although covered in vinyl siding today, underneath it is in its original state, as is the building at 451 Powell. Note the “breezeway” leading to the lane at the east wall of 451 Powell. The neighbouring buildings to the west, which were al reconstructed in the 1980s, boast replica wooden facades that reflect what the original “boomtown” or “pioneer” storefronts on this block would have looked like in the 1890s. Historically, the buildings were separate structures, with “breezeways” running back to the lanes between them. During their reconstruction, these passages disappeared as buildings were combined.

Japanese Canadians were the majority ethnic group on Powell Street until the Canadian government forcibly relocated the entire community in 1942. The original reason for the community’s development in this location was access to jobs at the nearby Hastings Mill. Once established financially, the men were able to send for their families or a “picture bridge” since the quotas enacted in 1908 and 1928 on Japanese immigrants applied only to men.

(Source: Historic Map-Guide Japantown, Vancouver)

The Uchida Family

Credit: Nikkei National Museum - Dobin - Teapot - Chitose Uchida Collection, circa 1921

Credit: Nikkei National Museum – Dobin – Teapot – Chitose Uchida Collection, circa 1921

Chitose Uchida was the third child of Chiyomichi and Kinuko Uchida from Toyoka mura, Kita Katsushika gun, Saitama Ken in Japan. Chiyomichi was born in April 1858 and came to Canada the same year as Tomekichi Homma and like most Japanese men, worked at Hastings Mill. He earned $75 a month working from 7 in the morning until 6 in the evening, six days a week. Later he opened a general store at 104 Hastings Street. When the lease expired, he purchased an old brick building at 411-437 Powell Street. For a very short time 437 Powell was used as a ‘hospital’ for newly arrived Japanese immigrants with trachoma, an eye disease. Chiyomichi was an advocate for Canadian citizenship and was one of the first men to be naturalized. He passed away on January 22, 1913 at the age of 54.

Kinu Uchida was born September 25, 1872 in Hiroshima Ken. She was the youngest of 5 girls, three of whom came to Canada. Her sisters Yoko Oya and Mrs. Ima Suzuki were the first Japanese women to come to Canada.

Kinu arrived in 1889 at the age of 16 and married in 1890. Their first daughter Hatsuye, born in 1891 was the first Nisei girl in Vancouver. She worked alongside her husband in the import business and would go to the customs office to make sure officers were not setting too high a price on shoyu and miso coming from Japan. After the Asian Riot of 1907, Kinu appeared before the McKenzie King Commission with all her receipts for the repair of the damage to the property. Frequently, she was called to be a midwife, as Japanese women did not like going to a hospital. After her death, Kinu’s son, Dr. Matasaburo Uchida set up the Kinu Uchida memorial scholarship at UBC, as she was an advocate of higher education. Dr. Matasaburo Uchida became a doctor who eventually practiced on Powell Street.

Chitose, born in 1895, became the first female graduate from UBC in 1916. She was schooled in the first makeshift school in Nihonmachi. In 1897, Ranzo Kishimoto and his wife Yoko started teaching in a home on Powell Street. When he passed away, Gomei Asano took over classes at the rear of Ikeda Rooming house on Powell Street. As the class expanded, they moved to above the Asahi Rice Mills, then behind Mr. Matsubayashi’s Jewellry Store. She became a teacher and since she could not find work in BC, moved to Alberta. She returned during WWII to teach in Taylor Lake.

Source: Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, Chitose Uchida collection


Ming Sun Benevolent Society

Ming Sun Benevolent Society-1925

Ming Sun Benevolent Society-1925

The Ming Sun Benevolent Society (民星總社) was originally called the Ming Sun Reading Room.

It is the clan association for the Wong 黃 family clan, who originated from Hoiping (Kaiping) 開平 county, Guangdong province, China. At the turn of the last century, there were three Wong clan associations in Vancouver. Approximately 40 years ago, two of the Wong associations merged and formed the Wong’s Benevolent Society of Vancouver.

Founded in 1925, the Ming Sun and similar organizations provided a place where ideas could be shared and discussed. The words “Ming Sun (民星)”, means “People’s Star“. It probably alluded to the idea of a News organization – not unlike, the Vancouver Sun, the Toronto Star, or the Observer. An appropriate name for a news and reading room society.

Ming Sun Benevolent Society, Vancouver, 1929

Ming Sun Benevolent Society, Vancouver, 1929

Ming Sun Benevolent Society, Vancouver, 1975

Ming Sun Benevolent Society, Vancouver, 1975

The Ming Sun was one of the first Chinese Canadian organizations that incorporated itself under the BC Societies Act.

Like other benevolent societies, the Ming Sun provided social support services for men affected by Canada’s Chinese Head Tax and Immigration Act of 1923 (aka Chinese Exclusion Act). Services such as, providing room and board, library resources, news information, translation services, communications with separated families, and liaison with government officials and vital services.

Key achievements included the teaching of language (English) and community engagement/ participation – resulting in some very interesting legacies here in Vancouver, such as, First Nations partnerships, the concept of leasehold lands, community institutions (Chinese Cultural Centre), and individuals who became notable role models for succeeding generations including:

  • Canada’s first Chinese-Canadian Judge, Justice Randall Wong,
  • BC’s first Chinese Canadian Notary Public, Mr Wong Quon Hip
  • one of Vancouver’s first Chinese Canadian doctors, Mr Wing Yuen Wong.
Interior,  1977

Interior, 1977

In recognition of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society’s contributions to the city of Vancouver and to Canada, the Mayor of the City of Vancouver proclaimed, “Ming Sun Benevolent Association day” on April 24, 2010 – on the 85th anniversary of the society.

Ming Sun Benevolent Association Day, April  24, 2010

City of Vancouver proclaims April 24, 2010 as Ming Sun Benevolent Association Day

A Home for Artists

Michael Turner, a writer who used to live in the building – “For my part, it was in this same storefront that I wrote my first two books, the first of which, Company Town (1991), was the story of a dying salmon cannery town on the northwest coast of B.C.; the second, about a punk rock band called Hard Core Logo (1993)”. – Read more on his blogpost: 441 Powell Street.

Artist Comments and Additional Information

RUSS ROOMING HOUSE 1898-1902 | UCHIDA FAMILY 1908-1942 | WAKABAYASHI TOFU ca. 1920s-1942

Many families lived in small apartments above or behind storefronts. Narrow alleys or breezeways connected the street to the back alleys, often to reach gardens, stables, sheds or nagaya (apartments added at the back of the building).

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 8.56.05 AM

Tofu is made from soybeans, which is high in protein and is essential in Japanese cooking. There were several competing tofu producers in Powell Street.

“We made about 50 tofu cakes each day, selling them for about 5 cents each. Day by day, we sold more. Then by 1941, we were making 250 tofu cakes each day, selling for 10 cents each.” – Bud Tanaka

Tofu was a product often made and sold along Powell Street. There were several competing tofu producers like Wakabayashi Tofu, which was located at 439 ½ Powell Street, one of many businesses located along breezeways. The rendering of a tofu maker is seen in this panel and through the window is an historical photograph of “lane houses” and how alleyways (breezeways) were utilized on Powell Street between buildings.

For more information, please visit Open Doors Project


One thought on “Life of the Building

  1. Chitose Uchida was my great-aunt and a great talker. She told me once that when she was a child her father, Chiyomichi, got word of the race riot in Chinatown. Fearing that the whites would turn to Japantown next, he instructed his children to gather up all the bricks and rocks they could find and carry them to the roof of the store on Powell Street. When the rioters arrived, the family fired their ammunition in defense of the Uchida business.

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