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Municipal Politics

Powell Street Festival Moves Online, but Maintains Spirit and Connection to Downtown Eastside

The Japanese-Canadian cultural celebration includes a telethon and a focus on giving back.

Jen St. Denis 30 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Every summer for 44 years, the Powell Street Festival has taken over a few blocks near Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Recent festivals have included a raucous omikoshi shrine procession, audience-participation sumo wrestling, Japanese comfort food and a slew of other activities and performances that celebrate Japanese culture in Vancouver.

But this year it’s different. With the country still in the grip of COVID-19, the city festivals that normally give shape to the summer have had to find a way to continue without the crowds and physical street presence.

Powell Street Festival organizers have focused this year’s event on giving back to the Downtown Eastside, while at the same time celebrating Japanese-Canadian culture at a safe distance.

The festival has hired residents to put together 1,500 care packages for people who live in single-room occupancy hotels, seniors, and people who are homeless.

“One of the things that people love about Powell Street Festival is the diversity. It’s such a range of people who come every year,” said Emiko Morita, executive director of the festival.

“The festival has an approach of inclusivity. While our mission is to celebrate Japanese-Canadian art and culture, we use that to bridge community.”

On Saturday, the festival will hold a five-hour-long telethon with the goal of raising $20,000 for a community kitchen in the neighbourhood. Viewers can tune in online from 2 to 7 p.m., or can view video of the event on the festival’s website.

582px version of TetsuroShigematsuYurieHoyoyon.jpg
Tetsuro Shigematsu and Yurie Hoyoyon will host a five-hour long telethon for the Powell Street Festival on Saturday, Aug. 1. The goal is to raise $20,000 for a community kitchen in the Downtown Eastside. Photo submitted.

Telethon hosts Tetsuro Shigematsu and Yurie Hoyoyon will keep viewers entertained with elements of Japanese pop culture, messages from long-time festival vendors and live performances.

While the festival is a joyful celebration, it comes out of a painful past. The Japanese-Canadian community, which had created a thriving neighbourhood in the streets around Oppenheimer Park before the Second World War, was displaced when Japanese Canadians were interned during the war. Their homes and businesses were confiscated by the government and sold.

The first Powell Street Festival, which took place in 1977 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese immigrant to B.C., was intended to be a one-time event. But it’s continued every year since.

“Every B.C. Day long weekend, Japanese Canadians converge into that neighbourhood to celebrate their cultural identity, their historic connection to that place,” Morita said.

“You can’t just talk about Japanese Canadians and their connection as though it were a dusty thing in the past. We are deeply engaged in the neighbourhood.”

The festival now states its commitment to practice social justice, saying organizers seek “to be accountable as settler-colonizers and [acknowledge] the larger narrative of displacement on these unceded territories of the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam peoples.”

Acknowledging how important it is to have a physical presence in the Downtown Eastside, Morita said the care packages will be distributed in a giving ceremony on Saturday.

“(We’ll) have furoshiki-wrapped bundles of care packages, which Powell Street people will be depositing on tables, and then Downtown Eastside neighbours and volunteers will come in a physical-distance respecting procession to pick it up,” Morita said, adding that the ceremony will be captured in the telethon.

“For us, it’s very emotional to not be there,” she adds.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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