Re-enacted internment history at the PNE brings audience to site of detainment
by Erica Isomura
It was a typical Vancouver evening, damp and overcast. What was atypical about this night was my destination, a barn built in 1929, also known as the Livestock Building at Hastings Park. This building is often associated with August’s annual Pacific National Exhibition fair. It is home to pig races, horse shows, and 4H farming festivities – a place of fun, games, and excitement.
On this particular evening, I arrived at a dark building echoing of emptiness – vestiges of the fair had left behind a pungent smell of hay and farm animals. The open space reverberated with an eerie silence, interrupted by the sound of my heavy boots crossing the concrete floor. A small group of people sat waiting inside on uncomfortable-looking wooden benches. At 7 o’clock on the dot, a woman in colourful vintage dress emerged to greet us. She introduced herself as Samantha, then apologized for the smell and asked us to mind the dung as she beckoned us to follow her into a shadowed corridor – this was the start of JAPANESE PROBLEM.
In 1942, this barn housed my grandmother and great-grandmother, who were detained here with other Japanese Canadian women and children. They were forced to live at Hastings Park before being sent further east to internment camps in remote BC, 100-miles inland from the west coast. In February of 1942, the Government of Canada passed an order to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast for reasons attributed to “national security”. Over 8,000 people of Japanese descent passed through Hastings Park in total, the majority of these people were Canadian-born or naturalized citizens.
JAPANESE PROBLEM is a performance by local theatre company Universal Limited, which vividly re-imagines this past and its subsequent effects on the present day and future. As a site-specific piece of theatre, JAPANESE PROBLEM dramatically re-enacts what it might have been like to be detained at Hastings Park as a young nisei – a Canadian person born to Japanese immigrant parents. The title comes from common language used during the Second World War by the media and public alike.
Through the perspective of a young woman named Samantha, we are introduced to the fear and many unknowns experienced by Japanese Canadians during this time of war. Instead of taking place in a traditional theatre setting, this intimate performance leads audience members through the livestock barn, a backdrop described by director Joanna Garfinkel as their “fifth cast member.” Its location provides an ambience and tone unmatched by any built theatre set to drop us directly into the past. At the end of the short play, we are pulled back into the present and reminded of the grim realities of this lived experience.
At the end of its incredibly successful first run of sold out shows, JAPANESE PROBLEM was filmed and projected onto a re-created horse stall for Hastings Park 1942, the current exhibit at Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in Burnaby, BC, which I contributed to as a curatorial assistant as part of an arts internship. As JAPANESE PROBLEM connects both the past and present, its installation in the gallery is surrounded by elements of both history and the present moment, too.
Bed sheets fastened across the gallery walls are suggestive of the makeshift partitions created by women who lived in the stalls with their children. The significance of this is demonstrated by a lone standing black and white archival photograph, starkly set against a painted green wall. Taken by German Jewish photographer Leonard Frank, this photo offers a glimpse into the Livestock Building after its transformation into a temporary home: patterned sheets and bedding are hung across animal stalls to create privacy and a small child peeks out from a corner stall. It is a striking image set in this re-created space.
Other distinctive parts of the display include the uncomfortable odour of hay wafting through the gallery — from real bales — and a dramatic sculpture of Japanese Canadian registration cards, which sit atop blankets once used by internees. This mountainous reproduction of original registration cards represents the identities of over 8,000 individuals who passed through Hastings Park. While examining the cards, you are forced to look into the faces of detainees, faces from the past — ancestors to some of us.
The label beside the sculpture notes the comparison between historical anti-Asian racism and present-day anti-migrant racism upheld today. If you didn’t know, the Canadian government continues to prosecute and detain migrants today – they “can be jailed on administrative grounds without ever being charged with a specific criminal offense.” This is a consequence comparable to the detainment of innocent Japanese Canadian families and individuals in 1942. The label asks a question I also ask myself: why does this history continue to repeat?
This is the first of a 3-part series exploring the JAPANESE PROBLEM performance and its relevance in Vancouver today. Read part two: #JAPANESEPROBLEM: Reactions, reflections & realities and part three: #JAPANESEPROBLEM: The “Chinese problem” too.
JAPANESE PROBLEM is screened hourly as part of Nikkei National Museum’s Hastings Park 1942 exhibit. The Hastings Park 1942 exhibit runs now through January 18, 2018. Nikkei National Museum’s gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11-5pm.
For more information about Japanese Problem or Universal Limited’s work, please visit japaneseproblem.ca.
To learn more about the history of Hastings Park, visit hastingspark1942.ca
Series written by Erica Isomura
Erica Isomura is a yonsei (fourth-generation) Japanese and Chinese Canadian, who writes from Vancouver on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil Waututh nations. She was the curatorial and programming assistant for the Hastings Park 1942 exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum.