This story first appeared in print in the Summer 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Read the e-edition here:
Words by Sarah j Spurr. Project in collaboration with Tomoaki Fujimura, Rob Buchanan, Miriam Manley and Cathy English.
Thank you to the Okanagan College for the dedicated funding to help get stories like these off the ground.
Spring air and a welcomed sense of creative urgency pass through the red brick corridor of the Heritage Garden. Our meeting place is a circle shaped table beside the Revelstoke Museum & Archives.
It’s 2020 and we, like many of you, have taken a moment to pause and have begun to reassemble. We still have work to do and it’s increasingly sensitive to time, so united by our objective, we stay the course. Together we are collaborators: artists,historians and ambassadors of arts and culture.
On the table is a story we are responding to. A piece of history from the local archives at risk of disintegration. We take a critical look backwards, empowered by current events affecting us all. Reparations and a captive community dialogue is required.
We are in the storming phase of building a storyboard. The artists have been processing information presented by the historians and delicate slices and layers of hidden visuals have begun to emerge — these insights will become the moving parts of our restoration project, where we’ll use animation to help update the record.
High up the valley
A lily beneath the stone
Trumpet shaped flowers
New growth shoots outward from a cold case as a series of Japanese-inspired poetry is spoken aloud. Haiku occupies the garden now and with it our appreciation for — an abundance — of Eastern influences and philosophy in the West.
Those carefully chosen words, 17 syllables to be exact, have been offered as a potential re-entry point, to acknowledge silencing stones cast towards the Asian, migrant labourers of Western Canada at the turn of the 20th Century. The subject of our story is a 24-year-old Japanese woman called Jennie, who we know lived and worked in Revelstoke until 1905.
It was the Meiji Era and the first wave of Issei, Japanese migrants, had set sail in response to a growing supply of labour and business opportunities along the Pacific shores of the North American West. The interior of British Columbia was rugged and, in a predominantly Caucasian, patriarchal society, there existed complicated tensions surrounding race, gender, religion and class.
The establishment of brothels became commonplace and, although criminalized, brought in valuable remittances to mining towns and trading centers along the Canadian Pacific Railway. For many impoverished migrant women, prostitution was a means to an end.
It is believed Jennie was seeking independent movement — freedom from the prevalent sex trade industry. But the loosely regulated and dangerous environment ultimately lead to her extremely violent and unresolved murder. It was graphically published in 1905 as one of the most violent hate crimes on the record. The local community turned a blind eye, and scornful statements like, “not worth hanging a man for,” or “no good woman” were offered instead of leads.
Jennie’s story is just one of a surprisingly far reaching and distinct minority of Japanese women. The legacy of “comfort women” in the West is a relatively unspoken of yet poignant piece of Canadian Women’s history.
Her story is quite fragmented and what we do have today has been preserved through written and verbal storytelling. Among the artifacts we wish to restore is a physical piece at the Mountain View Cemetery, where Jennie’s gravestone literally balances in 115 years of stoic perseverance.
The stone is gripped by lichen and the crumbling concrete footing shows that we can’t wait any longer if we hope to repair it. We plan to ensure that it gets the care it needs to ensure Jennie’s testimony will travel safely into the next 115 years.
We are so fortunate to have a culture here where the spirit of the bold and brave adventurer is celebrated. In this tradition we can’t just leave out the lesser-known heroics occupied by impoverished, immigrant, women. Their stories don’t discriminate, they are diverse yet commonplace.
We recognize, now more than ever, generational pains left by the global slave trade still echo in every corner of the world. This includes here and now, in Revelstoke, today. We acknowledge that lives forced to pass through unfathomable sets of circumstances without access to free will are indeed the maximum, most regretful, examples of extreme limits of human strength.
With art we can respond to the things we wish to understand more of.
Starting from the trumpet shaped flowers carved into the crown of her gravestone we will travel down through translation of the inscribed characters. We will continue all the way until we can finally resurface with an offering of art and a deeper understanding about what Jennie’s life can teach to us today.
Our current goal is to create an animated short film where we can dive in through an education in traditional and digital storytelling techniques like papercut stop-motion and poetry. In May when the snow melts, we will hold a separate gathering to unveil the restoration and an addition to Jennies gravestone in celebration of Asian Heritage Month.
Find our legacy art project online this September 26, alongside this year’s second annual instalment of Art Alleries — a permanent public art initiative. Art Alleries is a branch of the LUNA Festival that illuminates alleyways with art and solar LEDs that last all year long … and for years to come. While there won’t be a physical LUNA gathering this year, there will be new instalments for our alleyways and online legacy content like our project for you to explore.
Please reach out to the Revelstoke Arts Council if you have any leads to information that might help us better complete the re-telling of this story.