They Called Her Jennie

A collaborative LUNA art project explores challenging issues in a historic Revelstoke murder.

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A slide from the They Called Her Jennie exhibit, which will be featured at LUNA Reimagined. Image: Sarah Spurr
This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. See the story in print here:

 

A swallowtail butterfly glides across a pale-yellow circle. A ghostly, white paper crane with feathery fringes floats gracefully across the screen. Mushrooms rise and dance above wind-blown grass. A lily, rooted deeply in the earth, produces three beautiful, white blooms – blooms like those etched in marble on a 116-year-old gravestone at the Revelstoke cemetery.

The butterfly, lily and crane are papercut images that express the life of Jennie Kiohara in a three-minute animation by Sarah Spurr to be featured at the upcoming LUNA art festival in September. There is no narration. A beautiful violin and piano composition by Somei Satoh called Birds in Warped Time II provides the soundscape.

In April 1905, Jennie, a 24-year-old Japanese woman, was brutally murdered in her home around Douglas Street. (Because Jennie is associated with two surnames, I am using her first name in this article). The lichen-blackened gravestone, which inspired several images in the animation, marked her final resting place.

Artists and researchers went through historical documents to trace Jennie’s story. Photo: Rob Buchanan.

Jennie immigrated from Japan, likely around the turn of the 20th century, and worked in the sex trade in Farwell, the earliest townsite at Revelstoke where several brothels were located. According to Cathy English, curator of the Revelstoke Museum and Archives, she first appeared in the police record book in 1903 when she was arrested and fined, along with other sex workers, under “Bylaw 9, respecting public morals and convenience.” The police described Jennie as a “keeper” and fined her $25 plus $4.75 for court costs. “That would be the equivalent of $900 today,” English said. Some sex workers who worked for others would have been charged $4 to $5. “It doesn’t actually mean that Jennie had other women working with her but it means that she was not under the control of another woman.”

By regularly fining sex workers, the city profited from their circumstances. Women of all ethnicities worked in the sex trade at the time, but marginalized women had fewer options to support themselves. While prostitution was illegal in B.C., many mining and railway towns had red light districts. For the women, “sometimes this was the only way to escape from fathers or husbands. There was not such a thing as an independent woman in those days,” English said.

Two years before her murder, Jennie was viciously assaulted by a white man, Alex Mellet, who kicked and dragged her along Douglas Street by the hair when she tried to flee, local newspapers reported. Mellet was charged for the assault and for assaulting a businessman who tried to intervene. Jennie was badly hurt but recovered.

Artist Sarah Spurr at Jennie’s grave site at Mountain View Cemetery in Revelstoke. Photo: Rob Buchanan

English knew about Jenny’s murder for some time. For more than 30 years she has conducted cemetery tours and always visited Jennie’s grave as part of them. The story “resonated with people,” she said. When she noticed that the base supporting Jennie’s headstone was disintegrating, she spoke with artist Rob Buchanan and they decided to do something about it.

Working with Miriam Manley, artistic and executive director of Arts Revelstoke, and researcher Tomoaki Fujimura, they decided to clean up the headstone and create a new base with the help of anti-racism funding through Okanagan College. Fujimura’s language and research skills allowed them to access Japanese records. They also decided to enlist an artist to create a response to Jennie’s story for LUNA and help restore the grave marker. Sarah Spurr was known as an innovative artist and was invited to come on board.

“I had no experience with animation or historical research so I just dived in,” Spurr said. “Cathy supplied me with books about Japanese prostitution in the West. Tomo provided me with a ton of background information on Japanese history. I dived into YouTube to learn how to do animation.”

Spurr discovered paper-cut animation, which fit the subject beautifully. As the research progressed, it became evident that much of Jennie’s life would remain a mystery so she knew that the animation would have to be abstract. She researched Japanese death poems and haiku poetry, analyzed the research that was coming in, and sat by Jennie’s grave. She wrote a series of beautiful haikus that inspired the animation, although only one appears in the animation itself.

“I kind of saw the animation as a gift to give back to Jennie. If you think of it, 120 years later there’s some white girl from Revelstoke making a film for this person. It’s kind of an offering. So I chose to focus on things that I felt represented life and beauty,” she said.

A slide from the They Called Her Jennie exhibit, which will be featured at LUNA Reimagined. Image: Sarah Spurr

As the research and gravestone restoration progressed, the team found less information about Jennie than they hoped but they also made some discoveries. They could not find where she came from in Japan or what ship she came over in. Minority women were often listed on ship records as “(man’s name) + wife” and some women stowed away, Spurr said, so their names were never recorded.

On the other hand, the team found some intriguing information from Jennie’s headstone. Police and newspaper reports called Jennie “Jennie Kiohara” but the headstone named her Jennie Fukushima. A man named S. Fukushima had reported the 1903 assault against Jennie and S. Fukushima was one of two Japanese men arrested after her murder then released for lack of evidence. The newspapers said that she had lived with one of the men for some time.

They also discovered that, in a generous gesture, local Chinese merchant, Wah Chung, who owned the brothel where Jennie worked, paid for her beautifully etched, marble headstone that was shipped in from Calgary. The script on the headstone was written in kanji, a Japanese script that is heavily influenced by Chinese. These discoveries raise more questions than they answer.

Because the animation is so abstract, the team “decided we needed a more direct way of telling Jenny’s story,” said Miriam Manley. They chose to work with Katrina Van Wijk to create an interactive web page with more information about Jenny’s life that will also be launched during LUNA.

On the evening of Saturday, September 25, the animation will be projected on a wall in the alley behind the Roxy Cinema. On Sunday the 26, Spurr will give an animation workshop, showing the multi-level glass frame on which she photographed her paper-cut figures. Following that, people will be invited to the cemetery to view the beautifully refurbished headstone.

See lunafest.ca/web for details.