Cherry Blossom Ballet in Vancouver: Nature and New Mural Art

I had been wanting to highlight this new outdoor public mural that featured cherry blossoms against the backdrop of West Coast Japanese-Canadian and aboriginal history.

St. James Community Services Society mural reflects Japanese-Canadian and aboriginal history, culture along with west coast sea life. By Joey Mallet & Rita Buchwitz 2011. Commissioned for Vancouver's 125th anniversary. Photo by J. Chong.
St. James Community Services Society mural reflects Japanese-Canadian and aboriginal history, culture along with west coast sea life. By Joey Mallet & Rita Buchwitz 2011. Commissioned for Vancouver’s 125th anniversary. Photo by J. Chong.

The St. James Community Service Society mural was commissioned in 2011 by the City of Vancouver, as part of their new public art works in celebration of the city’s 125th anniversary. The mural is also a dedication to the work of the Society for 50 years in the downtown Eastside for providing emergency shelter services, hospice care, support to seniors and those with mental illness.

Cherry blossoms. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Chong
Cherry blossoms. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Chong

This new mural is located at the corner of Powell and Gore Streets, in the area that was Japantown, adjacent to Chinatown. The mural includes a watery image of herring, cedar tree fronds, other sea life and a totem pole.

In this neighbourhood, there are several outdoor art installations within 1 block in all directions, that are touchstones to also aboriginal culture and Chinese- Canadian history.

Former Japanese-Canadian internment camp during WW II in mountainous interior region of British Columia. New Denver, BC 2005. Photo by HJEH Becker
Former Japanese-Canadian internment camp during WW II in mountainous interior region of British Columbia. New Denver, BC 2005. Photo by HJEH Becker

Fragile Blossoms Frame Grey Shadows in Japanese-Canadian History
Delicate arching branches of pale pink blossoms contrast against the grey flotilla of Japanese-Canadian fishing boats in the mural. During the latter part of the 19th century and up to World War II, the Japanese immigrants were formative in sustaining the fishing and canning industries along the southern coast of British Columbia. However, the dark spot in history was the confiscation of their fishing boats and their possessions by the Canadian government in 1939 and thereafter, with the Japanese Allied bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.

All Japanese-Canadians during World War II, were deemed suspect by the Canadian government as a threat to Canada, even though many of these Canadians had never been to Japan or their family were already settled in Canada for several generations. There was 

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 corralling of Japanese-Canadians and relocation of them by train, into camps located in the mountain interior areas of British Columbia. It was a clear racist target against a group of Canadians who were innocent and not responsible for Pearl Harbour attack. Parallel action was also taken by the U.S. against the Japanese-Americans.

The businesses in Japantown never fully recovered after WWII. Many of the families lost their possessions, businesses and were nominally compensated by the Canadian government 50 years later in the 1980’s,  for a token amount of money.

Cherry blossoms. Stanley Park, Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Chong
Cherry blossoms. Stanley Park, Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Chong

The mural is also an ethereal bow to the profusion of cherry trees bursting forth every spring, all over Vancouver. Previously I had written a blog post on this wonderful pink herald of spring which began as a gift of cherry trees from the Japanese government.

Cherry Trees Inspire Landscape Design for New Developments
Nowadays, it’s refreshing to see that both the City of Vancouver and some private developers have incorporated new cherry tree plantings into the landscaping and streetscape designs. You can see young trees blooming around the perimeter of a playing field in David Lam Park, by new condominium developments while bicycling from Stanley Park and along streets in Kitsalano and Shaugnessey neighbourhoods, where there are more mature cherry trees.

Queen Elizabeth Park. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Chong
Queen Elizabeth Park in spring time. Vancouver BC 2012. Photo by J. Chong

Pink Blossoms Dance Like Ballet Tutus
Unlike the famed cherry blossoms in Washington DC, or even in Japan, on the northwest British Columbia coast,  sometimes delicate cherry trees are thriving beside soaring old growth trees that have stood for several hundred years. Boughs of tissue-thin, cherry blossom branches dance ballet-like in the wind, against rough, mossy wide girth of Douglas firs.

The cherry blossom sprays are like a profusion of many pink ballet tutus shifting, jumping and floating in the spring breeze. It is a happy dance of memory and hope for us when we face the rain showers and sun in the months ahead.

More Interesting Reading (and Photos)
Chong, Jean. Cycling Under Cherry Pink Flowering Bowers. In Cycle Write Blog, Apr. 18, 2010.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. This piece is so beautiful, so informative, and so startling. All this time, I thought the American government were the only ones who detained their fellow Americans in work camps during World War II. Even in my area, the local popular Japanese Sunken Gardens was renamed as the “Chinese Sunken Gardens” throughout the war, and for some time afterwards. I know quite a few Americans whose parents and grandparents were detained (in work camps that ruined their careers, businesses, livelihoods, et. al.) and came out of World War II, having to start over with their lives.

    And yet— there are cherry blossoms. I believe in hope, and you gave me a nice, lovely dose of hope today, alongside this dollop of local interest and Canadian history. Thank you, Jean!


    1. Jean says:

      Interesting, Courtenay about the garden name change in your area of Texas. (I’ve only heard what happened to the Japanese-Americans during that time along the U.S. west coast and a bit in the northern mid-west which of course where some of them were relocated.) I don’t know much formally about Japanese garden design but is appears to my layperson’s eye, a bit different in some respects. Even the philosophy of Zen applied to some Japanese garden designs (use of fine gravel design swirls,etc.) is to me, distinctly Japanese in sensibility, not Chinese.

      Hope you have some cherry blossoms at your end, to lift up your spring. I imagine it might be somewhat too hot for many trees to thrive. But may hope be with you every year.


      1. I love Chinese design, and I love Japanese design, but they couldn’t be more different in aesthetic, regardless of the era you consider. Greeks to Romans is what I keep in my mind when I think Chinese to Japanese.

        (I actually had to go and look up Chinese garden design because I wasn’t quite sure what that would look like, actually. I know more about antique Chinese furniture and architecture, but I would like to know more.)

        Now, Japanese gardens— I’ve seen quite a few, actually. I am pretty obsessed with all of the forms of Japanese garden design because of the Japanese Gardens in S. Texas. So… it was a weird and arbitrary name change b/c of all of that fear and reactionary behavior.

        The city changed it back, but the damage had been done. It’s a whole, sad story about a family who created this landmark… and all of this stuff. Locals know about it— and it makes them sad.


        1. Jean says:

          Time passing, meaning many years passing long after us, can only dim the sad memories for the locals. By the way, I grew up in a southern Ontario city that was adjacent / Twin City of Kitchener. It was Berlin until the name changed, I think just at the outbreak of WW II. For the same stigma sentiment among the locals at that point in history.

          I love Japanese garden designs…the ones I’ve seen so far have been very pretty, neatly kept and amazing with capsule garden views that change every few steps ahead as one turns their head in same direction. The northwest North American coast has balmier weather and more rain which encourages richer, more dense undergrowth, ground cover and more vibrant colours in garden plants against a beautiful background of snow capped mountains. One does see this from various gardens, cherry tree and magnolia tree lined neighbourhoods in Vancouver.


  2. Gosh, these photos are just gorgeous!

    Just wanted to stop by and thank you for the comment you left on my Freshly Pressed post last week–Top 10 Reasons to Join the Bloggy Blast. Sorry it has taken me nearly a week to get here. Hope you will stop by again soon!



    1. Jean says:

      Likwise Kathryn. I’m sure by now, you have many more readers. Appreciate your visit here!


  3. Catrin says:

    Your photos are outstanding, and the information most appreciated. I do not know much about the differences in Chinese and Japanese garden designs, but you are very fortunate to have such a place of beauty in your community.


    1. Jean says:

      Thanks for dropping by and especially your comments. Good luck with your return to blogging, Catrin, for the times when we’re not cycling!


  4. Beautiful photos! You are lucky to live in a town that has such breathtaking scenery.


  5. Beautiful mural and cherry trees! Very sad that Canada shared America’s horrible decision to intern Japanese immigrants during WWII. The Japanese population of Hawai’i was too high to intern everyone, but they still interned important members of the community including leaders and Buddhist ministers.


    1. Jean says:

      I was never clear what happened to the Japanese-Americans in Hawai’i. So thanks for this info. When we were in Hawai’i I did see visible signage and houses of historic value that indicated Japanese-American presence. Vancouver BC had a Japantown section beside what else, Chinatown but Japantown shrank considerably during and after WWII. However the community hosts a very large Japanese-Canadian cultural festival downtown annually. It is well attended. In the suburb of Vancouver, Burnaby has the national museum for Japanese-Canadian history.


    2. I did not realize Canada interned the Japanese, too. Thanks.


      1. Jean says:

        I didn’t know myself until in my late teens.


  6. BEAutiful pix and really lovely descriptions of the blossoms, esp in the last two paragraphs, J.


    1. Jean says:

      May you see many lovely cherry blossom trees, one day HW!


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