Mini docs bring Nikkei stories alive in Steveston

Digital walking tour of Steveston's Japanese-Canadian history meanders through the village, from the cannery to the shipyard

A new, interactive self-guided walking tour has hit the streets and walking trails of Steveston Village.

The recently unveiled Nikkei Stories, a historical documentary series of 10 three-minute films on Japanese-Canadian history in the village, is now available to the public, via mobile devices, at 10 specific historic sites.

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The videos are the culmination of two years of fundraising and research by Orbit Films. Writer and director Gord McLennan takes walkers on a history lesson through Steveston by allowing them to access the videos with the RichmondBC mobile app, or by scanning a digital (QR) code at a permanent red and black Nikkei Stories sign, located at each site.   

“It’s like holding history in your hand. If you download the film at that sign, that’s the site where that history happened. It gives you a sense of place and a sense of immediacy,” said McLennan.

Masuda McLennan
Filmmakers Gord McLennan and Greg Masuda created Nikkei Stories, a documentary series of 10, three-minute videos on Japanese-Canadian history in Steveston Village . McLennan was the lead researcher and director; Masuda edited and shot the documentary, while also producing the website,

McLennan has established a walking tour map (see attached PDF below) for anyone interested in watching the films on site (they can otherwise be seen at the Steveston Museum or online at 

The tour begins on Moncton Street and wraps around the village, extending east to Britannia Heritage Shipyards. Notable stops include the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, Steveston Buddhist Church and the Steveston Martial Arts Centre.

The films combine for 30 minutes of viewing so the tour will take an estimated two hours, walking at a regular pace.

Taking one’s phone or tablet, each walker can use the mobile app, with location settings turned on, to access the films, which pop up with a notification when the person is nearby the site (some signs may be difficult to spot so the app (Apple itunes link) (Android Play link) is the surest way to watch the videos). 

Each film features a specific topic related to Japanese settlement in Steveston at the turn of the 20th Century.

There are several prevalent themes in the series of films.

For instance, McLennan shows how Japanese immigrants helped mold the local economy. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the fishing licenses were held by Japanese people by about 1920.

McLennan alludes several times to how the Japanese-Canadian community had to fight for equal rights. Several films recognize important individuals in this struggle against racism and injustices: Tomekichi Homma fought against racist pay structures for fishermen; Rintaro Hayashi went to Britain’s Privy Council to fight for the right to vote; and Hide Hyodo Shimizu, the first Japanese-Canadian school teacher, helped ethnic Japanese children assimilate into the public school system (Lord Byng elementary).

Women at Work
Nikkei Stories shows how Japanese women were initially shut out of jobs in Steveston by Caucasian and Chinese bosses. However during the First World War labour shortages opened the door for them. At first they needed to take their children with them to the canneries and laundromats. Eventually they earned enough money to pay for child care. The Japanese community also built a Japanese Hospital and instituted a sort of universal healthcare, as everyone was charged a fee, regardless of their health.

The contribution of women is also prevalent throughout many of the films, and one film is dedicated to the issue entirely. It shows how Japanese women were initially excluded from the workforce but eventually found their way into the canneries, laundromats and berry fields.

The women used their earnings to help build much-needed infrastructure in Steveston, another recurring theme in the films (because of exclusionary practices, Japanese-Canadians had to build their own school and hospital).

Many of the films also point to the struggles of internment during the Second World War, following the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

One film is dedicated to the internment process. It is aired outside the Interurban Tram because that very train helped move roughly 2,200 ethnic Japanese people out of the village, rendering it a de facto ghost town. In that time the white establishment sold off all of the Japanese-owned boats for well under their value.

McLennan, a veteran filmmaker, said he was inspired to tell the stories after creating Black Strathcona, a similar series of films on black history in Vancouver.

McLennan researched the stories alongside Linda Reid, of the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby.

The museum provided many images that had remained hidden for some time.

“Some of them are stunning. The early photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s are from professional photographers with big glass plate cameras and those photos are beautiful,” said McLennan, who was also assisted by the City of Richmond with a $75,000 grant.

Ten narrators were chosen from the Japanese-Canadian community in Metro Vancouver to tell the stories. 

Each film begins with a narrator speaking to the viewer. It then segues into a slideshow of photos before returning to the narrator at the end.

Nikkei Stories editor and cameraman Greg Masuda, whose family was interned in the Interior and later forced to move to Alberta, said it was important to include younger people in the films.

“They’re historical stories but we want them to have a more contemporary element to make it a bit more interesting for younger Japanese-Canadians,” said Masuda.

Carly Yoshida narrated the film titled Martial Arts.

“It was important for me to connect to my Japanese Canadian heritage. My grandparents are originally from British Columbia . . . They were relocated to Grand Forks. They lived and worked on a farm out there. It was interesting for me to learn more about my history,” said Yoshida.

Masuda expressed similar feelings, in making Nikkei Stories.

“These 10 stories from Steveston, in particular, taught me stuff I didn’t know, such as very specific details about people and events and history,” said the Edmonton-born and raised Masuda.

“I wish these stories were available when I did come to Vancouver because it’s a nicely packaged, succinct history of my own history,” said Masuda, who came to Vancouver in 2007, but recently moved to Vancouver Island, where his father’s family originally came from.

The Nikkei Stories project also includes 10 films on the history of Japanese-Canadians on Powell Street in Vancouver, although those films cannot be viewed on the app (only online).

The 10 Steveston films were unveiled at the Steveston Buddhist Temple on Feb. 16.

At the screening were many of the people who helped McLennan with research and film site selections, such as councillors Bill McNulty and Harold Steves, Loren Slye (chair of the Steveston Historical Society) and Calvin Higo, of the Steveston Community Society.

Higo, a lifelong Steveston resident, spoke to his own family’s triumph over the racist policies and internment during the war.

Higo said the film shows the resiliency of the Japanese immigrants, their dedication to the Steveston community and their resolve to become Canadian.

“How many of us, after being sent out in exile, could come back to a community and rebuild our lives?”

Note that you may also watch the videos online, from home, at

Nikkei sign
Look for these signs on the walking tour. Each sign has a QR code that can be scanned to prompt a video on your mobile device.

Nikkei Stories - Richmond News


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