YOU SHOULD KNOW: About The History Of Sunrise Market On The Downtown Eastside
by Stevie Wilson | Situated on the corner of Powell and Gore in Nihonmachi, the Japanese name for the Powell Street area, Sunrise Market and its neighbours offer a complex narrative that blends modern and historical identities to produce one of our city’s most unique palimpsests. Although recognized as a landmark in Vancouver’s Japantown (an area yet to be heritage-designated by the city), founder Leslie Joe and his wife Susan actually immigrated to Vancouver from China. Accounts suggest that the business may have actually been started by Joe’s uncle, prior to him taking ownership in 1956, and had been located elsewhere on Powell (perhaps without an English name) before moving to its current address. Inspired by the local demand for tofu in the Asian communities, the Joes began producing small batches in the back of the shop. Today Sunrise Soya is the top producer of tofu in Canada, with a large manufacturing plant housing 200 employees. Sunrise Market has stayed true to its community roots, and continues to attract a wide variety of shoppers of all cultures and cuisines.
The location of Sunrise at Powell and Gore on the Downtown Eastside is an especially important feature of its decades-long success and contributes heavily to its status as a landmark in the community and beyond. In the grand scheme of Japantown’s incredible history – one that cannot begin to be detailed in a short article – Sunrise is a relative newcomer. The busy market stands along a stretch of buildings and businesses that tell a long and intricate history of the success, oppression, racism, and expansion experienced (not necessarily in that order) by the Japanese community in Vancouver and surrounding areas – including the 7th September 1907 attack and subsequent riots by the Asiatic Exclusion League.
Prior to the establishment of the market, the address was home to Suzuki Fruit & Liquor in 1920, Yamamoto Fruits in 1936, and Kawasaki Confectioner, which boasted a wide assortment of Japanese treats. Sunrise has expanded next door into the Fuji Chop Suey Building at 314 Powell. Fuji Chop Suey was heralded as one of the important locales contributing to the development of the area’s rich multiculturalism from 1931-1942. Like Sunrise’s diverse Asian marketplace, this establishment focused on Japanese-style Chinese cuisine and was one of the only restaurants at the time where Japanese-Canadian women and children could enter. Later, the federal government used the banquet hall to organize the displacement of Japanese-Canadians during the the Second World War.
Founded well after the end of the war, Sunrise has contributed to the cultural revitalization of an area that never fully recovered from the property confiscation and internment that the Japanese community was subjected after Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Despite the Chinese background of the founders, the Joe family has made a significant effort to celebrate Japanese and numerous other cultural influences in their business, not least of which being the fantastic commissioned murals referencing Japanese ornamental motifs, Chinese dragons, and a native moon mask commemorating the murdered women of the Downtown Eastside. Layered with several complex histories, and contrasting associations and memories, the market was built upon and perpetuates a historical and heritage lineage that has changed and developed over time. Plus they offer great deals on fruit, too!
Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.