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Telling his family's story

Burnaby's Kevin Takahide Lee explores the Japanese Canadian experience, and his own family's past, in a season of discovery and reconciliation
Kevin Lee
A season of exploration: Burnaby's Kevin Takahide Lee has discovered much about his family's past in a season of exploring the Japanese-Canadian experience. He's now starting up a multicultural, multigenerational choir in an effort to reach out across cultures and share experiences.

It was, for Kevin Takahide Lee, a season of serendipity.

What began as a few unconnected projects ended as an exploration of his own cultural heritage and his family's story  - and a chance to learn how to reconcile the past, the present and the future.

"All of these things just ended up coming together," he says musingly, sipping his cup of tea as he talks about the summer and fall that led him to new understanding.

It began simply enough, when the Burnaby resident had a chance to work with the Surrey Re-Enactors at the Surrey Museum on a project bringing to life various pioneers of Surrey.

Lee's character was Zennosuke Inuoye, a Japanese-Canadian farmer who came to Canada in the early 1900s. Lee - whose mother is Japanese-Canadian - jumped at the chance to take on the role.

"I don't think I've ever wanted anything so bad," he says. "It was a way for me to tell my family's story."

By looking back into Inuoye's history, the 28-year-old Lee was able to learn more about the otherwise little-discussed history of his Japanese half.

Lee had a chance to meet with Inuoye's grandchildren and even some of his peers, who remembered Inuoye from his farming days.

Putting a personal face on the Japanese Canadian experience expanded Lee's knowledge of what the early settlers had gone through, including the Second World War-era internment.

He notes it's an era that's usually just written off with one or two sentences in a history textbook.

But, with this year marking the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Japanese Canadian redress agreement with the government of Canada, it's an era that has come into public prominence again.

Lee had a chance to take his newfound knowledge to the forefront when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission talks came to B.C. Sept. 16 to 22.

Lee took part in a panel discussion hosted by the Inspirit Foundation, representing the youth who are descendants of those who have been harmed by the policies of governments of the past. Along with Lee, the panel included a Chinese Canadian descendant of the head tax payers, a First Nations descendant of residential school survivors, and a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors.

Lee discovered that, in many ways, they all had shared experiences. Common to all was the fact that, in most cases, the family histories are something not spoken of.

As a child, he was always curious about his family's story. His grandfather had an extensive photograph collection, including photos of the internment years - and always, the family members were well dressed and holding themselves in a way that commanded respect, Lee remembers.

But it wasn't an era that the young Kevin could learn much about.

"They would never talk about that time, and when they did it was very little," Lee says.

He attributes their silence to the Japanese concept of "shiyouganai" (or "shoganai") meaning, "it can't be helped" - since you can't change the past, you simply move on and don't talk about it.

In his research leading up to the panel discussion, Lee learned just how much his family had lost in those little-discussed years.

His grandfather was from Fukuoka, Japan, the eldest son of a family whose father died when he was young. He moved to Canada and set up a home in the Terra Nova area of Richmond, becoming a prosperous fisherman with his own boat.

His grandmother was born in Canada, in Ocean Falls, B.C., where her family owned a restaurant and a home.

"They came to Canada, and they built, and they thrived," Lee says.

When they were moved into the interment camps during the Second World War, they were only allowed to carry one or two suitcases. Anything they couldn't carry - including homes, businesses and belongings - was lost for good.

The compensation the government of Canada offered later - $21,000 for each Canadian citizen born before April 1949 - was little in comparison to the loss.

"When you think about what my grandparents had, it's not much," Lee says.

His grandparents' families were interned at Lemon Creek and at Slocan. His grandparents met in the camp, had their own families and stayed to raise their children in the Slocan Valley after the internment ended.

Over the summer, Lee went with his mother and aunt on an internment tour, having  a chance to see the camp sites and talk to survivors - including a woman who knew Zennosuke Inuoye, bringing his summer full circle.

The experiences opened Lee's eyes to how important it is to understand the past.

"This is a part of my family history, it's part of me," he says. "It's a history of the people that I love, and although they are not with me, it's important for me to know what was done to them."

He notes that, when redress finally came, his grandparents donated their money to causes to build for the future. His grandfather gave money to the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, his grandmother to the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.

"They were investing in their grandchildren," Lee explains.

Lee says he's seen the legacy of the past in the way everyone in his mother's family has always had the same outlook, "a sense of you striving to do well, to do better."

It shows in the fact that everyone in the family has pursued higher education, Lee notes - his mother has a master's degree, and Lee himself has bachelor of music in opera performance from UBC and a master's in voice performance from the University of Western Ontario.

Lee - a professional tenor who sings with the Vancouver Opera chorus - is now parlaying his musical training into a new venture: starting up a choir geared to anyone who wants to improve their language skills. That may be newcomers to Canada, people of various cultural backgrounds who want to improve their English, or even seniors.

The choir is coming about thanks to a grant from PeerNet B.C. and support from the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre. Choir rehearsal dates are to be confirmed, but it will likely meet on Wednesday or Thursday evenings, or possibly Saturdays. (Contact Lee directly for details and to register.)

The choir iw open to anyone aged 13 and up, with any musical background - or lack thereof.

"I'm meeting people at whichever level they are at," Lee explains.

He hopes to see everyone from teens to seniors turn out to share music, food and camaraderie.

"It's also for bridging the multicultural and multigenerational divide," he says. "That's what music can do. "

The choir, like the rest of his summer, is an extension of Lee's growing belief in the need to meet each other and hear each other's stories - culture to culture, person to person.

"Although we come from different backgrounds, we share similar goals, similar beliefs," he points out. "By recognizing the similarities, I'm hoping we can build bridges."

For more about Lee, visit his website at or email [email protected].