Art & Culture
November 27, 2007

Hapa Culture

My column in Business in Vancouver last week:

Vancouver culture now meeting newcomers halfway

In Vancouver today, there’s a lot of hapa happening. In Japanese, “hapa” means leaf. In Hawaiian, half. It also means people of mixed racial ancestry.
But hapa culture is bigger than that. If you live or work in Vancouver, it includes you. Because living in Vancouver means everyone is unavoidably involved in a dialogue of ethnicity. When a city is roughly half Caucasian and half Asian, within which there’s great diversity, it becomes a different kind of place.
And it’s happened fast. Within a generation, from the early 1970s through the 1990s, Vancouver and Richmond changed complexion, by and large without a lot of fuss. When tensions flared, we worked our way through them, thanks to good leadership – in particular by former lieutenant-governor David Lam. Of course, it’s been a time of prosperity, and our kids, most of whom went to public schools, were taught tolerance and shared more or less the same popular culture. Then they started pairing up, engaging in that sincerest form of integration, the sharing of genes.
Justin Ault, 37, is hapa. In fact, he and his wife, Lea, also Japanese-Caucasian, opened a restaurant called Hapa Izakaya – the first one on Robson in the West End, the latest on Yew in Kitsilano. The staff is young, exuberant and pretty darn good looking. Some have come recently from Japan, others are many-generation Canadians. The crowd varies noticeably from night to night, but around the tables it would appear that class, age and culture trump race, colour and nationality.
The assimilation going on inside Hapa Izakaya also happens outside. On Robson and Seymour Streets, students fill the sidewalks, where the huge ESL population mixes with each other and the locals. Downtown is their campus; West End highrises are their dorms. Through sheer number they add another layer of change – which, come to think of it, has been the traditional role of Robson Street. Once known as Robsonstrasse when it was a reflection of post-war European migration, now the lower village offers Koreans, Japanese and Chinese the taste of home and keeps downtown alive – youthful, safe and hapa.

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