An Interview with Carmel Tanaka of Cross Cultural Walking Tours

June 13, 2022

This blog is written by Alana Gerecke, an SFU Shadbolt Fellow in Urban Studies and a participant in CERi’s Community-Engaged Research Funding Program. In it, Alana interviews Carmel Tanaka of Cross Cultural Walking Tours to discuss their collaboration and spread the word about this very important project.

I met Carmel Tanaka quite accidentally at a Choreography Walk presented by (the brilliant) Justine A. Chambers as part of The Dance Centre’s Dance in Vancouver (DIV) programing in 2019. As we followed Chambers through the downtown core, Tanaka punctuated her vivid description of her Cross Cultural Walking Tours project—a collaborative, intercultural walking tour initiative she spearheaded as Founder and Program Coordinator earlier that year—with precise and energized gesticulation. Her hands drew together toward her centre as she talked about the different community groups and organizations that she had gathered around a desire to explore the contested and overlapping histories in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. Tanaka’s warmth, her whole-body energy, and her contagious enthusiasm for her walking tour initiative stayed with me.
This year, as a Shadbolt Fellow in Urban Studies (SFU) and an Artist-in-Residence at The Dance Centre—and with the support of a CERi’s CER Funding Program—I sought to rekindle the connection with Tanaka and her project. I picked up the thread we’d dropped pre-pandemic and started looking for a way to support the walking tour with the choreographic research on place and gesture that I am conducting both independently and in collaboration with Justine Chambers. Navigating the needs of the walking tour event, we developed an approach to exploring what Chambers and I call “lost gestures”—place-based and culturally specific gestures that once animated our everyday rhythms, but have fallen out of daily use. We invited tour guides to engage in a set of movement research workshops, Body Archive, where we explored physical gestures that were once part of daily life and have fallen out of use. We felt for the kinetic and affective information contained in those gestures as a sort of embodied archive that can reanimate important stories, knowledges, and ways of being—and that an act as a bridge of understanding when offered across bodies. The idea was to support the Cross Cultural Walking Tours events with an additional layer of embodied history while also experimenting with the potential for gesture to contain a past that can be felt into the present.

Alana Gerecke: What is the driving idea or value behind the Cross Cultural Walking Tours? How is it different from other tours that run in the area?

Carmel Tanaka: There are many incredible walking tours in Strathcona/Chinatown/DTES of Vancouver that dive into the culture, food, and history of a particular community. 

The Cross Cultural Walking Tours is unique in that it is an educational grassroots program that dives into the systemic oppression, racism, displacement, and impact of urban renewal experienced by many marginalized communities THEN and NOW, sharing history and stories together in one tour.

Pic by Yvonne Chew

The driving idea behind the program is coming together, building trust, and standing in solidarity with one another.

AG: How does the Cross Cultural Walking Tour initiate approach the question of local history/histories? Which communities does the tour seek to highlight?

CT: For far too long marginalized communities have been operating siloed from one another. The Cross Cultural Walking Tours program provides a platform to amplify diverse and marginalized voices. Participation varies from year to year, and depends on the resources and capacity of community organizations, but for the most part, the tours bring awareness of the contributions of Indigenous and early immigrant communities, the richly layered history of Vancouver’s downtown eastside neighbourhoods (including Jewish Strathcona, Hogan’s Alley, Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and Paueru-Gai), in celebration of Asian and Jewish Heritage Months in May and on private/corporate tours throughout the year.

AG: What is your personal connection to the locations and communities the tour moves through?

CT: In 1928, my jichan (grandfather on my father’s side) boarded a ship, the Empress of Asia, along with his maternal uncle and two brothers, to Vancouver in search of a better life. Meanwhile, my bachan (grandmother) was living her best life in a wealthy fishing family in Port Essington near Prince Rupert in Northern BC, and on a serendipitous meeting in Vancouver on one of her father’s business trips, she met my jichan and they eventually got married. For various reasons, my grandfather was the only one left in Canada from the original four family members who set out for North America. Eventually, he was interned along with my grandmother, her family, friends, and over 22,000 Japanese Canadians, who were all displaced, dispossessed, and interned across the province in the then provincial government’s racist attempt to confiscate their properties and businesses.

And while I do not descend from the Strathcona Jewish community, my mother did immigrate to Canada and settled in Vancouver with my Japanese Canadian father. So it is important for me to know where my maternal Jewish diasporic community history!

AG: The practice of walking tours has been contentious in this neighbourhood. I’m thinking of the issue of poverty tourism in the DTES. How does the Cross Cultural tour navigate these tensions?

CT: This is a top priority for the Cross Cultural Walking Tours. Before we even launched our inaugural May 2019 tours, we held monthly meetings with all of our community partners to get a sense of how they navigate this as organizations, what routes they take, numbers of participants, stop selections, etc. We consulted Powell Street Festival and their best practices when offering walking tours, and we adhere to most, if not all of them. Further, over the years, we have partnered with DTES organizations, such as Overdose Prevention Society, Everybody Is In, Megaphone Magazine, Carnegie Community Centre, 312 Main, and Binners’ Project, to ensure that the DTES voice is amplified on our tours. Binners’ Project is also on the CCWT Advisory Committee and has been instrumental in helping the program prepare for the 2022 season.

Photos by Carmel Tanaka

AG: What about the walking tour format appeals to you? What draws you to bringing bodies together in space and on site?


The ability for creativity is endless on walking tours and can stimulate all the senses, from tangible forms of cultural heritage (i.e., buildings) to intangible forms of cultural heritage such as soundscapes (i.e., washing of mahjong tiles or marimba ensemble playing), smells (i.e., from Chinese medicinal shops or bakeries), movement (i.e., gestures), and storytelling.

How each of our tour guides/community voices tell stories varies in style from one to the next; some are factual and archival-orientated, while others share personal stories—and some serenade participants or show up in drag! This is important because not everyone processes information the same way, and so offering a variety of ways in which to communicate one’s lived experience is vital—and also entertaining.

AG: What do you hope tour participants will walk away with?

CT: That white supremacy has negatively impacted all of us, and that we are far more similar than we are different. Getting to know one another, building trust and bridges across our siloes, and standing in solidarity with one another is key. Many of our communities are overseeing revitalization efforts of their neighbourhoods and reconnecting to one’s culture and language because of oppression, displacement, and dispossession. This is extremely important for the overall health and identity of marginalized communities.

AG: Can you describe some of the major challenges and/or highlights during the 4-year process of running these tours?

CT: We are seeing community burnout across all the community groups, which only increased during the pandemic. The Cross Cultural Walking Tours saw a surprising increase in the number of participating community organizations during the pandemic. That said, we feel the ebb and flow of capacity, and it changes from season to the next. Many of these community groups are competing with one another for the same pockets of funding. The Cross Cultural Walking Tours is not incorporated and therefore has great difficulty in securing grants and insurance, unless it is sponsored by a non-profit or charity. The system is not designed to help conglomerations that exist in the webbing that brings community organizations together. As a result, the Cross Cultural Walking Tours operate solely on ticket sales, grants and donations with a majority of the coordinating and community engagement done by yours truly as a volunteer. Although, we did just land a Canadian Race Relations Foundation grant, which will help in that department for this year. Next year is another story.

Picture by Yvonne Chew

AG: Are there any insights or offerings from the Body Archive workshops that resonate for you as the tours get underway this May?

CT: I have now offered the gesture four times on my tour on the very block (800 Jackson Avenue) where I had the idea to start the Cross Cultural Walking Tours. On the third Sunday, after I showed everyone the gesture, I invited people to join in with me and honestly I wish I had a photographer to capture the moment because it was SOOOOOOOO powerful. Alana and Justine, you’d be super proud! It felt so good to do it too and helped me as a guide and also our participants with renewed energy for the last half of the tour. I invited participants to do it again on the fourth and final Sunday, and this time I was prepared and took pictures!

AG: Is there anything else about the tour (the events themselves or the background thinking/values that drive the events) that you feel is important to share?

CT: The “walking tour” format was the vehicle/the means to get marginalized communities who have had little to no collaborative experience with one another in through the door. It is a beautiful, inclusive, and welcoming platform and is currently being used for the Cross Cultural Queer & Trans Walking Tours coming up in June in celebrate of Pride Month! We are looking for queer/trans Black voices to join our roster of tour guides. So if you’re reading this and that sounds like you, please email us at:

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