Women’s History Month: Remembering Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto

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Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto may not be the first person who springs to mind for women’s history month, but she was brave and entrepreneurial and succeeded at a time when there were few opportunities for women, especially ones who weren’t white. This is an excerpt from Sensational Vancouver.

Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto in 1978 – from Opening Doors
Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto in 1978 – from Opening Doors

Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto was an enterprising Japanese woman who was born in Tokyo and came to Canada in 1916 as a 19-year-old picture bride. She spent a few years on Vancouver Island scratching out a living. It’s not clear what happened to her husband, but Kiyoko clearly had better things in mind than milking cows, cleaning out chicken coops and taking in laundry, and by 1920 she’d saved up $2,000, moved to Vancouver and bought into a brothel with three other women. The brothel was at the corner of Powell and Gore, and in a world that offered women few business opportunities, being a madam was well worth the risk of jail.

“The first year of the business was so good I couldn’t believe it. There weren’t many women around then and a lot of our customers were fishermen and loggers. I made a lot of money,” she told Opening Doors in 1978.

In 1927 Kiyoko leased a floor of 35 West Hastings Street from the Palace Hotel. The main floor was a medical clinic and Kiyoko turned the upstairs into a brothel. She hired 12 prostitutes and took 30 percent of their earnings, instead of the usual 50 percent commission. White women, she said went for $2, while the more exotic Japanese between $3 and $5.

35 West Hastings Street. Eve Lazarus photo, 2014
35 West Hastings Street. Eve Lazarus photo, 2014

If a police officer wanted a girl he got her for free and the house paid the girl. It was just the cost of doing business, she said.

In 1942, Kiyoko was one of 22,000 Japanese Canadians rounded up and interned in B.C’s interior. Although the Japanese were not allowed back onto the West Coast until 1949, Kiyoko pretended to be Chinese and moved back to Vancouver in 1946. She tried running various gambling, bootlegging and prostitution businesses out of a couple of different Powell Street buildings, but it was never the same.

“Everything’s changed since the war and the police are much tougher,” she said in 1978. I couldn’t get a licence, and although I still served sake in a teapot, I lost a lot of money.”

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