Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford
It is 1986, and Henry Lee is alone. His wife passed away six months ago after battling cancer for years. He retired early so he could care for her; now that she’s gone he has no way to fill his days in Seattle. Wandering home from purchasing groceries one day, he walks past the Panama Hotel just as an amazing discovery is announced. Deep in the hotel’s basement, hundreds of items belonging to the Japanese-Americans evicted in World War II have been found. A parasol shown to the eager television reporters triggers a memory in Henry, as he remembers a girl who once carried a paper umbrella just like it…
The reader is transported back to the 1940s, when Henry was just a boy “scholarshipping” at a prestigious high school. Again, he is alone, the only yellow face amongst his classmates. His parents refuse to let him speak Chinese at home; instead they instruct him to “speak his American” even though neither of them can speak English. The only friend he has is a jazz-playing street musician. But Henry’s world is turned upside-down when Keiko Okabe transfers to his school. For the first time, Henry is exposed to someone of Japanese background, but his new friendship is one that his father, a passionate Chinese nationalist, would never allow. Their relationship blossoms in secret, but the closer Henry grows to Keiko, the farther she is pulled away, as the Japanese are forced to leave for the internment camps. Again and again, Henry defies the odds against continuing their relationship, but can their innocent affections survive the turmoil of war?
The story jumps back and forth between 1986 and World War II. Henry is either very young – 12 or 13 when the flashback narrative starts – or an older, mature man – fifty-six in 1986 – so lusty desire never figures into the narrative. I’m not certain why that surprised me so much, but the fact that the absence of sex was so glaring sure seems to indicate that my usual reading certainly has a raunchy streak. (That, and sex really is just EVERYWHERE in our twenty-first century entertainment.) I would have actually pegged this as more of a young adult novel because of the focus on the childish love of Henry and Keiko, two children on the cusp of adulthood, but it isn’t being marketed toward that audience.
I’ve never been to Seattle, so I can’t say how true to the city Ford’s descriptions are, but as I read I kept forgetting that the story was NOT set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The descriptions of the Chinese parts of Seattle were just generic enough that I would slip it into the Chinatown I’ve known from childhood. I suppose this isn’t a bad thing, but it seems to indicate that the distinctiveness of Seattle’s Chinatown was not fully realized. The prose is very simple and clean. The plot is predictable; you know how the dominos are going to fall when Ford is still in the process of setting them up. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was not a bad read, but it’s not a story I’d read again. It is worth checking out if you’ve never read about the Japanese internment camps, though; Keiko and her family really put faces on the indignity and difficulties the Japanese suffered here in World War II.