Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
Henry Lee has always lived in Seattle’s Chinatown. His parents, eager to set him apart from the other Chinese-American children, send him to a white prep school with an I AM CHINESE button to ensure he isn’t mistaken for a Japanese boy during the early ’40s when Japanese is the one thing you don’t want to be. Henry’s world isn’t perfect and has a bully or two roaming around in it, but it’s also home to him… Until he meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl on the same kind of scholarship as Henry’s. And then his world turns upside-down.
At home, Henry lives a shadowy world between his parents’ refusal to let him speak Cantonese and their inability to understand English. His father spends every day glued to the radio, living through the messages of combat in the Pacific. Despite his mother’s love for him, he feels like a foreigner in his own home. In Keiko’s home, he feels like he belongs.
But soon, all that begins to change. Restrictions are imposed on the residents of Nihonmachi, Seattle’s Japantown. Before he knows it, Henry is watching the Okabes being rounded up and removed. First to a temporary camp and then to a more permanent internment area. Keiko is slipping away from him. They promise to keep writing to each other, but the letters soon slow to a trickle.
Now Henry is a widower, and he keeps his memories strictly under lock and key. But maybe the opening of the Panama hotel, and the removal of various artefacts left behind by the Japanese residents as they vacated their homes, heralds the right time to talk to his son and unearth these precious recollections… And maybe he can find the record he once shared with Keiko, the one he still hears in his most wistful dreams.
The Japanese internment is a subject frequently avoided. Here in the UK, it seems more a matter of distance and disinterest, sometimes ignorance. In the US, it remains a deeply shameful chapter of history. Ford’s tackling it in this way, carefully and tastefully exploring its effects on the affected population, is both informative and entertaining.
Through the eyes of Henry as a child, it’s easy to see the extent of the horror inflicted on America’s Japanese during WWII; through his eyes as an adult it’s simple to understand the far-reaching consequences.
Ford brings the world of Seattle’s International District to life, painting a world in muted colours and dusty remembrances, only to accompany it with the husky notes of a bluesy saxophone. It’s a trip back in time you won’t soon forgot – and one you’ll want to revisit.