Set in Seattle, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet tells the story of Henry Lee, an American of Chinese descent. We first meet Henry in 1986 when he is drawn to see why a large crowd has amassed outside the boarded up Panama Hotel in the former Japanese district of Seattle. The new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. The owner unfurls a Japanese parasol, and Harry remembers a time when he was friends with a young Japanese girl, Keiko, who had a parasol just the same. The novel then returns Henry to the America of the 1940’s following the attack on Pearl Harbour, when to be of Asian appearance, either Chinese or Japanese, attracted insults and bullying. Distancing themselves from the Japanese who were their long time enemies, Henry’s father made him wear a button announcing to the world “I am Chinese” so there would be no misunderstanding.
The story tells of the difficult relationship that Henry had with his father who was still nationalistic to China despite living in America. Henry’s father wanted Henry to eventually return to China to complete his schooling, but also wanted Henry to be American and thus Henry was sent to the Reinier Academy when he was 12, an all–white school, on a scholarship and his parents refused to let him speak Chinese at home even though this was the only language of his parents.
It is at the Reinier Academy that Henry meets Keiko, another scholarship student, and a second generation American whose family speaks no Japanese. Despite their different backgrounds a friendship and first love develops, against the background of the jazz scene in Seattle. Unfortunately, their friendship is pulled apart as Kieko and her family are rounded up and sent to internment camps.
But the novel is not just about Henry and Kieko’s story, but also Henry’s relationship with his own son Marty, which is told as they search the basement of the Panama Hotel for something that Henry had thought lost forever.
I really enjoyed this book as this is a period of American history that is not often written about. The story flowed and I got caught up in the characters and colour of the period, and I kept turning the pages to see where their story would end. This would make a great book club book. You might like to watch Jamie Ford talk about his book in the youtube video above.