Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Apr 13, 2011

It wasn't one of America's proud moments: that day in 1942 when Teddy Roosevelt signed the War Relocation Authority, an act that put a hundred thousand Japanese in American Concentration Camps. In Seattle, seven thousand people were herded to the fairgrounds and forced to make temporary homes out of livestock stalls. Later, they were shipped off to a concentration camp in Idaho. Looters and vandals descended on Seattle's Japantown, virtually gutting businesses like the famous Kabuki Theater.
In his novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, author Jamie Ford imagines what it must've been like, not only for Seattle's Japanese, but also among the neighboring Chinese Americans. For the novel's protagonist, twelve-year old Henry Lee, it complicated an already difficult life. As the only Chinese in an all-white school, Henry felt visible too visible. When trouble started in Japantown his father was afraid Henry might be mistaken for "the enemy," so he forced his son to wear a button that read I am Chinese, making him more visible than ever. Henry's father nursed bitterness toward his Japanese neighbors. For him, they were enemies kin to the ruthless Japanese army that invaded Manchuria in 1931 shouting, "kill all, burn all, loot all." Mr. Lee was thrilled that his old enemy could be punished here in his new country.
Against this background of hatred, Jamie Ford tells the story of star-crossed lovers. That fateful year, a Japanese girl, Keiko, enrolls in the white school. An Asian minority of two, Henry and Keiko bond. They find common ground in art and music, sneaking into forbidden territory jazz clubs on Jackson Street, where Ray Charles and Quincy Jones got their starts. Henry loves Keiko with the intensity and confusion of adolescence. When her family gets incarcerated, he sneaks presents to her at the fairgrounds. Later, he follows her to Idaho, where he formally requests permission to court her. But there is a bitter price to pay for love. His father disowns him.
The characters in the novel did strike me as a bit flat. The heroes frequently become mouthpieces for political messages and the bullies are one-dimensional. Still, I admire a book that draws nuanced racial conflicts and detailed histories. For its portrait of cultures at war in Seattle during the 1940s, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a very worthwhile read.