It’s 1986, and Chinese American Henry Lee is there to see the Panama hotel of his childhood – one of the only buildings remaining from the original Japantown – being opened up after years of abandonment. The new owner has discovered a basement full of the belongings of Japanese families sent to internment camps during WWII and Henry recognizes a parasol similar to the one his childhood Japanese American friend Keiko owned. It is then that he must do his best to find a long lost object precious to them both. Taking his son Marty with him, Henry embarks on a search but also a journey back through time to the 1940s when he and Keiko were “scholarshipping” as the only non-white students at Ranier Elementary. Forced to work in the kitchen, they were disdained and bullied amidst their growing friendship and an increasingly paranoid America. Revisiting the past, the divide between Henry and his nationalistic father is illuminated and the gap between him and his only son Marty bridged as a love lost may be found again.
Due to the popularity and the subject matter, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet isn’t something I would usually pick up. But even with a slower start I found the quiet longing, unspoken regret, and fond memories of older Henry in the first few chapters intriguing. Throw in the alternating chapters set in the 1940s and I was set. I loved seeing the 40s through mature Henry’s eyes, a Henry different and yet the same as 12-year-old Henry who is full of hope and innocence. The treasured memories aren’t taken for granted because there’s a sadness to even the best ones as we already know but are in denial of the eventual fate of Keiko, her family, and Japantown. I remember only touching upon this period of Japanese internment very briefly at school and this is the first time I’ve read any type of personal account so the historical part of this novel was eye-opening for me. It’s frightening considering this happened in the general vicinity of my backyard only sixty years ago. Surely unforgettable is the “I Am Chinese” button that Henry was forced to wear. Jamie Ford’s father (whose last name was changed from Chung to Ford by his grandfather) wore a similar button, so paranoid were the Chinese Americans of being falsely identified as Japanese in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. History aside, it was the story, which is appropriately both bitter and sweet and the subtle, understated writing which drew me in emotionally and evoked both tears and smiles. Some of my favorite quotes:
“The more Henry though about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.” (p. 7)
“Inside, Henry knew it too. Some things just can’t be put back together. Some things can never be fixed. Two broken pieces can’t make a lot of anything anymore. But at least he had the broken pieces.” (p. 275)
Satisfying and enlightening, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a lovely debut novel of love, loss, hope and second chances that will stick with you. As the best historical fiction does it’s uplifted and inspired me to learn more about the plight of non-white North Americans during WWII and racial discrimination through the ages that has flown under-the-radar.