Jamie Ford: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Rachel Baker on September 23, 2009

Every once in a while, I run across a book that is able to evoke strong emotions – disgust, anger, empathy, sadness and joy. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is one of these books. This is the story of heartbreak and tragedy, hope and joy. The story is set between 1942 and 1986.

Our main character, Henry, is a twelve year old Chinese boy, living in Seattle, WA, in 1942. He is being raised in a household where his parents only speak Cantonese, but have told him he can only speak “his American”. That, coupled with his father’s Chinese Traditionalist attitude resulting in total hatred toward the Japanese, creates a chasm of loneliness for young Henry. Further exacerbating his loneliness, his parents put him in an all-white school on scholarship, as the only Asian for awhile, and made him wear an “I am Chinese” button at all times.

Enter Keiko. Keiko is a second generation Japanese-American. She, too, is “scholarshipping” at the all-white school. Part of the scholarship requires her (and Henry) to be part of a work-study program where they work in the cafeteria serving the other students (the all-white students) their food and performing janitorial duties after school. For the all-white students working in the kitchen is more of a form of punishment.

Outside of their little world, Pearl Harbor has been bombed and the President of the United States has signed a Proclamation to create the Japanese-American Internment Camps for the safety of Japanese-Americans, or calling a spade a spade – Japanese-American Concentration Camps. In Henry’s world, his father feels that anyone of Japanese descent is ‘the enemy’. In Keiko’s world, while she is of Japanese descent, she and her family are Americans. Of the two families, Keiko’s is living more as Americans than Henry’s family is.

Over time, Keiko and Henry form a bond of friendship, which gradually turns into something more. He walks her home from school, they sneak out in the evening to go to a jazz club and listen to Henry’s friend, Sheldon play sax, (more about Sheldon in a bit), and they spend time on the weekends together. Keiko’s family knows about Henry, but Henry has to sneak around about his friendship with the little Japanese girl, who has become his best friend, for fear of reprecussions from his father.

Keiko and Henry see the evacuations of the Japanese-Americans beginning to happen in the area. And tragically Keiko’s family is one of hundreds of families evacuated. The notice of evacuation comes the day Henry meets her family for lunch, the first time.

Then the story evolves into him finding her in the camps, the many years they write back and forth to each other (but never receive the others letters) and how he met his recently deceased wife.

When we get to 1986, Henry’s wife has passed away about six months prior. He’s finally “getting out” and being a part of the world again. As he’s walking through what used to be known as Japantown, the Panama Hotel is being re-opened for the first time after its closing during the Japanese American evacuations. During the remodeling, boxes are found in the basement that used to belong to several of the families who were evacuated. During a press conference about the finding, Henry sees a parasol he thinks may have been Keiko’s. Thusly, he begins his search for her families items, including a one time recording by the Oscar Holden Band in which is lifelong friend, Sheldon played in. This elusive record is central to his relationship with Keiko and its something Henry has been looking for his whole life, on and off.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has two central themes. One is about father-son relationships, the other is about lost love. The father-son relationship theme throughout the book struck more than the lost love theme. I felt like I had to give you a little bit of the story to get to these themes; please accept my apologies if I gave too much spoiler. I tried to stop prior to giving it all away. That said, let’s talk about the story I think is the basis of this story.

First we get a glimpse into Henry’s relationship with his father was like; and then in 1986, we get a look into Henry’s relationship with his son. On the surface, both these relationships are very similar. However, as the story progresses, we realize Henry’s relationship with his son is actually different.

Times were WAY different in 1942 than they are now. Unless one is of an Asian background living on the west coast in 1942, I’m not really sure one has the ability to assess Henry’s maturity. See, Henry is first generation Chinese-American (Keiko is second generation Japanese-American). In Henry’s world he is considered a man at thirteen, and I have to believe he’s probably raised as such. Based on his father’s deep grasp on his home country’s value system, Henry is more than likely not your typical twelve or thirteen year old. He is being groomed to go to China and complete his education, he’s been groomed to be the man of the house (and actually has to become the man of the house after his father suffers several strokes), and more importantly, he’s the only one in his tiny family that speaks American. Think about this last one for a moment. His parents need him to translate for them, and he probably has heard and seen things way above his pre-teenage level than most kids see or hear. In his world, he fits in nowhere, so he has to figure out at a very young age how to not stick out and how to make it in America – a country that is HIS and not his father’s. And when he “bucks the system” that his father has set up, his father all but disowns him. Kids have two choices in situations like this – grow up fast or act out to try to get their father’s attention. Henry, I think, for the most part, chose to grow up, though I also think he acted out a bit as well.

Henry’s son compared Henry to his father, which was a realization that his own relationship with his son was not what he’d hoped over the years. It appears that because of his own lonely upbringing, Henry felt he was emotionally inept when it came to dealings with his son because of his own relationship with his father; and his wife was the thread keeping them together. Now that she was gone, Henry realized he had to connect with his son. With the boxes found in the Panama Hotel, and his search for the old record, he decides to share the search and the story about Keiko with his son and his son’s fiance (a woman he’d just found out about but had been his son’s fiance for several months). He is fearful how his son will react and does what he can to not desecrate the memory of his mother (recently deceased). Much to his surprise, his son is very accepting of the story and the need to find the record and even goes as far as finding with his fiance {Spoiler Alert} where Keiko is now living after all these years. A very different outcome from the way Henry and his father ‘left things.’

Henry’s son seemed to have seen his father in a completely different light when he realized there was so much about his father that he didn’t know. Throughout the story, he never questioned his father’s love for his mother, and was able to see that the man he called father had more depth to him than he’d ever considered. I couldn’t help but wonder if Henry’s father had opened up to him would that relationship been a bit different. We find out through Henry’s mother the hatred Henry’s father felt towards the Japanese was due to the slaughter of his family during the Japanese invasion into China; but that wasn’t something his father talked about and Henry at his age probably couldn’t come close to internalizing and emphasizing with his father’s hatred. Instead, he grew up thinking his father, the immigrant from China who didn’t speak “his American” wanted to be in China.. Maybe if his father had communicated more with him, Henry would have understood that maybe his father felt deep down that he abandoned his country and he wasn’t worthy of his son’s affection because he was less of a man; which may have changed the way Henry saw his dad and they’d have had a better relationship. Just a thought.

Let’s talk about Sheldon for a moment. Sheldon was a black street musician whom Henry befriended in his childhood. I got the sense Sheldon was many years older than Henry, but I can’t really remember if we ever got his age. Sheldon was the only one who accepted Henry’s feelings for Keiko. He was the complete opposite of Henry’s dad in his view of the Japanese and up to his dying day, he felt Henry had to fix the wrongs of so long ago in regards to Keiko. It is because Sheldon was playing in a Jazz Club with the Oscar Holden band that Henry and Keiko experienced the full magnitude of the country’s view on the Japanese prior to the mass evacuations taking place. Their first date was at this Jazz Club – though neither of them would have called it a date. When Keiko was taken away, Sheldon is the man Henry went to see playing on the streets. Sheldon played a mournful tune on his sax to empty streets while Henry felt emotions he’d never felt before and couldn’t really explain. In my opinion, over the years, Sheldon became the father-figure in Henry’s life for things that he couldn’t discuss with his father. In the end of the book, Sheldon is the catalyst for Henry having the guts to go to New York to find Keiko, much as he was the catalyst for Henry going to see Keiko in the camp a few states away.

Many reviews I’ve read talk about the lost love component of the story, and frankly, I believe the Henry-Keiko experience was just the catalyst for the father-son theme. I am sure there will be people who will disagree because Henry-Keiko was the more predominant story line. And let’s face it, they were the beautiful part of the story. I think because of this, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet will appeal to a wide range of readers – those that enjoy a good love story with a happy ending and those that enjoy a little bit of historical fiction. This book was an enjoyable read, one that took me a day and a half, and had me sobbing, laughing, feeling disgust at Henry’s father and the racism in our country at the time, and I have to admit, since I closed the book, I’ve wondered a few times what happened to Henry and Keiko?

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