It all started with an "I Am Chinese" button.
Allow us to explain. See, Jamie Ford came up with the idea for his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, from a story his father told about growing up during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, his father wore an "I Am Chinese" pin so people wouldn't assume he was Japanese and attack or harass him (source).
Published in 2009, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a tale of first love and loss (hence the sweetness and the bitterness), revolving around a Chinese American boy named Henry Lee who grows up in the midst of World War II and falls in love with a Japanese American girl named Keiko Okabe. Get ready for lots of adolescent awkwardness and sweaty palms. Luckily for Henry, Keiko likes him back, so they agree to be an item. Alas, because of the war and Henry's prejudiced traditionalist father, our two lovebirds are torn apart and end up falling out of touch—despite the purity of their true love. Sigh.
Then the story fast-forwards to decades later, when Henry Lee is an old man with a grown son of his own. The discovery of belongings left behind by Japanese American families at the Panama Hotel brings on a rush of memories, and Henry embarks on a journey to look for Keiko again, hoping to right the past.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet explores the price of war and how everyday lives are affected by large-scale conflict—not even young love is safe. That said, without giving too much away, it's also a story about hope and the power of love. In short, it's the best of times and the worst of times for Henry and Keiko, and we get to experience it all without risking our own precious little hearts.
Let's talk history.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet deals with a past event that we've heard about again and again—World War II. Everyone encounters this big old war in history books or during classroom lectures, but we don't often think about how warfare actually affects the lives of everyday people, particularly those living outside the line of fire.
Henry, Keiko, and their families aren't fighting in the war or otherwise directly involved, but their lives get turned upside down anyway due to the culture of fear—particularly around the internment of Japanese American citizens—and prejudice that runs rampant during the war. It's critical for readers to see the small- and large-scale impacts of war in order to really understand the human cost associated with warfare.
Why is this so important? Well, war doesn't seem to be going away any time soon—the locations and armies change, but war just keeps coming back. So while we opened by saying, "Let's talk history," what we really meant was let's talk about the present. Henry might come from the past, but he has plenty to teach modern readers.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a story about a man named Henry Lee and his memories of growing up during WWII, which is why the story switches from his current life (as an older man) to his childhood in the 1940s. So grab your finest time traveling pants and let's get going.
The book opens up with old Henry Lee standing in front of the Panama Hotel in Seattle, watching as news crews cover the latest story: The possessions of dozens of Japanese American families have been found in the hotel basement, left there since the Japanese American internment during WWII. Henry remembers his childhood and growing up during the war, along with how hard it was to be Chinese American because so many people were prejudice against Asians and considered him Japanese at first glance.
Young Henry goes to an all-white school and is bullied by other students. One day, a new kid shows up in class—a girl named Keiko Okabe. She's Japanese American and they quickly become best friends. Henry even takes her to the Black Elks Club to listen to his friend Sheldon play the sax, and afterward they buy the record of the live performance together. As the war progresses, though, it becomes clear that the government is cracking down on Japanese American citizens, and eventually it's decreed that all Japanese American people will be evacuated to internment camps. That includes Keiko and her folks. Oof.
Henry starts visiting Keiko at Camp Harmony and almost professes his love to her before she moves onto another camp in Idaho—but he chickens out at the last moment. His parents (especially his father), who hate Japanese people, become furious when they discover that Henry is hiding Keiko's family photo albums in their home so that they won't be destroyed.
When Henry refuses to throw the albums away, his father disowns him and stops talking to him altogether even though they live in the same apartment and Henry is only thirteen. Yikes. Then Henry goes with his friend Sheldon to visit Keiko at the new camp, where he ends up professing his love to her… and having his first kiss. Ooh la la. He asks her parents for permission to court her and promises he'll wait for her on the outside, no matter how long it takes. How romantic.
Over the next few years, Henry continues to write to Keiko religiously, but her responses are few and far in between. The girl who works at the post office—a Chinese American named Ethel—feels sorry for Henry and admires his tenacity. However, eventually Henry gives up on Keiko (assuming she doesn't want to talk to him) and starts dating Ethel instead. When his father is on his deathbed, Henry promises he's going to China to finish his schooling and will marry Ethel after he finishes. He then learns that his father has been intercepting his mail to and from Keiko—and that's why they've had a terrible time keeping in touch. What a turd.
Fast forward several decades: Henry is now an old widower whose wife Ethel has just died. His son Marty is getting married to a white girl named Samantha, and after Henry tells them about Keiko, they both are convinced he needs to track her down and get back in touch with her.
Henry goes to visit Sheldon at the nursing home where he's dying, and Sheldon tells him he has to fix things with Keiko—a dying wish that Henry takes to heart. In the end, Marty finds Keiko through some serious sleuthing and buys his father a plane ticket to New York City to visit her. Henry goes and shows up at Keiko's apartment, where she lets him in so they can pick up their friendship where they left it off so many years ago.