“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” was recommended to me a few years ago, when I was looking for a book to read for our book club. In the end, I chose “The Help” and put this book on my mental shelf. I forgot about it, until a few weeks ago when it was once again recommended. So, I borrowed it from the library onto my kindle, and jumped feet first into Seattle, WA. 1942.
The book opens with Henry Lee as a grown man standing in front of an old Japanese landmark, the Panama Hotel. During renovations, the new owner finds a basement full of Japanese families’ possessions that were hidden when they were forced from their homes. The sight takes Henry back to his childhood. A place where his traditional Chinese family will have nothing to do with the Japanese families who live in the next neighborhood over. Henry’s father spends every moment trying to think of ways to assist with the Chinese war against Japan raging in his homeland. Henry, however, finds an unlikely friend and ally in Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American girl who is the only other asian in an otherwise all white school. They form a bond that is unbroken by her family’s relocation to internment camps.
In the opening pages of the book, as Henry is remembering his childhood, he also recalls his son and wife, Ethel. So, while reading the sweet story of childhood love and adventure, you know with a certainty that somehow this is not a lasting relationship. The questions linger as you read. Does Keiko not make it through? Does Henry finally submit to his Chinese parents’ rules? Does somebody break faith with the other? How does Henry end up with Ethel? But, you are willing to keep reading and find out what happened because he speaks of Ethel with such love and reverence. Somehow, he doesn’t settle for a second choice, but is given a second chance at happiness.
Although a main theme of the book is the treatment of the Japanese during World War II, it is not all there is. My favorite character of all is “Sheldon, a sax player twice Henry’s age who worked the street corner, playing for the tourists’ pleasure and pocket change. Despite the booming activity at Boeing Field, prosperity didn’t seem to reach locals like Sheldon. He was a polished jazz player, whose poverty had less to do with his musical ability and more to do with his color. Henry had liked him immediately” and I felt the same way.
I will share with you one of my favorite parts of the book. It is the day that all of the Japanese in Seattle are rounded up and sent by train to the Puyallup fairgrounds which is set up as a temporary internment camp. “He and Sheldon walked all the way to the steps of the Nippon Kan Theater, across from Kobe Park and in the shadow of the Japanese-owned Astor Hotel, which stood silent like an empty coffin. The prettiest part of Japantown, even vacant as it was, looked beautiful in the afternoon. Cherry blossoms covered the sidewalks, and the streets smelled alive.
‘What are we doing here?’ Henry asked, as he watched Sheldon open his case and take out his saxophone.
Sheldon slipped his reed into the mouthpiece. ‘We’re living.’
Henry looked around the deserted streets, remembering the people, the actors, the dancers, the old men gossiping and playing cards. Children running and playing. Keiko sitting on the hillside drawing in her sketchbook. Laughing at Henry. Teasing him. The memories warmed him, just a little. Maybe there was life to be lived.
His ears perked up as Sheldon drew a deep breath, then began a slow wailing on his sax. A sad, melancholy affair, the kind Henry had never heard him play on the street or in the clubs. It was heartbreaking, but only for a moment. Then he slipped into something festive- something up-tempo, with a soul and a heartbeat. He played for no one, but at the same time Henry realized he was playing for everyone.”
I love the reminders that are woven through this book that there is always life to be lived. No matter how bleak the outlook, keep living the life you have been given. Tomorrow may be different from today.
This is a book of reconciliation. Of lives lived well. Of memories that should not be forgotten. Of friendships that are not hindered by time and race. Of love, true and lasting. Of joy and grief. Of life and death. If you are in the mood for such a book, then I recommend this one to you.