Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, written by Jamie Ford and published in 2009, tells the story of a relationship between Henry Lee and Kieko Okabe, two middle school aged children caught up in the persecution that was taking place during World War II. The tale, told from the perspective of Henry Lee’s flashbacks to childhood, is sparked as a result of the renovation of the Panama Hotel, a hotel that is metaphorically on the corner of “bitter” and “sweet.” The tale not only discusses the relationship between the two children, but follows them through the intricacies of dealing with an intercultural friendship, especially one considered so dangerous, during the time of cultural persecution and internment following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Henry Lee is the American born child of Chinese immigrants, while Kieko is the American born child of Japanese immigrants; the Panama Hotel is on the corner of the dividing line between Japantown and Chinatown, offering the perfect location for children of both worlds to play together, in spite of the fact that their parents would never think of talking to each other if they were to see each other on the streets. Henry initially keeps his friendship from Kieko from his family because he knows that they will not approve of his relationship between the girl, believing her to be tainted as a result of her heritage.
The characters of Henry and Kieko are used as vessels for explaining not only the racial hatred and persecution of individuals of Asian and Asian American descent during this time of turmoil, but are utilized as a means of describing the pressures faced by children during this time, showing how they must attempt a clear social balance between what society wants of them, how others respond to them, and what they know in their hearts and minds are the right actions to take. The book is designed to discuss these complex relationships during such a time of turmoil, working to explain not only the difficulties of life for both races during this time, but the difficulties of forming intercultural relationships and the turmoil that such issues caused. Henry, though originally only twelve in his flashback narrations, is in his fifties at the time that such narrations are being recapped. The intricacies of the relationships described are from the perspective of twelve year old Henry through the eyes of fifty year old Henry, as opposed to simply a retelling of the information from the perspective of the younger self, a tactic far more common in flashbacks.
As a result of this tiny distinction, the flashbacks to twelve year old Henry are often written in a manner that seems to be entirely too perceptive and far too self-aware for a twelve year old, detracting from the tale somewhat. In spite of this, there are two important matters to consider; when no longer twelve, one forgets what it is like to be twelve, so it is possible that this seeming misperception is entirely accurate, clouded by the mind of the reader and not as a fault to the tale itself. The second matter to consider is that as a man in his early to middle fifties, Henry’s self-reflection, sparked by the remodeling of the Panama Hotel, is not abnormal for the stage of life that he may be placed in. The remodeling of the Panama Hotel is not important in and of itself, but rather is a means to an end, a time capsule that serves to transport the story back and forth across the decades, allowing for the reader to easily comprehend that which is being discussed.
The Panama Hotel, though not central to the true meat of the story, is essential to the story itself. It is the place where Henry and Kieko meet to play after school, it is the place where Kieko’s belongings and pictures are stored as she leaves to go to the internment camp, it is that which Henry utilizes as a bargaining chip with his father, demanding that it not be sold as the only reason he is willing to go back to China to finish his traditional, formal education, and it is where Henry stands, approximately forty years later, seeing the hotel get renovated, seeing all of the items left behind by those who were interred, which sparks him to recall the past, the memories with Kieko, and the issues that were present during the time. The Panama Hotel is the place of memories, acting as a cornerstone and a catalyst, prompting Henry to recall his past life while at the same time spurring him on to take future action. The hotel, like the memories that it serves to evoke, are bittersweet. Henry, who has lost touch with Kieko over the years, as a result of the memories that seeing her things being brought forth from the basement of the Panama Hotel evoked, obtains his son’s assistance in tracking Kieko down.
Henry, now a widower, goes to meet Kieko in New York, wishing to see her, to speak with her, unsure of what he is looking for, but knowing that he feels a need to see her once more. Their conversation is casual and surface deep at first, until Kieko brings up a compliment that Henry gave her so many years ago; she starts the sentence and he finishes it. The tale leaves the reader to imagine that Henry is about to embark on the life that he would have lived, if not for the war, the internment, and the beliefs of the society in which they both lived. Hinted at in the flashbacks to their time in school, the friendship between Kieko and Henry could have blossomed into something more, if they were just a little bit older; now far older and, one would hope, far wiser, the close of the book leaves the reader to feel as though, in spite of the fact that the majority of the memories that were conveyed by Henry regarding their childhood were bittersweet, that his golden years may have far more “sweet” than “bitter” to them. Not many books are written about this time in American history, and far less are written from the perspective of children who were forced to live through it, and who were adversely affected by it.
Ford’s tale is unique because not only does it address the matter from the perspective of the child and the adult, it works to address the matter from the perspective of two outsiders looking into society, creating a perspective that is unlike any other. Ford offers insights into the myriad cultural nuances that would not be visible to anyone who was unfamiliar with the Chinese and Japanese traditions so common during this time, allowing the reader to feel like an outsider, in a unique turn of events considering the subject matter, while at the same time, making the reader feel as though they are a part of it all. The juxtaposition of ideas, the messages that Ford attempts to convey, and the metaphors and symbols chosen as a means of telling the story all serve to create a cultural tapestry that should be read by one and all. The careful blending of broad descriptions interspersed with a detail here and there, work to ensure that the reader stays captivated throughout the entire tale, all the while drawing the reader in, teaching them the ways of the world during this time, and serving as a means of explanation and acceptance of the past.