February 19 will mark the 67th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which authorized the relocation of certain ethnic groups to internment camps. While the order applied to anyone with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry” (Japanese, Italian, German), Japanese-Americans were most affected by the edict. For the duration of World War II some 120,000 Japanese, mostly from the West Coast, were sent to relocation camps—in comparison to 11,000 Germans and 3,000 Italians. And of the Japanese imprisoned, some two-thirds were American-born, second or third generation citizens.
While our collective humiliation of our past xenophobia has been duly noted in most history books, a reminder will sometimes dredge such moments from their historical footnote status to help us really understand what complications existed at the time. These reminders force us to reconcile ourselves to the notion that we just might have been—like the majority of Americans at the time—supportive of the expulsion of Japanese-Americans from their homes. Such a reminder has come in the way of Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
On the face of it, Hotel is about the tender romance between Henry Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, and Keiko Okabe, a second generation Japanese-American (Keiko’s grandparents came from Japan). Both Henry and Keiko live in Seattle circa the 1940s, in Chinatown and Japantown (Nihonmachi), respectively. Both are scholarship students at Ranier Elementary, an all-white school where the other kids relentlessly harass the two Asian students. Finding comfort in their shared “otherness,” Henry and Keiko become fast friends and, at age 12, their friendship quickly takes on the sweetness of a pre-teen romance. Henry walks Keiko home from school and they sneak into jazz clubs together—indeed, Ford’s take on the 1940s Seattle jazz scene is one of the gems of this novel. Eventually, the two share a single, chaste kiss. When Keiko’s family is evacuated to a transitional internment camp just outside of Seattle and later, when the family is taken to a permanent camp in Idaho, Henry, at great risk, visits Keiko. He hides her family’s photographs, writes to her every week and promises to wait for her. Told in a split-narrative between past and present, the novel not only focuses on the ill-fated romance between the two kids at the time of Japanese-American internment, it also shows us the repercussions of that time.
The “present” time of the novel takes place in 1986. Henry Lee is in his late 50s and a recent widower—he did not marry Keiko, for reasons we don’t learn until the very end of the novel. Ostensibly, Henry has forgotten his childhood sweetheart, until the proprietor of the newly renovated Panama Hotel—an actual hotel in Seattle’s International District—unearths the forgotten belongings of Japantown’s citizens from the time of the evacuation. Allowed only two suitcases per person, many Japanese families hid their heirlooms in the basement of the hotel for safekeeping. (Ford’s “Author’s Note” in the beginning of the novel reveals that the Panama Hotel still houses the unclaimed possessions of at least 37 Japanese families.) When the hotel’s owner shows off a bright red and white parasol, one made from bamboo with orange goldfish painted over the red and white, Henry believes it was once Keiko’s. The revelation begins a string of other questions: What else of hers might he find down there? What else of her might he find?
At the heart of Ford’s debut is his reflective look at the devastating consequences of anti-Japanese sentiment. Racial profiling is nothing new, nor—when taking the treatment of Muslim-Americans post 9/11—is it necessarily extinct. However, Ford’s take is neither didactic nor simplistic. The abuses heaped on Asian-Americans in general, and Japanese-Americans in particular, were part of everyday life for children like Henry and Keiko. Because most white Americans could not distinguish between a Chinese person and a Japanese person, Henry’s father makes his son wear a button that says “I Am Chinese.” The button is as much for Henry’s own protection as it is a gesture of his father’s virulent anti-Japanese sentiment, one that stems from age-old enmity between the two countries. The button also comes in handy more than once. When Keiko, because of her ethnicity, is refused service in a record shop, Henry flashes the button. Though barely tolerated, he, at least, is allowed to make a purchase. When saying goodbye to her during the evacuation itself, Henry’s button saves him from being sent off with her.
Ford has some problems in the first third of the novel, where he struggles to work historical background into the narrative. One or two scenes are too obviously set up as opportunities to give readers a history lesson—perhaps a necessary one—but the threads aren’t worked into the fabric of the narrative seamlessly.
This, however, is a fussy point. From one of the most shameful periods in our history, Ford has created a memorable love story. Though fictional, the story of Henry and Keiko’s is real enough, making this debut—indeed—both bitter and sweet.
Jamie Ford gives a talk on Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet at a luncheon at the Holiday Inn Downtown at the Park Saturday, Feb. 7, at 11:30 AM. RSVP required by calling 721-2881. $15.