As a man now approaching 6o years old, Henry Lee wanders into the old Panama Hotel in Seattle where a new owner seeks to revitalize the old, once-grand hotel that stood on the border between Seattle’s Chinatown and Japantown. The owner has discovered a trove in the basement. It seems the basement had been used as storage for the belongings of many Japanese families who were sent off to internment camps at the beginning of World War II.
The owner pulls out a parasol he found and shows it to Henry. Henry stands stunned. He is certain it is hers. He is certain that the parasol was Keiko’s. He hasn’t seen Keiko in fifty years but will never be able to forget their love; a love from so long ago.
If you’re looking for more than just great entertainment, try Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The book is exceptionally well written and tells a sad, and yes, bittersweet tale of powerful and tragic love. When we are young, love can only be powerful.
Henry flashes back to his Seattle childhood of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. His Chinese parents send him to an all-white school so that he can become “truly American.” Henry hates it there because he is the only Chinese student, and he is bullied, ostracized, and friendless. His only oasis is his job in the cafeteria kitchen where he can work late so as to avoid the bullies on his long, lonely walk home…
Until young Keiko comes into his young teenage life. She is Japanese, and, too, is bullied and without friends at the otherwise all-white school. She gets assigned to kitchen duty and her and Henry begin to develop a bond that becomes deep and powerful. Of course, it is a forbidden love. In the world of Seattle in the 1940’s, the Japanese and Chinese hate each other and have a longstanding historical confrontation that cannot be overcome. Telling their parents is, most-assuredly, out of the question.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, America, and especially Seattle, is frightened and hysterical that Japan will attack the west coast of the United States. Japanese-Americans are rounded up and sent far inland, as far as Oklahoma, to internment camps to wait out the fate of the war.
For a while, Keiko is close and Henry manages to travel to see her and remain in contact, and in love. They make one another a solemn vow, a forever type of promise, and know in their hearts that it will be fulfilled come the end of the war. Soon, however, Keiko, and her family are sent hundreds of miles away and, through the painful destiny of missed messages and unfortunate events, they lose touch. Henry eventually marries a Chinese-American girl and settles down to a life in Seattle after the war.
Henry, now nearly 60, wanders the streets of Seattle a widower and estranged from his only son. He ventures into the hotel’s basement and discovers the belongings of Keiko’s family. So begins another journey for Henry. It is a journey that just may bring him back to a long-ago time and a long-ago love.
This story goes beyond mere entertainment. It pulls at our souls and reminds us of the enduring, and haunting, power of young passion; of young love; of choices made; of hope; and of redemption.