By: Jamie Ford
Review By: Alex Frank
At age 56, Chinese American, Henry Lee, has recently lost his wife, Ethel, to lung cancer. While filled with a sense of loss and grief, he also finds himself slightly relieved after her 8-year decline in health.
Now making an effort to get out of the house, the novel opens with Henry standing in front of the Panama Hotel which stood gateway between Chinatown and Japantown during World War II (a time when Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans did not speak to one another). Buried in the bottom of the hotel are the personal effects of 36 Japanese families who were forced to evacuate Seattle to be placed in internment camps in 1942. The effects finally resurface four decades later in 1986.
The find reminds Henry of his first love whose belongings may still reside in the bottom of the hotel. With permission from the new owner, Henry begins to scavenge through the remains, but he is not quite sure what he is trying to find. He just knows there is something to be found.
As suggested by the title, this novel is a whirlwind of contradictions. It’s melancholic yet uplifting, realistic yet imaginative, touching yet sobering, bitter yet sweet.
Throughout the novel the time placement in the story trades back and forth between Henry in 1986 and 1942 when Henry was 12 years old. His life story is told from multiple perspectives, and the reader gets an understanding of how Henry felt during the evacuation and what affect it has on him “in the present.”
I found Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to be incredibly insightful. It reveals the brutality and injustice of the Japanese arrests and the forced “evacuations.” But not only that. The novel also speaks true of racial prejudice for African Americans, Chinese, and Japanese alike.
The reader receives a rare view because Henry is Chinese rather than Caucasian or Japanese. While the Chinese were allies to the United States during World War II, many whites still treated Chinese decedents and immigrants with contempt. Throughout the novel, Henry is often mistaken for a Japanese citizen and treated poorly for it. Henry’s father is a Chinese nationalist who hates the Japanese with a passion and forbids Henry to socialize with them or travel to Japantown. Henry is in the middle. The whites hate him while he in tern is supposed to hate the Japanese. He is American yet he seems to be his own man with his own perspective and cause.
I enjoyed the novel, as it is a short read (285 pages). The chapters are also short, so the story moves along rather quickly. I will not lie though. Some parts are rather depressing in nature, but that is to be expected given the circumstances in the book. The combination of resentment of the Japanese from not only the government but also Henry’s family is very emotional as it contradicts all of Henry’s beliefs and feelings. I occasionally had to tell myself to keep reading with the hopes it would get better. I does…eventually.
If you’re a history buff, you will probably like it.
Overall Rating: 4