Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an absorbing story of hope and love. It is set against the politically tumultuous period of World War II, where we experience the alienation forces between the Chinese, Japanese and America people as they live together in the United States. Henry is a Chinese-American boy who lives in Chinatown, Seattle and is close friends with the only other non-white student at his school. That friend is Keiko, a Japanese-American girl who lives in Seattle’s Nihonmachi (Japantown) district.
The story very interestingly brings the foreign and age-old conflicts between China and Japan to US shores and tarnishes the family acceptance of any relationship, even though Henry and Keiko are both naturalised American citizens. With the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 and the declaration of war between the USA and Japan, there is an overwhelming division between the Japanese and all other communities. As a consequence Japanese immigrants are interned in camps, their personal belongings are stored in the Hotel on the Corner, The Panama Hotel, and their remaining properties and businesses are looted.
The story covers an aspect of the war that I hadn’t really appreciated, how Japanese immigrants were treated in the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
The relationship between Henry and Keiko is developed from the racial minority connection but grows into a genuine attraction and ultimately love. The strength of their relationship will be tested as it faces immense political and cultural forces that drive alienation. The efforts of how Henry tried to maintain his connection with Keiko, even visiting her in the camps in disguise, is very touching and well portrayed. The Japanese are relocated inland and he loses all contact, although he never forgets and never stops wondering what may have been.
So this is a gentle love story against all the odds. They created memories and moments in their short time together that will never be forgotten. A piece of his heart was forever given to Keiko.
The novel alternates between the 1940s and 1986. In 1986 the Panama Hotel is the centre of refurbishment as it has lain abandoned since it was boarded up during the war. When its doors are opened they discover the belongings of the interned Japanese people from 1942. Henry’s memories of Keiko come rushing back and he searches the belongings desperately looking for a memento, a rare record, that he shared with Keiko. He wonders and starts off on a mission to see if he can track her down or at least find out what happened to her.
I would recommend reading this historical fiction come love story.