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There’s something dark in the basement

by Mark Schreiber

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, by Jamie Ford. Ballantine, 2009, 320 pp., $24 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Mark Schreiber “Bitter and Sweet” is not just the intersection of two streets in Seattle, but a fair description of the story behind the title. It is 1986, and Henry Lee, a retired draftsman born in the United States to Chinese parents, happens to be passing by the old Panama Hotel, condemned for demolition, when he learns of the discovery of a cache of unclaimed possessions in its basement, apparently left behind when the city’s Japanese- American population was “relocated” to internment camps in 1942.

Gaining access by claiming to be of Japanese ancestry, Lee begins to sift through the dusty artifacts, and the narrative undergoes a Proustian flashback to 1942, when 12-year-old Henry is obliged to wear a badge that reads “I am Chinese,” to distinguish himself from the hated “enemy.”

At Rainier Elementary school, such pins are not necessarily effective; the only two Asian students, Henry and his Japanese-American classmate Keiko Okabe, are frequently harassed by white bullies and cling to one another for emotional support.

Henry’s befriending of Keiko incurs the wrath of his manipulative father, a truly nasty piece of work who exhorts his son to become Americanized on one hand but sees nothing contradictory about also insisting that Henry accept the ethnocentric biases brought over from the old country. For Henry to befriend a Japanese American, even someone as well-assimilated as Keiko, is in his father’s view equivalent to giving aid and comfort to the country that has invaded China. He absolutely won’t stand for it.

Henry displays a remarkably stoic demeanor for a 12-year old, and author Ford — an American of Chinese ancestry — writes well when dwelling on the complexities and contradictions of Chinese-American family relationships, and presenting the disintegration of Seattle’s Japantown through Henry’s eyes, clouded as they are by a bad case of puppy love for one of its inhabitants.

After Keiko and her family are relocated to Idaho, Henry raids his savings to buy a bus ticket to visit her in Camp Minidoka. In pouring rain, they meet on opposite sides of the fence:

“So you came all this way, all those miles, just to tell me goodbye?” Keiko asked. “No,” Henry said, feeling fuzzy. He was leaning in, his forehead pressed against the cold metal wire; if there was something sharp there, he didn’t feel it. All he felt was Keiko’s cheek, wet from the rain, as she leaned in too. “I came to do that,” Henry said. It was his first kiss.

While this and other episodes don’t come across as entirely plausible, Ford’s central narrative of the bitter and sweet love between two Asian-American children on opposite sides of the barbed-wire fence works because its young protagonists exhibit a great nobility.

Their struggles recall historian Norbert Muhlen’s observation that teens drawn toward Anne Frank’s famous diary see her less as a victim of Nazi persecution than as a generic victim, “the prototype of all youth — helpless, imprisoned, at the mercy of elders, defiant of the outside world and terrified within.” For this reason, “Hotel” is likely to appeal to teens as well as adults.

Throughout, “Hotel” maintains a focus on minorities, with white Americans relegated to the margins. Henry and Keiko’s befriending of Sheldon, a black jazz saxophonist, completes the circle. All three are victimized by a white-dominated society in which Asian kids are bullied by white classmates, the black musician is harassed by white cops and white soldiers oversee the incarceration of Japanese-Americans at relocation camps.

By the time we rejoin Henry decades later, although many racial and social barriers have fallen in the aftermath of World War II, he is still struggling to exorcise the personal demons brought by his crushing family life and a love perhaps lost forever.