Henry Lee was standing at the corner of bitter and sweet. He arrived early that morning when he heard the news. As the day progressed more and more people joined him in the wait. They mulled around whispering in excitement over a discovery soon to be revealed.
Henry stood facing the old Panama Hotel. The building loomed large in his childhood dreams where there were no broken windows or graffiti. He knew the company that bought it had their hands full, but he was thankful they saw potential and renovations were forthcoming.
As the breeze lifted Henry’s thinning hair, he thought back to the time when the hotel symbolized a large red stop sign. He was forbidden to walk past the hotel and into Japantown. His father, a Chinese Nationalist, would kill him if he ever set one foot in the enemy’s territory.
Chinatown was Henry’s home and the hotel stood as a bead connecting the two neighborhoods in an endless strand. Even now, in 1986, one could still stand at the hotel and look down both streets to the horizon. Once filled with bright Japanese and English signs, Seattle’s Japantown sat patiently waiting for someone to replace the neon.
Japantown was the prosperous of the two rival neighborhoods when Henry was a child. They supported opulent services like Toyama Jewelry Store and Ochi Photography Studio where Chinatown was filled with food markets and laundries. Henry remembered how things sparkle on Maynard Street, but his own Chinatown was dust and dirt.
The hotel was off limits back then, too. It was owned by a Japanese family. Henry remembers looking into the lobby from the sidewalk the day they closed the doors. Would the grand chandelier still grace the sky like it did back in 1942?
Finally, there was movement on the hotel’s steps. The owner, a small woman, raised her petite hand to open a bright red and white, bamboo parasol decorated with orange koi. The crowd sighed and Henry’s heart skipped a beat. Locked away in the basement since 1942 were hundreds of trunks and suitcases belonging to Japanese families who were relocated to Army internment camps.
Thank you to my librarian friend who suggested this stellar debut by Jamie Ford. “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is everything one wants in a romantic historical novel.