Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
The past acts as a tabernacle for experiences and memories. The past not only lives in Henry but also makes up Henry’s very nature. Henry is his past. Life’s faded memories shape choices. Author Jamie Ford builds the relationship between experience and conscience through Henry, his protagonist, in his novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Henry reflects on his experiences—with Keiko and with his father during the evacuation—before making difficult decisions. Henry’s experiences instruct his conscience.
Experiencing Keiko’s humanity forces Henry not only to accept but also to cherish Japanese culture. Henry’s acceptance and love of Japanese culture portrays a transformation of conscience. At the novel’s start, Henry partakes in the American prejudice against Japanese. The prejudice manifests itself when Henry’s childhood antagonist, Chaz Preston, jeers at Henry: “ ‘Oh, that’s right, you Japs don’t salute American flags, do you?’ Henry wasn’t sure which was worse, being picked on for being Chinese, or being accused of being a Jap” (17). Henry’s prejudice reflects the era’s American prejudice and origin; it stems from ignorance. Never encountering a Japanese until Keiko allows Henry to alienate the Japanese and unconsciously further the prejudice. After spending only one day with Keiko, Henry’s opinion metamorphoses. Keiko, and by extension her Japanese culture, transitions from alien to familiar for Henry. Henry’s feelings for Japanese culture allow him to establish connections with the Japanese residents of Nihonmachi. These physical and metaphysical connections require an indisputable recognition of humanity, a humanity that renders defending basic rights and respects essential. The connections that Henry establishes force his conscience to defend the Japanese culture of Nihonmachi. When he sabotages his father’s meeting with Mr. Preston, Henry reconciles his actions by reflecting on his experience with the Japanese people: “He’d never disobeyed his father so blatantly. But he had to. He had seen the fires in Nihonmachi and people burning their prized possessions . . . He needed to find Keiko” (90). Ford nurtures conscience’s transformation—inspired by experience—by creating new divisions between Henry and his father and opening the doors of Japanese culture to Henry. Henry’s priorities have changed; his malnourished experience and intimacy with his father weaken the patristic bond. As a result of the weak bond, Henry’s conscience faces no challenge or remorse. Contrastingly, Henry’s connections with Keiko, her family, and the Japanese-American population of Nihonmachi are fresh and intimate. These experiences compel Henry’s conscience to act in favor of Japanese-Americans. Henry furthers his inclusivity with the Japanese culture when he assumes a Japanese identity to gain entrance into Camp Minidoka. Henry considers the situation: “For once in his life, there was a benefit to Caucasian people thinking that he was one of them—that he was Japanese” (226). Allowing this view, Henry not only accepts Japanese culture, but also appropriates it. Henry ventures beyond his connection with Nihonmachi and connects himself as analogous to the rest of Japanese America. Henry’s experience with Keiko makes the strong connection to Japanese-American culture possible.
Similarly, Henry’s consistent defense of Nihonmachi and the Japanese culture makes the record’s presence at the hotel, along with other remnants of Japanese culture, possible. Henry, his conscience guarding Nihonmachi’s culture, delivers the caveat for traveling to China; his father must impede the sale of the Panama Hotel. Henry learns much earlier that the hotel doubles as a refuge for Nihonmachi’s cultural remnants. Henry negotiates: “I’ll go, but only on this condition . . . if you can prevent the sale, I will do as you wish, I will go and finish my schooling in China . . . don’t thank me, I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing it for me, for the girl, the one you hated so much” Henry didn’t know quite why. Or did he? The hotel was a living, breathing memory for him. (251) In stopping the sale of the Panama Hotel, Henry preserves the record and his connection to Japantown for decades. All of Henry’s childhood experiences contribute to the pinnacle of Henry’s character and conscience transformation. Henry moves from disdaining the Japanese to finally self-proclaiming himself as Japanese: “ ‘Yes! I’m Japanese.’ Henry bobbed his head. ‘Of course I am’ ” (64). Henry’s conscience alters his attitude about the Japanese dramatically. Henry loves Japanese-American culture because Keiko is Japanese-American.
Ford further validates experience’s power in forming the conscience through Henry’s love for Keiko and the physical choices that love impels him to make. Henry’s love for Keiko pushes him to make choices that express that love, despite the conflicts those choices may create. This connection between the emotions elicited by Henry’s romantic experiences with Keiko and Henry’s risky choices emerges at the novel’s beginning. Henry meets Keiko at Kobe Park after curfew. Keiko, unable to burn her family’s photos, requests that Henry keep them safe. Henry, more than willing to help Keiko, agrees after reflecting on his experiences and his feelings for Keiko: “Henry remembered the horrible scene in Japantown that afternoon, the photographer from the Ochi-Studio—visibly shaken. ‘I can hide them in my room. Do you have more?’ . . . Keiko hugged Henry for a brief moment. He found himself hugging her back. His hand touched her hair. She was warmer than Henry had imagined” (95-96). Henry, aware of the danger that comes with abetting Keiko and her family, chooses to hide Keiko’s photos and commits a crime in doing so. His love transcends law’s arbitrary fetters and rests among palpable truths. Henry’s conscience, after connecting the pain of the Japanese people to the pain of Keiko, instructs Henry to help Keiko. Henry cannot bear to think of Keiko, a girl he loves, as a girl who must undergo the same emotional trauma experienced by the photographer in Japantown.
Similarly, Henry makes conscientious choices influenced by his love for Keiko, aware that they may create familial conflicts. Henry returns to his Canton Alley apartment after shopping for Keiko’s birthday. When he walks into his house, he sees that his father has discovered Keiko’s photos. At the climax of this quarrel, Henry’s father throws Keiko’s photos out the window. The images of Keiko and her family falling to the earth flash across Henry’s mind. Henry expresses his love for Keiko: He turned to his father. “I’m leaving to get her photos. I told her I’d keep them for her—just until she gets back.” His father pointed to the door “If you walk out that door you are no longer part of this family. You are not part of us anymore. Not a part of me.” Henry didn’t even hesitate. He touched the doorknob feeling the brass cold and hard in his hand. “I am what you made me, Father.” He opened the heavy door. (185) Henry separates himself from his father and family and binds himself to Keiko and her family—a Chinese boy in a Japanese family, analogous to the way that Henry grafts and nurtures his Ume tree—a Chinese tree in a Japanese Park. Henry makes this decision thoughtfully—he is conscientious: his senses are heightened and he perceives much. His mind notes the cold brass and the weight of the door. The weight of the door represents the gravity of Henry’s choice. Henry’s conscience urges him to make a life-changing decision.
Ford culminates the idea that one’s experience instructs the conscience by depicting the reconciliation between Henry and his son. Henry’s experience with his own father makes him conscious of how he carries on a relationship with Marty, his own son. Henry makes the connection between his behavior and his father’s: “[H]e was his father’s son, and he could be equally stubborn . . . His father was a horrible communicator. After all the time he’d rebelled against his father’s wishes and his father’s ways, Henry hated the fact that he wasn’t that different form him at all—not where it mattered anyway” (209). Henry, aware of his father’s faults, realizes his own. The faults in the relationship between Henry and his father are the same faults in the relationship between Henry and Marty. This reflection moves Henry to work toward mending the problem: “Henry hated being compared with his own father. In Marty’s eyes, the plum hadn’t fallen far form the tree . . . that’s what I’ve taught by my example, Henry thought, realizing that having Marty help him in the basement might ease more than the physical burden” (84). Henry wants a good relationship with his son. Henry’s conscience, longing for good experiences with Marty, urges him to act on experience.
The past that lives within Henry lives within humanity. Henry’s struggle to reconcile the past by conscientiously shaping the future mirrors the struggle of every man. Conscience does not act alone in molding outcomes; it needs an acolyte. Just as the conscience instructs the hands and mouth, something must instruct the conscience. Experience speaks to conscience.
Don’t Do the Unthinkable, Just Do What’s Right: Henry’s Morality in Ford’s Novel
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the will to overcome it. Jamie Ford’s novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet shows this characteristic as a central element of its narrative. Henry is a Chinese boy who is living during World War ll, a time of racial ignorance. His father is a traditional and stern Chinese man who is loyal to his homeland. Henry meets a Japanese girl,Keiko, who he creates an unbreakable bond with. Unfortunately, his father disapproves because of her ethnicity and she is moved to a relocation camp. But Henry won’t quit until their flame is rekindled. Jamie Ford shows us that courage is not defined as saving the world, but doing what is right even in the face of adversity. Courage is demonstrated and celebrated in the novel when Henry hides Keiko’s family photographs for her, Henry’s mom secretly delivers Keiko’s letters to Henry, and Henry visits Keiko at the relocation camp.
Henry shows courage progressively throughout the book. One of the ways he shows courage is when he hides Keiko’s family photographs for her. Keiko asks Henry to keep her family photos so they would not have to burn them. She hopes to retrieve them after the war and Henry would not let her down. He takes the photos and hides them in a secluded area in his room, hoping he would be the only one who knows where they are. But one day he arrives home to see his parents in the living room with the family photos on the table. Henry knew the consequences if his parents found out even before Keiko handed him the photos. His parents are dismayed of his actions and Henry’s relationship and trust with his father is terminated. But these are only the consequences if his parents found out. His father says on page 183, “If the FBI find this here- in our home, our Chinese American home- they can arrest us. Take everything. They can throw us in jail and fine us for five thousand dollars for helping the enemy.” Even with the additional consequences, Henry is unfazed and continues on his pilgrimage of temerity. His belief in justice, even if it affects his family, never strays from its course.
Henry’s mom also shows how courage is a main theme in the novel. Because of Keiko’s race, her and her family are sent away to an internment camp. But Henry and Keiko continue to communicate to each other through the letters they write to one another.When Keiko’s letters arrive, Henry’s mother takes the letters and place them under his pillow instead of exposing his secret.Although she is a dedicated wife, she is also an intrepid mother. In the novel, it says, “But somehow Henry’s mother, sorting the mail first, found the letter each week and slipped it underneath his pillow. She did her best to be an obedient wife, to honor her husband’s wishes, but to look out for her son as well”(211.) Henry’s mom knew the great consequences if Henry’s father found out about her helping hand. Her husband has a deep hatred for all Japanese because of what they did to his people back in his homeland. He considers all Japanese to be just as evil as the ones that destroyed his native land.But she continues on without hesitation to deliver her subversive acts of justice. She never expects an award or even acknowledgement, she just does what is right.
Another way Henry shows how courage is portrayed throughout the novel is when Keiko is moved again to another relocation camp in Idaho; Henry wants to say a proper goodbye and see Keiko one last time. Even in the wake of his father’s stroke and disappointment, Henry decides that it’s best to go see Keiko. He knows how angry and frustrated his father would be if he finds out. Also, his father is in an unstable condition so Henry is the now the head the family. He says,” But Idaho, that’s too far, too dangerous…If something happened to me, who would take care of my mother. With my father bedridden, I’m the man now”(211).It is his job to take care of the family and maybe even provide for them now. Henry doesn’t even know where he would stay or how he would be treated by people of Idaho. The degree of racism and how he would survive is also uncertain. But his courage shines the light through the darkness. He knows what is best, but he also knows what is right.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said,” There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Courage is strength in the face of fear. We all possess courage, but not many of us actually use it. After all, it is much easier to start a challenge than it is to complete one, and people who have courage tend to see things through. Jamie Ford is asking us channel the inner “Henry” within us and to seek justice in difficult situations. Will you accept the call?
Japanese Internment and The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
As a historical novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet alludes to many occurrences, people, places, government acts, and organizations confirming the novel’s veracity by employing history. The book covers the period 1941-1986, a period of over forty years. During this time, Henry witnesses the tragedy of World War II, the tensions between Chinese and Japanese, the American and Asians. His eyes become open to racial prejudice and naked hate. The Japanese Internment highlights the tensions. At first, as a young pre-teen of only 12, he little understands the repercussions of falling in love with a Keiko, a Japanese girl. However, time never stops them from ultimately reuniting with one another after Ethel’s death. Historical accuracy is indispensable in constructing a novel where the author wants to make a story realistic and therefore believable. This technique is called verisimilitude, where a strong semblance of truth is present in the narrative. Some time references correctly applied are the Pearl Harbor Attack (1941), Executive Order 9066 (1942), Executive Order 9102 (1942), establishment of the Republic of China (1912), and Japanese Invasion of Manchuria (1931). These allusions assist in time location and establish historical veracity as Henry revisits his past and desperately clutches on to whatever remnants of people and things which are dear to him.
The author, Jamie Ford, skillful weaves in historic data through conversations that the characters have among themselves, journals and newspapers, laws and acts of government, and crucial events unfolding during World War II. The characters also represent different generations of Asian Americans, for example Henry being a young boy in the 1940’s, Henry’s father who is a first generation Chinese immigrant, and Marty who is Henry’s descendant. Different from them all, Marty freely expresses himself, intends to marry a Caucasian woman, and shares liberal views which contrast sharply to the traditional values that Henry espouses and cherishes. “The old Seattle landmark was a place he’d visited twice in his lifetime. First when he was only 12 years old way back in 1942 … the second time was today. It was 1986.” (Ford 3) Set mainly in Seattle, Washington, setting and place are also an important time locators for in the space of the novel (1942-1986), Ford mentions buildings, schools, and centers which are either still stand upright today or have been destroyed due to their decadent states and the toll of modernization. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which today is called the Panama Hotel, Nippon Kan Theater, Japantown, and Camp Minidoka (one of the Japanese internment camps), all substantiate historical claims of the novel. Seattle’s Nihonmachi or Japantown is a significant town in Seattle, Washington. Here, the love story between Henry and Keiko unfolds and shows the geographic and physical relationship between Japanese and Chinese in America.
Because of large numbers of Japanese immigrants, Nihonmachi is called Japantown in order to rival the Chinese’s Chinatown. Place clearly depicts separation and one sees in the novel that Henry and Keiko are separated. Henry, a Chinese, was forbidden by his parents to go to Japantown and so physical and racial boundaries are set. The Nippon Kan Theateris a theater located in what used to be Japantown in Seattle, Washington, which was celebrated for its plays in promoting Japanese culture. The Nippon Kan Theater was built in 1909 and closed at the time of the Japanese internment in 1942. Early on in the story, Henry mentions that the theater was boarded up and abandoned, mourning the relocation of the Japanese away from army bases. Camp Minidoka and Camp Harmony are Japanese camps where Keiko stays and where Henry visits her (Exploring Japanese American Internment). Both camps are historically accurate places and fits perfectly in the World War II period. Camp Harmony which was established in 1942 in Washington, housed arrested Japanese bound for internment. The Minidoka Camp or War Relocation Center in Idaho operated from 1942-1945, the last three years of World War II. Most of the Japanese-American captives in Camp Minidoka were imported from Washington – so it is by no stretch of the imagination that the residents of Japantown, Seattle, Washington were apprehended and driven to Camp Minidoka. The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, from which the novel derives its name, is a historic hotel constructed by Sabro Ozasa, a Japanese architect. The Panama Hotel situated in Seattle, Washington, was completed in 1910 and up until 1950, sheltered and entertained many Japanese immigrants. Panama Hotel, in Henry’s second visit has been rebuilt (since1985) and is once again open for business (Historic Panama Hotel).
Government’s acts, statutes and laws also enable the reader to classify time and confirm historic value of the novel. “Father believed in a government of the people but was wary of who those people were” (Ford 68). This novel, Hotel on the Corner of the Bitter and Sweet, does not embrace a very sympathetic view of governments. The characters all have some reason to mistrust the Chinese, Japanese, or American governments. Henry explains the origins of Chinese and Japanese migration, referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act banned Chinese immigrants from coming over into the US, cheapening labor, and taking jobs from Americans. This exclusion act is one of the first to openly discriminate against Asians in America. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 also opened the door to Japanese immigrants for since Chinese workforce was prohibited in the United States, then American enterprises who, as Henry explained, needed cheap labor got Japanese laborers to work for them. These historical facts also explain in part the reason for the racial tensions and general dislike in Japanese-Chinese relations in America. America’s Anti-Miscegenation Laws enforced since the mid-1800s also prevented interracial marriages (Anti-Miscegenation Laws). Henry himself mentions to his son, Marty who is going to marry a white woman that their union would have been impossible if they were in his day. These anti-interracial laws applied to all American minorities including Blacks, Indians, and Asians (Asian Americans and Anti-Miscegenation Statutes).
Governmental Executive Orders 9102 and 9066 worked against the Japanese-Americans during World War II (Robinson: By Order of the President). President Franklin Roosevelt issued the Executive Order 9102 in 1942 which instituted the War Relocation Authority which was empowered to remove all Japanese-Americans from their homes and place them in new ‘homes’ with the aim to move them away from key US military bases. The government feared that in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing of 1941 that Japanese Americans were conspiring with the Axis force comprised of Germany, Italy, and Japan (Attack on Pearl Harbor). Due to these suspicions, Japanese-Americans were imprisoned and then relocated from army bases. The Executive Order 9066 of 1942 was another order commissioned by the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, which in essence stripped Japanese-Americans of their rights to live where they please and consigned them to internment camps (Ng: Japanese American Internment). It must be noted that the NAS Seattle Airbase was in Seattle, Washington; therefore the relocation operations instigated against the people of Japanese ancestry were to move them from strategic military bases in light of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a major American military base (Pearl Harbor Review).
Organizations also provide a necessary key in determining historicity. Ford, using Henry, mentions in the novel the Mutual Broadcasting System, Hokubei Jiji, the Bing Kung Association, and the Chong Wa Benevolent Association which are functional and active during World War II. The Mutual Broadcasting System was a radio-based media company which from 1934 started disseminating news and entertained many with popular programs such as The Adventures of Superman. Henry is a passionate fan of the Mutual Broadcasting System because he enjoys listening to tales of his favorite character, Superman or as he calls him “the Son of Krypton.” In 1999 MBS had to end all airplay and closed its doors. Hokubei Jiji, the old newspaper, that Henry takes up and reads when he is in the basement of the Hotel, is historically accurate. The Hokubei Jiji or The North American Times existed from 1902 – 1942 and according to what Henry sees on the paper’s frontline, March 12, 1942 was truly its last issue. The location is in Seattle, Washington and this fact brings it into harmony as a reputable, historical novel. The journal acquired its name from the publisher who was Hokubei Jijisha. The Bing Kung Association was an organization located in Seattle, Washington which comprised of a network of Chinese gang members. Henry reports that his father also belongs to the Bing Kung Association. This group was notorious for multiple killings. Bing Kung is a sub-category of the Bing Kong Tongs which is headquartered in California. The Chong Wa Benevolent Association is a Chinese-American body set up since 1915 to promote the smooth networking between Chinese at home and abroad. It also serves as an ambassador of Chinese culture in America. China became a Republic on the January 1, 1912 which in effect ended years of imperial rule and dynasty. Henry’s father mentions the festive Chinese Republic Day as a comparison to the Executive Orders written against the Japanese. This link discloses the underlying resentment of Chinese against Japanese and expresses that the Chinese community triumphed over the Japanese internment. Henry’s father informs him more of the Chinese Republic Day and the revolutionary who lead China to republicanism, Sun Yat-sen. Being very nationalistic, highly regarding all things Chinese, Henry’s father represents the traditional Chinese immigrant with his prejudices against Japan and loyalties still tied to China. This national bigotry between both Chinese and Japanese is historic especially since during the time frame of the novel the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) is in progress (Seattle Times).
It is difficult to shake the embattled state of the times when reading Hotel on the Corner of the Bitter and Sweet. America and Japan are both engaged in war. In particular, the Ameri-Japanese conflicts and tensions which culminated in World War II have its roots in the long Sino-Japanese Warsand the Pearl Harbor bombing. “While Denny stood on the corner painting ‘Go home Japs!’ over American flags posted on windows, “I told you he was a Jap on the inside” (Ford 99). Tensions between America and Japan escalated when Japan, in an effort to annex it to its expanding empire, was on a mission to conquer lands. Likewise Japan’s ally, Germany (Hitler and his forces) had ambitions of expanding the German empire to include all of Europe which Japan, its ally, wanted to gain more territory and power with fresh aggression against China. Henry’s father, A Chinese-American reacts in anger as he hears about the fatal Japanese bombing. These actions did not improve the general sentiment toward Japanese in America for they now had to deal with Americans and Chinese-Americans who despised them. Although innocent of Japan’s actions, people of Japanese ancestry had to face further prejudice, racism, and anger because of the martial times. They were called a derogatory, “Japs.” Also, we clearly see that a differentiation was put between the Japanese identity and the American identity, for to be Japanese meant not being American. Patriotism sunk to showing prejudice toward perceived common offenders. When Henry sympathizes with the Japanese who were treated badly, his neighbor accuses him of being ‘a Jap on the inside.’ In sum, time, place, and infrastructure all play a part in authenticating the novel’s history, giving the reader ample proof that the events narrated in the story are non-fictional.
The novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet permeates with elements both bitter and sweet, full of memories and regret. After his wife’s death, Henry’s nostalgia gets the better of him as he travels to old places, rummages through old relics left by the supposed detained Japanese immigrants, and reflects poignant events in his life as a young boy living through the horrors of World War II. For Henry, history traces the past and paves the way for the future since he has arrived to be the man he is through past circumstances and decisions.
Anti-Miscegenation Laws http://www2.facinghistory.org/campus/rm.nsf/0/6279243C0EEE444E85257037004EA259>
Asian Americans and Anti-Miscegenation Statutes < http://academic.udayton.edu/race/01race/aspi02.htm>
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Bombing of Chongqing
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Exploring Japanese-American Internment
Historic Panama Hotel
Japanese American Internment Camps < http://www.bookmice.net/darkchilde/japan/camp.html>
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Seattle Times: Tea and Treasures (Historic Panama Hotel)
Second Sino-Japanese War
Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)
Sino-Japanese Relations- Conflict Management and Resolution
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