BY MAUREEN FRANCISCO
“I’m sorry to say that I didn’t know anything about the Japanese internment until I came [to Seattle]. I had no idea it existed or that it actually happened,“ said Kevin Allen. He’s part of the IE’s InspirAsian book club, which started three years ago. On July 14, it brought four readers to a Seattle house, including myself to discuss the book “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford.
“I thought it was well-written,” continued Allen. “I like the interlocking stories of Henry and Keiko and switching back to the war years and 1986.”
While the love story between Henry, a Chinese American boy and Keiko, a Japanese American girl is a novel, what happened in the International District during that time period in the wake of Pearl Harbor is real. Racial profiling of Japanese Americans took place.
“A big part of the book I appreciated is that it talks about Japanese American internment,” said IE Editor Diem Ly. She said this is something history classes don’t teach, but an important time in history that shouldn’t be ignored. That’s just one of many reasons why the paper chose this novel to feature for its book club — including its serious message, local connections, and even the book’s author, Jamie Ford. He once lived near Seattle. Ly said his description of the International District was comparable to those she heard from elders who grew up in and around the neighborhood. “It’s the same as the memories of the people I talked to in the older generation, describing what it used to be like … including the theatres and jazz clubs.”
Ford also preserves history when it came to the Panama Hotel, a centerpiece for the book. The hotel became a home for Japanese immigrants and foreign travelers. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a government mandate forced thousands of Japanese Americans to relocate to internment camps. Many hid their belongings at the Panama Hotel. Visitors to the hotel today can see the personal items left behind by these families in the basement.
I was so moved by this book that I had to visit the hotel soon after finishing the novel. As soon as I stepped foot inside the Panama Hotel, the pages turned in my mind of that time period. In fact, when I visited one of the rooms, it contained the original furniture of that era.
I often frequent the International District. After going on the tour and reading the book, I will never look at the ID the same, having much more appreciation for its history.
Even though the book examines the treatment of Japanese Americans long ago, it explores a topic that continues to be debated today – what does it mean to be Asian American? Henry’s father enforced an English-only rule at home, trying to assimilate his son into western society. Ironically, Henry’s father spoke little English himself and forced Henry to wear an “I Am Chinese” button so as not to be mistaken for being Japanese. Despite this, Henry was still the target of bullying. “The boys didn’t care whether he was Japanese or Chinese,” commented Ly. “‘You’re just Asian. You’re different. You don’t belong here,’” she said of their taunts.
Book club reader, Bely Luu, could relate to Henry’s identity struggles. Luu is Chinese American, but born in Vietnam. Her family arrived to the U.S. when she was 9 years-old.
“I didn’t know how to make sense of it,” Luu said of the experience and in finding her identity in a new country. It wasn’t until a social work class in college when she was able to understand and appreciate her unique journey. “We all have different struggles.”
The book is a New York Times bestseller, bringing to light Asian American history and the experience that shaped it. Yet the message alone isn’t enough for Hollywood to turn the novel into a film, according to Ford. Race is still an issue. “The huge obstacle, sadly, is that I don’t have a Caucasian lead character,” Ford told the IE. “Which Hollywood typically needs to ‘mitigate the financial concerns.’ Ugh … Hollywood.”