During World War II, the U.S. Government authorized the internment of approximately 150,000 Japanese Americans in wartime relocation camps. Sixty-two percent of those interned were American citizens, born and raised their entire lives in the United States. Americans with as little as 1/16 Japanese heritage faced voluntary internment.
While the conditions of the camps conformed with international law at the time, one is left wondering what those laws entailed. One internee described the camps as “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.” Wartime relocation lasted from 1942 to December 1944.
A bifurcated decision by the Supreme Court ended internment. In the case of Korematsu vs. the United States, the court declared internment constitutional on grounds that the need to prevent espionage trumped individual rights. The same day, the court released a second decision, Ex parte Endo, or Ex parte Mitsuye Endo, which declared that the U.S. Government had no right to detain any Americans of Japanese ancestry following Japan’s surrender and declaration of loyalty to the United States.
It was not until 1976 as a result of the “Redress Movement” championed by a younger generation of Japanese Americans that President Gerald Ford became the first president to declare the internment “a national mistake which shall never be repeated again.” A formal presidential apology would not be issued until 1991, on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a novel which recounts one Chinese American man’s memories and personal struggle with the deportation of his Japanese American childhood friend. On paper, Henry Lee appears to be a conservative Chinese American, descended from revolutionary parents who staunchly supported Chaing Kai-Shek and denounced Japan’s wartime attacks on China. But people are not always as they seem, even to those closest to them.
The reopening of the Panama Hotel in 1980s Seattle Japantown and the discovery of a treasure trove of belongings secretly stored by Japanese Americans before their internment awakens Henry’s recollections of the war era. Henry takes readers back to his youth, a time when both Japanese and Chinese Americans faced discrimination and harassment. Amidst this climate, Henry and Keiko Okabe nourish an innocent friendship and the flowering of first love.
The reader awakens to Henry’s mysterious past in tandem with his son Marty. Modern and Americanized, Marty lumps his father together with his traditional grandfather. Following the death of Mrs. Lee, however, father and son must come together. The discovery at the Panama Hotel provides them with a joint purpose, which prompts Marty to see his father Henry in an entirely new light.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a touchingly human story of love, memory, forgiveness, and undying hope. It is a teaching book, meant to bring into focus a too often forgotten event in American history.
At the same time, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet unfolds with quiet, stately imagery and simple, but artful prose, like the unfolding of a hand-painted paper fan.
While Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is not a particularly suspenseful book, Ford manages to convey a great deal of depth in his work while keeping his plot, characters, and prose accessible.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet provides a subtle reminder that in life few aspects and individuals are black and white, and that reality, rather, comes across in peaceful, at times maddening, hues of grey.
Interesting links to explore:
A frightening propaganda film by the War Relocation Authority: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A_Challenge_to_Democracy_%281944%29.ogv
Jamie Ford’s Blog:http://www.jamieford.com/
* The historic images provided above are public domain.