Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford

Ballantine Books


Henry stared in silence as a small parade of wooden packing crates and leathery suitcases were hauled upstairs, the crowd marveling at the once-precious items held within: a white communion dress, tarnished silver candlesticks, a picnic basket—items that had collected dust, untouched, for forty-plus years. Saved for a happier time that never came.

The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.

From Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Book captures indelible imprint of first love

Those novels that entertain us, we like; those that move us, we love. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet will be loved by many.

The story opens in 1986, when the new owner of the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s International District discovers suitcases and boxes that have been stored in the basement for more than 40 years. They were left there by Japanese-Americans who were interned during the Second World War. A crowd assembles outside the hotel as the owner holds a press conference in an attempt to return the belongings to the descendants of those families. In the crowd is Henry Lee, a Chinese-American and recent widower. As the hotel owner displays some of the items, Henry is transported back to 1942, when he was a twelve-year old boy, living in Seattle’s Chinatown, and where he fell in love with Keiko, a Japanese-American girl.

On one level this is a star-crossed lovers’ tale with an ethnic twist, for there is centuries-old enmity between the Chinese and the Japanese communities, made deeper now by Japan’s brutal conquest of China.

Ford’s story slides smoothly between 1942 and 1986 with the fluidity of memory. He captures what it was like to live in that time in small, telling details: Henry’s father makes him wear a button to his all-white elementary school, declaring “I am Chinese.” (This is several months after Pearl Harbor.) In Nihonmachi (Japantown), Henry notices American flags decorating every home and storefront. His father also forbids him to speak their native Cantonese, even in their own home. He must now speak only English—which his parents do not understand.

There are some very sweet moments in the book (on the whole, it is more sweet than bitter): Henry practices a Japanese phrase to tell Keiko that she is beautiful, only to discover that she doesn’t speak Japanese. She's American.

It may be a little too sweet for some readers’ literary palates, and there are some coincidences that may strain readers’ credulity, but Henry’s story will move people.

Hotel has been chosen as the “Community Reads” book for this year’s Celebration of Literacy, and the organizers are to be commended for their choice, for this is a book that will speak to middle school students as well as senior citizens, capturing first love's indelible imprint on the soul that can last and color a lifetime.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 14, 2010.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet on Amazon here.