hotel-of-bitter-and-sweet

Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009). 290 p.  ISBN 9780345505330

This is a story that deserves to be told and retold many times and in numerous ways.

Here’s the gist: soon after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that declared particular areas of the United States to be military zones, resulting in the removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to so-called “relocation camps.” Most of the relocated were American citizens, many of them born in the United States. And the “relocation camps” were in fact prison camps in the most austere surroundings. Indeed, some of the camps consisted of nothing but barren land and barbed wire. The internees, known euphemistically as “evacuees,” had to build their own prisons.

 

Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009). 290 p.  ISBN 9780345505330

This is a story that deserves to be told and retold many times and in numerous ways.

Here’s the gist: soon after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that declared particular areas of the United States to be military zones, resulting in the removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to so-called “relocation camps.” Most of the relocated were American citizens, many of them born in the United States. And the “relocation camps” were in fact prison camps in the most austere surroundings. Indeed, some of the camps consisted of nothing but barren land and barbed wire. The internees, known euphemistically as “evacuees,” had to build their own prisons.

The shameful way the U.S. government treated its residents and citizens of Japanese origin was matched only by the glee and support of the Chinese in the United States. Because of Japan’s 20th century history of atrocities in China as the Japanese government and its military (not its people) attempted to annex China in parts, the Chinese here long harbored acute animosity toward the Japanese, whether they be in Japan, occupying China, or eking out a living for their families in the United States as loyal Americans.  The animosity of the Chinese towards the Japanese knew no bounds, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor the Chinese wore badges or posted signs on their homes and in their shop windows stating “I am Chinese.” What short memories the Chinese in the United States have.

The Chinese in the United States were perceived, in the late 19th century, as uncivilizable heathens who took jobs away from “real” Americans and were effectively excluded from immigration to the United States from 1882 until 1943, when the United States needed China’s support in its war with Japan. Although the Chinese in America built the Transcontinental and Union Pacific Railroads, although they developed California agriculture by constructing levees that no one here had ever seen before, although Chinese immigrant Lue Gim Gong developed the cold-resistant orange that made Florida the center for citrus-growing in America,  and although a Mr. Bing, immigrant from China, reportedly developed the now-popular bing cherry, all were Yellow, a peril to hard-working Whites who also immigrated from poor places like Ireland and wanted the menial jobs the Chinese were willing to do. Anti-Irish; anti-Catholic; anti-Black; anti-Democrats, anti-slavery, pro-slavery: whatever, the United States had a long history of classifying and then excluding people. And so did the Chinese.

Chinese and Japanese: they all look alike to some people. And thus, during WWII, when our Japanese-American citizens were being rounded up for removal to prison camps, their incarceration was, to the Chinese here, but one more kick to the Japanese who were creeping too fast across China.

Some people’s inability to distinguish Japanese from Chinese affected my Chinese-American family, but only twice that I know of. In one instance, a Eurasian cousin was in her backyard in a suburb of Los Angeles when her neighbor told her he did not want her living next door to him. “I fought you people in the war,” he told her, to which she replied, “You fought CHICAGO in the war?”

Soon after Pearl Harbor, my China-born father was in Chicago’s Union Station when two well-dressed, hatted, White men approached him. The exchange went something like this:

First Hat: Show me your passport.

          Father: Show me YOUR passport.

          First Hat: I don’t have to show you my passport. I’m an American.

          Father: I don’t have to show you my passport. I’m an American.

          Second Hat: Prove you’re an American.

          Father: Prove YOU’RE an American. 

And father walked away contented. But he never got over his own animosity towards the Japanese, railing at me for years for buying a Toyota (“The Japanese use your money to buy bullets to kill Chinese.”) and a Sony Walkman. He had departed from China as the Japanese army moved into Canton, his last memory of his home. But he did not have a problem my Japanese and Japanese-American friends.

Jaime Ford, the author of this book, is the great-grandson of an immigrant from China who adopted the surname Ford. The novel is based loosely on the life of his own father in Washington state.

This novel is a bit contrived: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy maybe gets girl back (read the book and find out for yourself). There are too many contrivances, such as:

-the main character is a 12-year old Chinese boy whose parents send him to an all-White school so he will become American, and where he is bullied. His father, who does not know English, tells him to speak only English from now on. Even his mother does not speak English;

-when the boy, Henry, turns 13, his parents intend to send him to China to be educated in a language they refused to let him speak at home so that he would become American; now he has to become Chinese;

-Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and the Japanese, including Henry’s American-born high-school Japanese girlfriend, Keiko, are sent to internment camps;

-with the help of his friend Sheldon, a Black street musician, Henry manages to infiltrate Keiko’s internment camp and spend the night with her family.

Throughout the story, what is lost is found, what is found is lost. The story is told in 1986 when Henry is a widower with a college-age son who has a White fiancé, and in flashbacks to 1942. Henry alternates, annoyingly, between speaking perfect American English and FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) English. And the novel itself reads sometimes as a book for children and at other times as one for adults.

Ford writes in social network English: broken sentences, statements without beginnings or ends. There used to be a distinction between how one spoke and how one wrote. No longer (as Ford might have said---or written). He also Romanizes Chinese words in an alternation of Cantonese and Mandarin. Henry would not have known Mandarin, so the author’s use of “Chinshan [now spelled Jinshan]” as the Cantonese name for America should have been recorded as “Gum Saan.”

The hotel of the title is the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s Little Japan, aka “Nihonmachi.” Many of the soon-to-be internees store their precious belongings in the hotel’s basement, and the hotel is boarded up and abandoned for decades before a new owner finds all that stuff in the basement decades later, allowing elderly Henry to begin his story. Such things have happened, but they really happened and were not invented to create a long story that gets increasingly unbelievable and boring.

Parts of this novel are both charming and captivating, such as some of the scenes where Henry interacts with Keiko and her family. Other parts, such as Henry’s meeting and accepting his son’s non-Chinese fiancé, who is a wonder at cooking Chinese food, is forced. Too many issues are hinted at but not sufficiently probed, such as racism, the generation gap, school bullying, language use, education, Chinese customs, life in Chinatowns. Readers not familiar with those issues might either be bewildered or simply gloss over them. Jamie Ford knows what Jamie Ford knows, but others do not necessarily share his insights.

Conversely, readers who do not have memories of events and histories that the author and I share might have an entirely fresh take on the book and its story and appreciate it on a completely different level.

The Japanese-Americans were not as passive and accepting of “evacuation” as Ford presents them. The story of the internment of the Japanese-Americans is well told in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar: a True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War (1973), an historical treatment; and in John Okada’s No-No Boy (1976), a novel about male internees who refused to both join the U.S. military and take an oath of allegiance to the United States, a requirement of no other ethnic group in the United States. And then there was the highly-decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army, comprised completely of Japanese-Americans.

The history is very complex but is only suggested by this book.

Raymond Lum is Librarian for Western Languages in the Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University. In 2004, he was a recipient of the Harvard College Library’s Carol Ishimoto Award for Outstanding Service. The award had been established by his library colleague, Carol Ishimoto, with reparations paid to her and other former Japanese-American internees in 1988 by the U.S. government as recompense for their being interned. Carol’s family had been assigned to a horse stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California.  

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