Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 4:38pm


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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford
Ballantine Books HK$192

Jamie Ford's debut novel will do little to change the minds of readers unconvinced that 12-year-olds can fall in love - despite his best efforts. Ford tries too hard, too often with this story about a Chinese boy in Seattle's Chinatown who befriends (and falls for) a Japanese schoolmate during the second world war.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet introduces us, several decades later, to a now middle-aged Henry Lee, when the sight of a Japanese parasol at a long-dormant hotel sparks memories of his puppy love. Other events have happened since 'the war years': 'a lifetime', Ford writes. 'A marriage. The birth of an ungrateful son. Cancer, and a burial.'

The narrative flips back and forth between the early to mid-1940s and 1986, when the recently widowed Henry tries to track down his parting gift to sweetheart Keiko: an Oscar Holden jazz record, bought for a birthday, lying in the hotel basement among the packed-away belongings of Japanese internees.

Beneath the frame of this love story Ford's novel navigates a shameful episode in American history, particularly hard to swallow in retrospect; and it is difficult to read about US suspicions of Japanese Americans then without considering American attitudes towards Arab-Americans at the high-water mark of post-September 11 fervour. The novel's approaches to racist sentiment then, especially as experienced by Henry as a bullied Chinese child 'scholarshipping' at the all-white Rainier Elementary School, cut through the more syrupy writing with a clean intensity.

But Ford sometimes stumbles in his efforts to contrast bitter and sweet. Hotel is easily digested, often because it becomes too predictable. The author reaches for metaphors about broken records, for example, or breaks up phrasing to drive home an especially poignant moment. Tender details become saccharine and the narrative's foreshadowing aches for subtlety.

The book also asks the reader to believe a few near-impossibilities, narrative and otherwise: the chance that lunch-lady Mrs Beatty, for whom Henry scrubs dishes at Rainier, would be working weekends at an internment camp; the likelihood of searching for and locating a long-lost friend via the internet in the 1980s. But if the elements of Henry's quest to see Keiko, as an adolescent and later in life, didn't fall together with such convenience, how else would Hotel reach its happy ending?

Also convenient, but well played as a device to move the narrative and complicate the issue of race in the novel, is the character of Sheldon, a sympathetic black saxophonist who performs on street corners along Henry's route to school. His musings on race relations, love and jazz serve as straightforward missives to the reader of what Ford tries to impart in the surrounding narrative. Unfortunately, the language afforded Sheldon runs borderline stereotypical; for that matter, the lines given to Henry's immigrant parents do too (though, for the most part, it is understood the parents are speaking in Cantonese).

Ford grew up near Seattle's Chinatown and is of Chinese descent; his great-grandfather adopted the western name 'Ford' after emigrating to San Francisco in 1865. The author's understanding of Seattle and of the complicated layers of generational difference - a favourite trope of writers dealing with immigrant American lives - comes through in Hotel with a comfortable authority. He explores both Henry's attempts to reconcile his relationship with his late father, a stern Chinese nationalist, and with his very American son, a soon-to-be college graduate.

In terms of storytelling and technique not much in Hotel hasn't been done before, or done better. But the notion that a long-sought joy rooted in an ugly period of history can be recovered, like parasols or 78rpm records in a forgotten storeroom, is certainly a sweet idea to indulge.