Study Guide

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

By Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Introduction

It all started with an "I Am Chinese" button.

Say what?

Allow us to explain. See, Jamie Ford came up with the idea for his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, from a story his father told about growing up during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, his father wore an "I Am Chinese" pin so people wouldn't assume he was Japanese and attack or harass him (source).

Published in 2009, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a tale of first love and loss (hence the sweetness and the bitterness), revolving around a Chinese American boy named Henry Lee who grows up in the midst of World War II and falls in love with a Japanese American girl named Keiko Okabe. Get ready for lots of adolescent awkwardness and sweaty palms. Luckily for Henry, Keiko likes him back, so they agree to be an item. Alas, because of the war and Henry's prejudiced traditionalist father, our two lovebirds are torn apart and end up falling out of touch—despite the purity of their true love. Sigh.

Then the story fast-forwards to decades later, when Henry Lee is an old man with a grown son of his own. The discovery of belongings left behind by Japanese American families at the Panama Hotel brings on a rush of memories, and Henry embarks on a journey to look for Keiko again, hoping to right the past.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet explores the price of war and how everyday lives are affected by large-scale conflict—not even young love is safe. That said, without giving too much away, it's also a story about hope and the power of love. In short, it's the best of times and the worst of times for Henry and Keiko, and we get to experience it all without risking our own precious little hearts.

What is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet About and Why Should I Care?

Let's talk history.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet deals with a past event that we've heard about again and again—World War II. Everyone encounters this big old war in history books or during classroom lectures, but we don't often think about how warfare actually affects the lives of everyday people, particularly those living outside the line of fire.

Henry, Keiko, and their families aren't fighting in the war or otherwise directly involved, but their lives get turned upside down anyway due to the culture of fear—particularly around the internment of Japanese American citizens—and prejudice that runs rampant during the war. It's critical for readers to see the small- and large-scale impacts of war in order to really understand the human cost associated with warfare.

Why is this so important? Well, war doesn't seem to be going away any time soon—the locations and armies change, but war just keeps coming back. So while we opened by saying, "Let's talk history," what we really meant was let's talk about the present. Henry might come from the past, but he has plenty to teach modern readers.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Resources


Jamie Ford's Corner
If you'd like to read more about author Jamie Ford and his other books—including the other historical novel he wrote that's set in Seattle—check out his website.

All Things Internment
Curious about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? Have we got the guide for you—no really, it's ours; we wrote it.

Articles and Interviews

Rooted in the Truth
Even though Jamie Ford didn't know it at the time, his childhood friend's father was sent to an internment camp just like Keiko and her family.

Becoming American
In an interview with NPR, Jamie Ford discusses writing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and his own family's stories of assimilation, including how his great grandfather (a Chinese man named Min Chung) came to America and decided to adopt the surname Ford.


An In-Depth Discussion
Have an hour to spare? Check out this in-depth discussion with author Jamie Ford about his novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.


Listen Up
Would you rather experience the sad but pure love between Henry and Keiko as an audiobook? Here you go.


Cover Art
The cover of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet shows young Henry and Keiko. Why do you think we can't see their faces?

On the Corner of the Panama Hotel
Jamie Ford posed for his headshot outside of (where else?) the Panama Hotel.

Things Left Behind
The finding of Japanese American belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel isn't something Jamie Ford made up—it really happened. Here's a photo of the basement when it was opened up.

Meeting Up
When Henry asks Marty and Samantha to meet him for tea at the Panama Hotel, this is where they end up.