Because much of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet deals with Henry Lee's memories of his childhood, particularly his first love, the entire book is tinged with nostalgia and loss. For example, when Henry watches items being pulled out of the Panama Hotel's basement, he's flooded with memories:
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, among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten. (1.18)
It's obvious that this story isn't being told in a clinical, unemotional tone—it's full of wistfulness and strong emotions. Notice the sentimental words tucked into the above passage: "treasures," "his own broken heart," and "never forgotten." The book is filled with language like this, reminding readers the hard though life may be at times during Henry's childhood, he's ultimately quite fond of these early years with Keiko.
Nothing says coming of age quite like choosing to follow your heart despite your father's threats to disown you if you do—which is exactly what Henry does in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. When Henry falls in love with Keiko against his father's wishes, instead of caving to his dad's desires, he starts living by his own principles and doing what he believes is right, even though this means risking alienation from his own family. Is it an easy journey? Nope—but growing up never is.
Most of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet takes place in the 1940s during World War II, and while the characters are made up, the book accurately describes the heightened tensions of the time and how hard it was to be an Asian American kid during a period of great discrimination and fear mongering. Even though Henry is Chinese American (and not Japanese), he still has to deal with a lot of hatred from strangers, plus he has to watch people mistreat Keiko and her family simply because of their Japanese heritage. And all the stuff about internment camps? Totally real.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet refers to the Panama Hotel, and the descriptors of both "bitter" and "sweet" are a shout-out to how emotionally charged the place is. It's so emotionally charged, in fact, that we dedicate an entire page in our "Symbols" section to unpacking it, so you should probably check it out if you haven't already. The quick and dirty version we'll offer up here is that Henry's memories of Keiko—which in many ways center around the Panama Hotel—are both sad and wonderful at once. Henry and Keiko's relationship is far from simple, and the title references the complications that bring them together… only to tear them apart.
The book ends at the moment when Henry and Keiko meet again after so many years, and he starts to say the one Japanese phrase he knows to her—the one Sheldon taught him so many years earlier that means, "How are you today, beautiful?"
They stood there, smiling at each other, like they had done all those years ago, standing on either side of that fence.
"Oai deki te…" She paused.
"Ureshii desu," Henry said softly. (52.29-31)
It may seem like an odd place to end, especially since we've been waiting for these characters to get together for the entire book. But the ending isn't designed to leave readers hanging or to cheat them out of a romantic scene—it's meant to show just how little has changed between Henry and Keiko even after decades apart. They greet each other with familiar affection as though no time has passed at all. Aw.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet takes place in Seattle, Washington, the city where Henry lives his entire life. Whether we're spending quality time with Henry as an old man in 1986 or visiting his childhood during World War II, it's clear as Henry walks from one block to the next that Seattle is a vibrant city:
The entire city came alive in the morning. Men in fish-stained T-shirts hauled crates of rock cod, and buckets of geoduck clams, half buried in ice. Henry walked by, listening to the men back at each other in Chinese dialect even he didn't understand.
He continued west on Jackson street, past a flower cart and a fortune-teller selling lucky lottery numbers, instead of going east in the direction of the Chinese school, which was only three blocks from the second-floor apartment he shared with his parents. (3.9-10)
Seattle may be booming no matter what year we're in, but it still falls under the same fearful paranoia as the rest of the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Things might be great during the 80s, but during the war, Henry watches on in horror as the government places restrictions on Japanese American citizens and enforces curfews. Eventually, the streets of Nihonmachi are empty as all Japanese American citizens are sent to internment camps. Just like that, the city Henry loves so dearly loses some of its charm and richness. That Henry continues to call it home, is further evidence of his fierce loyalty, a trait we explore in detail on his page in the "Characters" section.
My poor heart is sentimental
Not made of wood
I got it bad and that ain't good.
- Duke Ellington, 1941
Of course the epigraph for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet comes from a jazz song—jazz plays a huge role in the story and is something that Henry, Keiko, Sheldon, and Samantha all love. This particular Duke Ellington quote is all about sentimentality and following one's emotions, even when that might not be the most "sensible" course of action.
This is definitely the case for Henry and Keiko. Even though it would be a lot easier for them to never become friends or sweethearts, Henry and Keiko throw logic to the wind, fighting against an unkind world and Henry's disapproving parents to spend time together. Henry even goes on a Greyhound bus all the way to Idaho in order to visit Keiko and declare his love. Now there's a boy who definitely has it bad.
Good news: the language in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet isn't technically difficult, and while the story switches back and forth between different periods in time, it's pretty easy to fall into the rhythm of this shifts. That said, the subject matter itself can be upsetting. After all, reading about the injustices that Japanese American citizens went through during WWII, like being uprooted from their homes, harassed, attacked, and forced to live in internment camps. It isn't hard to understand, per say, though it is hard to stomach.
The writing style of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is poetic and filled with vivid details that bring the setting—and particularly the World War II time period—to life. When Henry describes the evacuation of Nihonmachi, it's so clear you can almost see it:
A few blocks from the station itself, crowds filled the street. There was a mix of crying toddlers, shuffling suitcases, and soldiers checking the paperwork of local citizens—most of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, the one or two suitcases they were allowed packed to the point of bursting. Each person wore a plain white tag, the kind you'd see on a piece of furniture, dangling from a coat button. (26.35)
The writing style is filled with details, helping us position ourselves in a different era and ensuring that we are right there with Henry as all the drama unfolds.
For decades, Henry's been searching for this one Oscar Holden record to no avail. His son knows that he's obsessed with finding the record, but he has no idea why it's so important:
"That's been Pop's Holy Grail—rumor is they printed a handful back in the forties, but none survive today," Marty explained. "Some people don't even believe it ever actually existed, because when Oscar died, he was so old even he didn't remember recording it. Just some of his bandmates, and of course Pops here—" (23.60)
The truth is that Henry doesn't care about the record because of the music on it; he cares about it because of what it represents. The recording is of a song that Oscar Holden played for him and Keiko on the night they snuck into the Black Elks Club, and it reflects the shared memories and love they have for each other. The elusive nature of the record—how people aren't even sure it existed—is kind of like Henry and Keiko's relationship: It happened so long ago and faded into nothing at all (thanks to Henry's dad intercepting their communications), so it's little more than a memory in Henry's head.
When Henry thinks about the record, he remembers how Keiko saved up all her money to buy him a recording as soon as it came out:
Henry was speechless. His jaw hung open, but no sound came out.
"Can you believe it?" She gushed with pride. "This is our song, the one he played for us!" (24.23-24)
The song on the record is "their" song, a memento of their love that Henry desperately wants to excavate again. Of all the things Henry and Keiko share—cafeteria jobs, being on the receiving end of racism—their time listening to jazz remains a highlight for Henry so many years later.
The book opens with older Henry watching on as belongings of Japanese American families are carried out from the Panama Hotel. It's clear from the start that this hotel isn't just another building—it holds a great deal of significance for Henry:
The old Seattle landmark was a place he'd visited twice in his lifetime. First, when he was only twelve years old, way back in 1942— "the war years" he liked to call them. Even then the old bachelor hotel had stood as a gateway between Seattle's Chinatown and Nihonmachi, Japatown. Two outposts of an old-world conflict—where Chinese and Japanese immigrants rarely spoke to one another, while their American-born children often played kick the can in the streets together. The hotel had always been a perfect landmark. A perfect meeting place—where he'd once met the love of his life. (1.2)
The Panama Hotel represents all of Henry's memories and emotions from the past; when the basement is opened up, so are the floodgates to everything that he's tried to keep under wraps for the past few decades. It's the discovery of the Panama Hotel's basement that leads Henry to seek out Keiko Okabe—his first love—again. As the foundation of the building is explored, Henry begins to explore his own foundation, too, digging into his past to see what he can find.
The Panama Hotel is also where Henry and Ethel meet up after she reads his letter to Keiko. Upon his foundational romance with Keiko, then, Henry and Ethel build their lives, falling in love and eventually starting a family. We can think of the building as representing Henry in this way, then, with the visible parts—his long life with Ethel and Marty—standing on top of his past with Keiko.
During World War II, Henry's father forces his son to wear an "I Am Chinese" pin, which feels kind of silly—and confusing—to Henry:
It was 1942, and they were desperate for him to learn English. Which only made Henry more confused when his father pinned a button to his school shirt that read, "I Am Chinese." (3.1)
Henry's parents aren't trying to arbitrarily label him; they're trying to keep him safe. They see the discrimination against Japanese American citizens all around them, so they give Henry the pin in order to keep him from being harassed or rounded-up by the police. Trouble is, the pin also sets Henry apart from his white peers and makes him feel even more like an outsider than ever. The pin is just another reminder that he's not like everyone else, even if it does come in handy from time to time, like when the clerk refuses to sell Keiko the record because she's Japanese. It's a small victory in a lived experience otherwise governed by racism. Ugh.
Although Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is told in the third person, readers can delve into Henry Lee's thoughts and feelings—which is good since this is Henry's story. The entire book shows Henry's childhood and later adulthood, exploring the impact World War II has on his life.
As an outsider both at school and at home, it's useful to be able to look into Henry's thoughts in order to see exactly how he deals with so much discrimination and the loss of his first love. After all, he's not often in a position to fully express himself: At home, his parents insist he speak English while they only speak Chinese, and at school Henry's at best ignored and at worst tormented. Having front-row seats to Henry's thoughts and feelings as he navigates this tricky terrain helps us both relate to him and appreciate just how hard his life can be.
When the story opens, we learn that the main character, Henry Lee, is growing up during World War II. Because he's Chinese, people are often openly hostile to him because they assume he's Japanese—especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yes, it's racist, and yes, it's rough. Making things even rougher for poor Henry is the fact that his parents desperately want him to only speak English… even though they only speak Chinese. Henry's life takes a turn for the better when he shows up at school one day and learns that there's a new student—a Japanese American girl named Keiko. Finally it looks like there's a friendly face in his world.
Keiko and Henry quickly become fast friends. They work in the kitchen together at school (they're both scholarship students) and hang out together after school. They both like jazz, so Henry introduces Keiko to his friend Sheldon, an African American man who plays sax on the streets.
One day, Sheldon gets a gig at the Black Elks Club playing for a famous jazz musician named Oscar Holden. Keiko and Henry sneak in to hear him play, and Oscar Holden plays a song just for them called "Alley Cats" because they hid in the alley before gaining entrance. Even though things between Keiko and Henry are great, though, they can't relax because things are getting pretty bad for Japanese Americans.
Things get really bad when President Roosevelt makes a declaration and the government starts sending Japanese Americans to internment camps. Henry is outraged on behalf of Keiko and her loved ones, but his father thinks this development is a good thing. Dude's pretty racist, too. This causes a rift in Henry's relationship with his father, and he defies his parents in order to go see Keiko, and then writing and visiting her after her family is moved to an internment camp. During one of his visits, Henry declares his love to Keiko and tells her that he'll wait for her on the outside, no matter how long it takes.
Nobody ever said love was easy, and that's the case for poor Henry and Keiko, too. Although Henry continues to write to Keiko faithfully, she never seems to get his letters, nor does she write him back. Heartbroken and confused, Henry eventually moves on and ends up dating a Chinese American girl named Ethel, who becomes his wife and later the mother of his child, Marty. When Henry's father dies, he finally finds out that the reason he never received letters from Keiko was because his father stopped them from coming. He wanted to break the two lovebirds up, and it worked.
In the end, Henry falls out of touch with Keiko and spends his life happily married man to Ethel—well, until she dies of cancer. Then, when Marty learns about Keiko, he encourages Henry to reach out to her again. Even though many decades have passed, at the end of the book, Henry reunites with Keiko and—phew—they still recognize each other as kindred spirits.