Pretty much the whole world might be stacked against him, but Henry Lee, a Chinese American boy growing up in Seattle, is still the star of our show. As the protagonist in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, we get to see both his childhood and his later life, hopping back and forth between his terrible experiences during World War II and his life decades later as he reflects upon the impact the war had, particularly on his love life. Ooh la la.
When the book opens, we meet Henry as an older man as he watches the belongings of Japanese American families being pulled from the basement of the Panama Hotel. It's clear right away, though, that his story doesn't start here—it starts somewhere far in the past:
Old Henry Lee stood transfixed by all the commotion at the Panama Hotel. What had started as a crowd of curious onlookers eyeballing a television news crew had now swollen into a polite mob […]. In the middle of the crowd stood Henry, shopping bags hanging at his side. He felt as if he were waking from a long forgotten dream. A dream he'd once had as a boy. (1.1)
Through Henry's vivid and arresting memories, the story of his childhood and his first love with a Japanese American girl named Keiko is told. Though they eventually lost touch, thanks in no small part to Henry's father's efforts to prevent them from contacting each other, Henry still carries a torch for Keiko all these years later.
Part of why Keiko is such a big deal for Henry is that her arrival in his life offers a breath of relief: After being the recipient of all kinds of racism at school, Henry finally has a friend in Keiko, a fellow scholarship student who is also Asian in an otherwise white school.
More than this, though, Henry holds fast to Keiko because that's just the kind of guy he is: He is a super loyal friend who sticks by the people he loves, no matter what. So when his (ahem, racist) father disapproves of Henry's relationship with Keiko, Henry doesn't give up on her even though it'd make his life a lot easier. Instead he openly defies his father and remains loyal and committed to Keiko:
He turned to his father. "I'm leaving to get her photos. I told her I'd keep them for her—just until she gets back. And I'm going to keep my promise."
His father pointed at the door. "If you walk out that door—if you walk out that door now, you are no longer part of this family. You are no longer Chinese. You are not part of us anymore. Not a part of me."
Henry didn't even hesitate. (35.48-50)
See how high the stakes are with Henry's dad? He's down to disown his thirteen-year-old son over an act of friendship—but this doesn't deter Henry, and he honors his promise to Keiko anyway, showing the conviction that underlies his feelings.
Importantly, Henry's loyalty doesn't just extend to pretty girls. He meets a saxophonist named Sheldon who plays on the streets during his walks to school and strikes up a real friendship with the guy. Is it an unlikely friendship? Yup—kids don't often befriend street performers, after all—but Henry likes the guy's music, so he bothers to get to know him. Decades later, when Henry is an old man and Sheldon is even older, Henry still visits his pal in the nursing home every single week. Their friendship doesn't waver one bit.
On top of this, despite his dad being one tricky dude, Henry continues trying to talk to the guy up until he dies. His dad is pretty harsh and uncompromising, but Henry still tries to be a good son, even when he has a perfectly good excuse to write his father off for good—you know, like his dad being willing to write him off for good, even though he's just a kid.
Although Henry is a responsible and loyal person, he still has issues with his family just like anyone else. As a youngster, he has problems with his father, who is highly traditional and expects Henry to do exactly what he says. Later on, Henry also has a hard time communicating with his son Marty, even though he loves him a lot:
Now father and son waited in silence, ignoring the carts of dim sum that rolled by. The awkward moment was interrupted by the crash of plates somewhere in the kitchen, punctuated by men swearing at each other in Chinese and English. There was much to say and ask, but neither Henry nor Marty inched closer to the subject. (9.25)
If you're thinking the silence between Henry and Marty feels eerily like the silence between Henry and his own father, you're not wrong: Henry doesn't exactly nail his own parent-child relationship despite how much he suffered from his father's own subpar efforts. In the end, though, Henry manages to communicate with and confide in Marty, telling him about Keiko. As he and Marty open up to each other, it's clear that Henry doesn't just spend a lot of time thinking about the past; he learns from it, too, working to build a better relationship with his son than he ever had with his own dad.