Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Reflections: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Henry Lee is a second generation Chinese living in Seattle. The story starts with Henry reminiscing about his life during the early 1940s - the “war years”. It was the dreadful time during the Second World War when the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor capped the hostility between Japan and the US, and Japan was actively at war with China. At such a time, there was a China town and a Japan town within Seattle, with each neighborhood rivaling against each other, and the Americans ostracizing both. One can imagine how much more exceedingly difficult and frustrating it would have been for a second generation Chinese to live in a time and place that was so prejudiced, hostile (and ignorant) about Asians in general that Henry’s dad made him wear an embarrassing button that said “I am Chinese”. Bullied by the white kids, pressured and addled by his parents’ stance that he should adopt just the right amounts of Americanism to fit in, but should remain a Chinese at his core, Henry grows up as a lonely, misfit. But when he meets Keiko, an elegant Japanese girl at school, they come together out of the deep understanding of their shunned states, and strike a bond beyond friendship. But it didn’t help that Henry’s father, a radical Chinese, hated the Japanese, and the US Government rounded up all the Japanese into concentration camps. As an old man, Henry looks back at his bitter-sweet memories of his first love and the pangs of hurt and separation as he comes across the ancient belongings left behind by the numerous Japanese families that were hounded and taken to concentration camps.

The heart of the book dwells on the tender romance between Henry and Keiko. Similar to many other stories that have reached a greater height of poignancy because of the History surrounding it,  the tragedy of war makes the story more special. Jamie Ford has very realistically brought out Henry’s personality. As American as he is in terms of his progressive attitudes, he is a devout Chinese when it comes to his conventional grounding on duties and moral responsibilities. It is a spitting portrayal of most second generation immigrants, especially of Asians.

Although I found some parts of the story to be a bit saccharine, I appreciated the overall pragmatism of the story. That’s how life is. But the pragmatism was balanced with the right amounts of sentimentality. And it always warms my heart to read about bonds that last despite the ravages of time and memories. Ford also depicts how distant most civilians are from wars and political turmoil. People are often put into buckets because of their race, and not for who they really are. It was stirring to read about the perplexed Japanese who were legal Americans with no ties to their country of origin, being forced to pay a hefty price for their ancestry.

Digested Thoughts: This is a very quiet, reflective read - reflective in terms of the History, and quiet in terms of the pace of the book, and the gentle romance. This is the kind of romance I like - old-fashioned and deep. Almost reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s The Hidden Flower, in terms of the feel of the book. The dewy and misty backdrop of Seattle adds to the tranquil, poignant feel!

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