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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Paperback – October 6, 2009

2,372 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ford's strained debut concerns Henry Lee, a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuttles between 1986 and the 1940s in a predictable story that chronicles the losses of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American school friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle. Keiko and her family are later interned in a camp, and Henry, horrified by America's anti-Japanese hysteria, is further conflicted because of his Chinese father's anti-Japanese sentiment. Henry's adult life in 1986 is rather mechanically rendered, and Ford clumsily contrasts Henry's difficulty in communicating with his college-age son, Marty, with Henry's own alienation from his father, who was determined to Americanize him. The wartime persecution of Japanese immigrants is presented well, but the flatness of the narrative and Ford's reliance on numerous cultural cliches make for a disappointing read. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adutl/High School—Henry Lee is a 12-year-old Chinese boy who falls in love with Keiko Okabe, a 12-year-old Japanese girl, while they are scholarship students at a prestigious private school in World War II Seattle. Henry hides the relationship from his parents, who would disown him if they knew he had a Japanese friend. His father insists that Henry wear an "I am Chinese" button everywhere he goes because Japanese residents of Seattle have begun to be shipped off by the thousands to relocation centers. This is an old-fashioned historical novel that alternates between the early 1940s and 1984, after Henry's wife Ethel has died of cancer. A particularly appealing aspect of the story is young Henry's fascination with jazz and his friendship with Sheldon, an older black saxophonist just making a name for himself in the many jazz venues near Henry's home. Other aspects of the story are more typical of the genre: the bullies that plague Henry, his lack of connection with his father, and later with his own son. Readers will care about Henry as he is forced to make decisions and accept circumstances that separate him from both his family and the love of his life. While the novel is less perfect as literature than John Hamamura's Color of the Sea (Thomas Dunne, 2006), the setting and quietly moving, romantic story are commendable.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 301 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1st edition (October 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345505344
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345505347
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2,372 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,050 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jamie Ford is the great grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung, who emigrated from Kaiping, China, to San Francisco in 1865, where he adopted the western name "Ford," thus confusing countless generations.

His debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 34 languages. Jamie is still holding out for Klingon (that's when you know you've made it).

Visit him at, where he can be found blogging about his new book, SONGS OF WILLOW FROST (available Sept 10, 2013), among other things.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

990 of 1,012 people found the following review helpful By L. K. Messner on January 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was excited to read this book because I knew it was set in Seattle during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and that's a time period that has always interested me. I expected an interesting trip through history, but what I got was so, so much more than that.

Henry Lee is still mourning the death of his wife when he learns that the belongings of Japanese Americans hidden in the basement of Seattle's Panama Hotel for decades have been discovered. Henry is drawn to the basement, and what he's searching for there opens a door he thought he had closed forever. The story switches back and forth between 1986 and the 1940s, when a 12-year-old Henry attending an American school (he's "scholarshipping" as his father likes to say) meets another international student working in the school kitchen. Keiko is Japanese American, the enemy according to Henry's father, but the two become best friends before her family is imprisoned in one of the relocation camps.

This book does a phenomenal job exploring the history and attitudes of this time period, and Ford's portrayal of Seattle's ethnic neighborhoods is amazing. But really, the thing that pulled me into this novel the most was the richness of the relationships -- Henry and Keiko, Henry and his father, Henry's mother and his father, and Henry and his own son. HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET looks at the best and worst of human relationships, the way we regard others, the way we find ourselves reenacting our relationships with our parents with our own children, the choices we make along the way. Mostly, though, this book reminds us that there is always room -- and time -- for forgiveness and redemption.
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225 of 238 people found the following review helpful By Pippa Lee VINE VOICE on January 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As I wipe my teary eyes, I am amazed at the extraordinary journey I have just experienced reading Jamie Ford's "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet."

The hotel is the Panama Hotel, an old dilapidated landmark in Seattle. It's 1986 and 56-year-old Henry Lee is among the onlookers who witness the unveiling of recently discovered belongings left in the basement of the hotel by Japanese families in the 1940s. To Henry, however, the trunks, suitcases and crates and their contents are not just mere curiosities or historical artifacts. For him, they bring remembrances of the World War II years, of being twelve years old and trying to fit in an all-white school while following Chinese cultural traditions at home; of being Asian and his father's dread that he would be confused with the enemy, the Japanese. Most importantly, they bring back memories of a special friendship with Keiko, the only other kid of Asian ethnicity in school.

As Ford deftly switches the narrative from 1986 to the 1940s and vice versa, the readers are taken through a remarkable story that is both sweet and poignant. For me, it brought history to life. All too often we forget that behind the numbers, there were individuals and lives that were deeply affected by the fear, the uncertainty and the hatred. I confess that there were many moments that I was on the verge of tears, such as when young Henry looks on Japanese American families burning their personal belongings for fear that they would be accused of cooperating with Japan or when Keiko and Henry witness the "evacuation" of Bainbridge Island. I also felt moved by Henry, the adult, who is still reeling from the death of his wife.
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297 of 354 people found the following review helpful By Mara Zonderman on January 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I love a story told from a surprising point of view. This one deals with Japanese families who were "evacuated" after in 1942 from the West Coast. Except the story is told by 12-year-old Henry, the son of Chinese immigrants. An American himself, Henry's father is an ardent Chinese nationalist who hates the Japanese not for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but for their invasion of mainland China. Even a whiff of anything Japanese is forbidden in the house, so Henry has more than one big problem when he befriends and eventually falls in love with Keiko, whose family is inevitably evacuated to a camp in Idaho.

Unfortunately, this story needed a more polished teller. Ford flips his story back and forth from 1942, when Henry is 12, to 1986, when Henry is 56. Ordinarily, this is a great way to tell a story about what happened "back then" and how it has effected the present. But Henry's voice is just the same from the time he's 12 to the time he's 56, making his thoughts and feelings as a child more than a little unbelievable. Keiko also seems to have far too much perspective on what's happening to her family and in the world.

Added to that are the incredible anachronisms scattered throughout the book. Henry's son belongs to an online support group in 1986? The nursing home has a rear-projection TV? An editor should have picked up on these things. Admittedly, I got the book as an advance copy, so perhaps by the time the book is actually published some of these mistakes will have been fixed. At least I hope so, because they are so jarring as to make it difficult to get any actual enjoyment from this book.
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