Book: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s–Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent loe that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.

I sought this book out because of the title. I didn’t really know anything about it, except that it was about Asian Americans during the second world war–and that it’s a love story of sorts. But there was something about the title that told me I need to find a copy of the book… and I couldn’t find it anywhere locally. So I had it special-ordered through Fully Booked.

Honestly, the book starts very slowly. The only thing that pushed me to keep reading was the fact that I already invested so much time in getting a copy, that it would be a great waste if I stop reading. And I’m very grateful that it took me time to find the book, and that it took me time to get into the groove of the story.

Time made Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet all the more satisfying in the end.

Author Jamie Ford doesn’t rush anything: from the introduction of the characters, the way they develop, to the relationships they form. And while this pace was frustrating at first, it ultimately works best for the story he’s telling. Because Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet is a love story that spans years. Heck, even the love story takes time to develop.

Henry, our main character, doesn’t see his love interest as one for most of the book. He sees her as a friend. And as his feelings for her develop, so does ours. Personally, my appreciation for the narrative grew just as Henry’s world expanded within the book. Author Ford begins the story with a very narrow window into Henry Lee’s life–and it’s probably the reason why the first part of the novel is so exhausting to read. Because our point-of-view is limited; we’re boxed in with Henry, and we’re yearning to get out. But we can’t go out until we get to know who Henry is, who the people in his life are. Because we need to understand him, and the people who are important to him, to understand the things he will do.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautiful story that’s not just about the love between races in the time of war; but also a powerful love story of a boy to the parents who he no longer understands, and to the son he doesn’t know as much as he would like.

And to end, I say: find a copy of the book. Take the time to read it. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is worth the effort.

Book: Crazy Rich Asians

"Crazy Rich Asians"

When American-born Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and quality time with the man she hopes to marry. But Nick has failed to provide a few key details. One, that his childhood home looks like a palace. Two, that he grew up riding in more private planes that cans. Three, that he just happens to be the country’s most eligible bachelor.

On Nick’s arm, Rachel may as well have a target on her back the second she steps off the plane, and soon, her relaxed vacation turns into an obstacle course of old money, new money, nosy relatives, and scheming social climbers.

Here’s the thing with the Chinese– No matter where you are, if you were not born and raised in Mainland China, you pretty much get the same upbringing as every other Chinese person in the world. At least, that’s how I see it after reading Crazy Rich Asians, which spoke to my Chinese upbringing although I’ve never been to the US, to Europe–and have only seen Singapore through tourists’ eyes. And this idea is further cemented by the fact that Fresh Off The Boat, a new Chinese-centric sitcom in the US, is nailing all these quirks that the Chinese have.

We are stingy and we love a good bargain–even if we can afford to splurge, or to buy something more expensive. We subscribe to the idea of ‘why spend more when you can get the same for less.’ And yet, when we are looked down upon, we relish pulling the carpet from under the ignorant supremacists who would dare belittle us. Figuratively. Literally pulling the carpet from under someone is not very polite and is looked down upon by society. And this weird characteristic of the Chinese is alive and well in Kevin Kwan’s book.

Crazy Rich Asians sounds like a romance novel, and it is that. But more than the relationship of the two lead characters we are given with, the book focuses more on the romance between our main characters’ race and power. And it is the most engaging and most entertaining love story I have ever read. Most of the characters have some grandiose plan of getting what they want, and the whole sordid affair is so self-aware that, if you’re Chinese, you won’t feel offended. Author Kwan doles out the humor in perfect doses that the observations about Chinese eccentricities never feel like an attack on character. It’s as if Kwan wants to say that ‘we are who we are, so why not just laugh about it?’

Now, don’t get me wrong: the book is far from perfect. I have some issues with pacing, with plot points that are abandoned with… well… careless abandon, and with the ensemble cast of characters that come and go. But at the end of the day, the book delivered what it was supposed to deliver: entertainment.

Crazy Rich Asians is a gem. And now I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next in Kwan’s sequel: China Rich Girlfriend.

In the meantime, let’s see what other people have said about this book:
The New York Times
Pop Matters
Books Etc.