By John W.B. Malcomson
For Northwest Asian Weekly
The decision to attend the reading of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” was an easy one. Sometime after reading the book, I read an interview published in a local API paper. I was thrilled to see that the event would be held on my birthday.
I was moved by my mother’s connection to this book. My mother Laurie was born in Seattle in 1932. Her church, Seattle First Baptist, was involved in the Asian American community and helped to establish the Japanese Baptist Church and Chinese Baptist Church. She was a friend of Wing Luke, and he served as an usher at her wedding. When she was single in the 1950s, she even went on a date with the future city councilman.
In retirement, she volunteered for 10 years with the Wing Luke Asian Museum before moving north of Seattle in 2005. She suffered a head injury about three years ago and now lives in a care center. She is unable to read, something that she has always loved to do. She especially loved reading books about political history or social justice. Her best friend since middle school, Barbara, has visited my mother every week for more than a year even though she lives a good distance away.
After reading “Hotel” by herself, Barbara started reading it to Laurie. Both of them were nearly the same age as the main characters in the book. Though my mother is mentally present, she could only hold up about 10 percent of the conversation on a good day. Barbara said she would pause from reading and ask Laurie if she remembered this or that place from those days and the historical occurrences that Jamie Ford recreated.
Barbara said that Laurie’s responses were strong and engaged.
When I shared the announcement of the reading with my wife, Heidi, she yelped in surprise. We promptly invited my father and Barbara to come down and join us. She commented that she “wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Despite having visited the ID many times and having worked there for two years, it was my first time in the hotel tearoom. I was surprised to look down through the window in the floor and see the steamer trunks that had been hurriedly left there by the Japanese American community as they were being forced to leave the West Coast for internment camps.
Because of the length of the room, “Hotel” author Jamie Ford had to continually turn to face the audience surrounding him as he spoke. He introduced the daughter of Oscar Holden (the onetime Jackson Street jazz star and only real-life character from the 1940s in the book). Grace Holden bowed to the crowd and assured us that she has followed in her father’s footsteps singing jazz and recording some of his songs.
Ford then read the account of Japantown residents destroying any possession that emphasized their “Japan-ness” by burning them in an alley in the center of the neighborhood. The room was silent when he was done. The reality that some of the possessions that were not burned were deposited under the floor was not lost on the crowd.
During the question-and-answer portion, I asked about the continuing story of the steamer trunks and boxes in the basement. Ford invited Jan Johnson, owner of the Panama, to respond. Johnson said that when she had first bought the hotel, she had contacted the previous proprietor and asked him to find the owners of the items. Attempts to contact the owners were mostly unsuccessful.
Among other organizations, Johnson had contacted the Japanese American National Museum of Los Angeles, which catalogued the items and mounted a national tour. Johnson also contacted Gail Dubrow of the University of Washington, author of “Sento in Seattle,” who helped her come to a personal realization that the items needed to stay at the Panama. She preserves them for future exhibitions along with the original bathhouse, and other relics of the hotel’s intriguing past. She gives tours to groups of 10 or more.
One attendee commented that as she read the book, she found herself reliving forgotten memories of growing up in Seattle’s Asian American community. Another commented on her appreciation of the author’s portrayal of bullying in school. Another asked why he had made his two main characters so young.
Ford said he felt that being 12 years old made them more innocent in their affection for each other. Seeing the racism encountered and adventures they experienced from a child’s perspective gave more truth to the story.
Soon, he sat down at a table and began signing books. When it was my turn, Barbara, my father, and Heidi stood beside me. I told Ford how much his book had meant to my mother. My voice was unsteady as I told him how having it read to her by Barbara had awakened her heart and mind in those moments. Ford looked at us thoughtfully and offered to send my mother the audio version of his book. He signed the book to her, and we promised to be in touch.
Thank you, Jamie Ford, for writing a book full of connections! I am also grateful for Kinokuniya and for the Panama Hotel for giving me an opportunity to meet the writer who happened to touch my family so deeply. ♦
John Malcomson is the volunteer coordinator at Asian Counseling and Referral Service and the captain of Laurie’s Team in the 20th Annual Walk for Rice. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/LaurieTeamWFR.