Henry Lee, a middle-aged Chinese American, watches in fascination as an old Seattle hotel, boarded up for forty years, is re-opened by its new owners. In the basement, a startling discovery is made – the belongings, in trunks and suitcases, of Japanese families who had been arrested and incarcerated in camps just after the attack on Pearl Harbour, under suspicion of being enemy spies.
A glimpse of a brightly coloured parasol catapults Henry back to his childhood and to poignant memories.
The story is told in flashback and explores themes of prejudice, isolation, first love, loss, racism and corruption. Henry, sent by his strict parents to an all-white school, is bullied by the other pupils and ignored by his teachers, because of his Chinese heritage. As a scholarship student, he is expected to carry out menial tasks in school, like serving his fellow pupils with lunch.
He has only one friend, Sheldon, a black jazz street musician, until one day another Asian pupil joins him in the kitchens – a young girl, Keiko, who is Japanese American. In spite of the historic enmity between the two nations, Henry and Keiko develop a close friendship which blossoms into first love. We follow Henry’s attempts to protect Keiko until, inevitably, she and her family are arrested as enemy aliens and removed to an internment camp. Henry visits the family and later he and Keiko exchange letters, until they are intercepted by Henry’s disapproving father, and the two lose touch.
Over the years, Henry grows to manhood, marries and has a son, Marty. On the day that the Panama Hotel is re-opened, Henry determines to try and find Keiko once more, or to discover what happened to her. Since the death of Henry’s wife, there has been a distance between Henry and Marty, but they become allies in the search.
This is a well-told story which encompasses far more than can be described in a short synopsis. It does not set out to become a morality play, but cleverly defers to the reader’s sense of justice, of right and wrong and lets the facts speak plainly. An interesting and engaging tale.
(The Panama Hotel does exist, as do the belongings of the thirty seven Japanese families, some of which are on display in the tearoom).
I found this a charming book, and would recommend it as a relaxing read.
How would you rate it? Do you think that the themes of injustice and racism in the book are fairly represented? Let me know in the comments below.