What a darling book. “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 love 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. ”
It is the story of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, both twelve years old, both sent by their parents to a semi-prestigious school. They are both there on scholarship, and work in the kitchen at lunchtime. They are the only ethnic students, and are taunted and bullied for it, Henry because he is Chinese, and Keiko because she is Japanese. It was the early years of the second world war when the Japanese were hated and feared, and the story is set in the time right before the Japanese are rounded up and sent to internment camps.
Young love has a hard time surviving distance and time, and it is acerbated by Henry’s father, who hates the Japanese, and does what he can to see that the delivery of the letters between the two are disrupted, leaving each to believe that the other no longer cared.
Before the families were rounded up, most of them stored as much as they could of their personal belongings — documents, photos, important mementos wherever they could and with non-Japanese who agreed to keep them. Many went into the Panama Hotel’s basement, a real place and a true event. Most never returned for these belongings.
The two teens had a shared love of jazz, and a thread weaves through the story revolves about the existence of an old vinyl recording of a famous musician.
There is a lot about the anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, and the conditions in the internment camps, which for those of us who would prefer to pretend that that ignominious time in the history of the US did not exist, it was a stark reminder that the US’s immigrant and foreigner phobia is not a new phenomenon.