Monday, May 7, 2012

Panama Hotel

New York Times Best Seller Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a Christmas gift from my daughter. The author Jamie Ford autographed and wrote: "Rio, inspiration comes from life and good books. Keep writing" and an actual size "Do Not Disturb (reading)" book marker attached, jutting half an inch out of the book. My daughter wrote, "I met Jamie Ford in person at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. He signed the book for you and for me." About the time I finished reading it, the Japanese translation came out with the title Panama Hotel, with a picture of the hotel on the book cover. This historic hotel was built in 1910 and was the first home to most of the early immigrant Japanese.
It has been said that the Japanese arrival and formation of J-town in Seattle and Tacoma, around the early 1900s, was due to 1) The Great Northern Railway (job placement) and 2) two Pacific Ocean passenger liners, NYK (Seattle) and OSK (Tacoma). Kafu Nagai (1879-1959), a writer who landed there in 1903 on the way to the east coast, wrote that he saw the same old Japanese shops from bean-curds, bean-soup to Sushi, buckwheat noodle shops in Seattle, not much different from Tokyo. However, the day the 1942 Executive or Civilian Exclusion Order took effect, there were 8000 Japanese American evacuees detained at the Puyallup Detention Center (Camp Harmony), and the thriving J-town collapsed and was gone, except for the Panama Hotel.
It is currently owned by Jan Johnson (see photo). Johnson renovated the hotel and made it a B&B (bed and breakfast) and a tea & coffee house. She was honored in 2009 by the Japanese Seattle Consul General for her endeavor to restore the century old building for historical and educational purposes.

Jamie Ford's book is fiction. The story is about Henry Lee, an immigrant Chinese who met Keiko Okabe, an immigrant Japanese, living in the same neighborhood (now called the International District). They were also fellow classmates at Rainier School among the dominating white students. They worked as school kitchen helpers and fostered a friendship and platonic love.

A major problem was that Henry's father literally hated Imperial Japan and Japanese as Chiang Kai Shek's foe and there was no way he was going to meet Keiko and her family. Keiko's family photos, entrusted with Henry, was found by Henry's father and thrown outside. Father even planned to send Henry back to China to sever relations with Keiko. He soon suffered from a cerebral stroke, which rendered him unable to talk. He never accepted anything pro-Japanese and impeded the exchange of letters that eventually resulted in separation soon after Henry's visit to Minidoka Camp in Idaho.

What could teenager Henry do without his family's understanding of Keiko's departure? Mrs. Beatty, Rainier school teacher, came to his rescue. Just like the school kitchen, Mrs. Beatty offered Henry a temporary summer job and transportation, to work for her as kitchen help at Puyallup. Henry succeeded in a reunion with not only Keiko, but Keiko's family, too.

Next, what is the significance of Minidoka, Idaho? Henry asked their mutual friend and sax player Sheldon Thomas to accompany him as a chaperone. Sheldon's jazz recordings bound Henry and Keiko. Sheldon and Henry first took a Greyhound bus to Wala Wala, Washington, then another bus to Jerome, Idaho through Twin Falls. They were surprised upon arrival by a giant sign "18 miles (29km)" to War Relocation Center Minidoka, and luckily were offered a truck ride by the local Adventists, among the religious volunteers. Hurray!

Personally speaking, Raymond, my son-in-law and I drove, in the summer of 2009, over 300 miles (700km) through the state of Idaho, from the Continental Divide Targhee Pass (the northeastern corner of the state, over 2000 meters above sea level) to Boise. We were returning from Yellowstone National Park to Boise Airport to return our rented car. We dropped by on the way to visit Moon Crater National Park, located in central Idaho and my wild fancy was that Minidoka would be as barren as Crater Park.

I was relieved somewhat, reading Jamie Ford's book, that the actual camp was closer to Twin Falls, further south of Idaho Falls, about 140 miles (220km) along the Snake River Plain. I saw a photo of the old Minidoka visitation building, and I recognized water that was called a canal.

There was the building where Henry waited for almost half a day to meet Keiko. Henry finally accomplished this difficult trip at a tender age of 13! The story comes to an end when widower Henry and widowed Keiko meet in New York in 1986 all afresh, when Henry's son Marty and his fiancee Samantha made arrangements after the couple discovered Keiko's sketchbook among the unclaimed boxes, crates, and trunks of the 1942 evacuees' personal effects, buried and forgotten in the basement of the Panama Hotel. Keiko's sketchbook contained a portrait of young Henry. Hurray, again!

NOTE: This book won the 2009-2010 Asian / Pacific American Literature Award (APALA) for adult fiction.

1 comment:

Paul Dion, STL said...

Rio:
This story is so deep and so wonderful. Thank you for posting this. I think I missed it when it first appeared. I have forewarded it to a sansei friend of ours who is interested in this type of information. He has a relative who wrote a small book about the plight of the Japanese immigrants in the San Diego area. I hope he will enjoy this and even perhaps make a comment for your sake.