Saturday, August 3, 2013

WAWeekend: On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet


Product DetailsIf you are a reader, you probably recognize the title of this post as part of the title of  Jamie Ford’s New York Times best-selling historical novel, Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

His story of love and friendship during a dark time in our country’s history is set in Seattle. It was during World War II, when President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order sending Japanese-American citizens (many born here) to internment camps for the duration of the war.



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Like elsewhere in the country, it uprooted families in the Seattle/Puget Sound area. Many families  stashed their bags in the basement of the Panama Hotel, before leaving for the camps.  (Some of those belongings were never reclaimed. They can be seen through a section of glass flooring in the present-day Tea House.)

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A few weeks ago while researching another article I am writing, I made my first I visit to The Panama Hotel, located in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District – the same hotel as featured in Ford’s book. 

So taken with its ambiance and history, was I, that I’ve since returned to its Tea and Coffee house with another  friend.

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Panama Hotel Lobby

Both visits have prompted me to not only read the novel but to also learn a bit more about what was once  Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown, that grew up in this southeastern corner of Seattle.

Main Street, on which the hotel is located, was once the main spine and economic hub of Nihonmachi, an area which reportedly stretched for many blocks.

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History is everywhere in the hotel and tea room pictured here
The walls of the hotel and its Tea/Coffee House are lined with photos of this once-bustling part of town along with hand-drawn maps reconstructing the former area. Names are added by those who still remember.

The vibrancy of that long ago Japantown was described by HistoricSeattle.org:

“This neighborhood became a diverse tapestry of homes, churches, grocery stores, theaters, language schools, hotels, restaurants, bathhouses, and other businesses interweaving with the edges of other Seattle communities nearby.

Seattle's Japanese American population reached its peak in the early 1930s with a population of roughly 8500, but it didn't last.”

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Hing Hay Park - Chinatown/International District Seattle

While the pulse of the entire International District seems to be getting stronger in recent years, the renovation of the Panama Hotel -- designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006 -- is contributing to the life of the area. 

My friends and I were among a  steady stream of customers – hotel guests and those, like us, who had come for the refreshments – at the hotel. 

PicMonkey Collage
Teas galore are available as well as Italian roasted coffee drinks

We had hoped to see the hotel’s basement where there remains one of the few intact Japanese bathhouses, (Sento) on the West Coast.  We didn’t, though, as we’d missed the regularly scheduled tour, led by the hotel owner  . . .Next time!

If  I’ve encouraged you to visit, keep in mind they have a regular Happy Hour in the Tea/Coffee room. This August and September (2013) at 2 p.m. on Saturdays there’s Panama Hotel Jazz, featuring music inspired by the novel and Oscar Holden, ‘the patriarch of Seattle Jazz’.  Admission is free.


If You Go:


Map picture


Panama Hotel, 605 1/2 Main St.  is European style with shared bathrooms; published rates are $90 single, $125 double. (TripAdvisor reviews swing wildly on this hotel, and make for entertaining reading). Phone: (206) 223-9242      Fax: (206) 624-4957  E-mail: reservations@panamahotelseattle.com, web: www.panamahotelseattle.com

Panama Tea and Coffee House, adjacent to the hotel lobby, at 607 Main St., Phone: (206) 515-4000
Call for tour dates, times, and prices.

The links above take you to the Amazon.com site to read more about the book.

26 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post. I had bought this book but never read it.
    I have booked my overseas trip to US and Canada for May 2014 and have Seattle on my schedule. I will now make sure I find this hotel and tea house and make a visit.
    Very interesting. Thank you.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. I think you'll enjoy the book. If you do get to Seattle, let me know and I'll have tea/coffee with you at the Panama Hotel!

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  2. I read the book in the last 6 months so it would be particularly interesting to actually see the hotel. It was such a sad state of affairs. I do have a Canadian friend whose Japanese mother was interred but it wasn't until a few years ago that I even found out - despite knowing my friend for almost 50 years. It was just never discussed.

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    1. It is so interesting to see the first-hand experiences people have had with that time. Another friend wrote a touching email with her story and another knows a man who stored his belongings at the hotel. It is one of those 'not discussed' topics - I am glad Ford wrote the book.

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  3. I have never been to Seattle but plan to visit next year. I'll definitely have a tea in the Panama Hotel while there.

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    1. Freya, I know you would enjoy it. Take some time to stroll through the area and definitely visit Higo's Store (it is filled with memorabilia from that time period -- as well as beautiful art pieces now.

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  4. Nice book recommendation. I've read this book and a couple of others having to do with the Japanese resettlement ..... enjoyed Bitter and Sweet very much. No wonder they never want to discuss it. Wish I had seen these pictures at the time I was reading the book.

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    1. I am just starting the book but it is interesting to have just walked through the area a couple of times and be able to 'place' the locations Ford describes. Thanks for visiting today - hope you'll come back again!

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  5. wow so interesting. We had internments in Australia too. Your post and pics has really made me curious to learn more, so I think I will be seeking out this book. Thank you for opening my eyes to this part of history. Interesting and sad that they have some sections of glass flouring which look down on the belongings that were never reclaimed.
    Have a wonderful week. and thank you for stopping by my blog today. and for your comments. I am glad you enjoy stopping by, as I enjoy yours too!

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    1. I am learning so much from the comments. I had no idea there were similar activities in Australia! Thanks so much for your comment Jill I will 'see you' soon!

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  6. I love the old nostalgic photos. I will definitely add this to my visit list next time I'm in Seattle. My fav city ever! :)

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    1. Mike you would have some great material for a post at this place; in fact, the whole area (don't miss Higo's store, when you visit the Panama Hotel).

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  7. This comment came in the form of an email, I asked its author if I could share it with you and she agreed:

    Thanks for the memories in more than one way. I read the book last year and was really moved by it. It took me back to the late 1950s/early 1960s when I taught at Washington JH at 18th and South Main, just up the hill from the Panama Hotel (it was the original Franklin High School in 1905 and still adhered to the up-down staircase traffic pattern)).



    I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood you describe and around South Yesler. When I made home visits to meet parents of some of my students, it was an enriching cultural experience that taught me to love Japanese and Chinese foods I'd never eaten, plus learning some Japanese words and phrases so I could communicate with first-generation parents. (Interestingly, one of my former students is Tomoko Moriguchi, part of the family that owns and operates Uwajimaya's; another former student is King County Councilman Larry Gossett, as was James Hendrix).




    As a naive first-year teacher, I assigned an essay to my top-line 9th-graders (mostly Asians, maybe 2-3 African-Americans) one semester asking for their most memorable childhood experience. Did I get an education beyond my UW education classes!




    At least three Japanese students talked sadly/bitterly/emotionally about the effect the internment at Minidoka or Tule Lake had upon their family - two of them had been born in the camp. When I talked to one of them after class, he looked at me with such an old-beyond-his-years expression when I tried to express my sadness that I hadn't known about this situation. "You really have no idea, Miss Bxxxx, do you? How could you? You weren't Japanese," and then turned and left the classroom. I will never, ever forget that brief conversation

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    1. I was thinking this response may have come from a teacher that I might have had. I went to Washington Jr. High as it was known in the early sixties when it was at 18th and Main.

      It is said that our schools often fail to teach the history of the JA and other communities of color, the contributions as well as injustices we face(d).

      It was also a unique place and time to grown up with a lot of cross cultural sharing as suggested in the comment. I had African American friends who loved snacking on "dried cuttlefish", sour balls and ginger sold at small mom and pop Japanese and Chinese grocery stores.
      Books like this (even though they are fiction) are important as they share a piece of history that people may not otherwise know or understand.

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  8. I love how people take old buildings and give them new life like this beautiful brick bldg., would love to stay here.

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    1. Noel, it would be interesting to stay here. . .but as I said, read the vastly differing TripAdvisor reviews first - I think some travelers aren't up to shared facilities.

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  9. What an amazing experience (and I am putting that book on my reading list)! I am also very jealous of your Oahu timeshare--what a lucky duck you are :)

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    1. You'll love the book, Amy! And yes, we decided long ago that an ocean front home in Hawaii wasn't in the cards. . .but then came timeshare and what do you know? We've got that ocean front home after all - for at least a portion of the year!

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  10. I visited Seattle a couple of years ago, but did not know about this hotel. I'm keeping notes from this very informative post of yours, Jackie, for the next time I get to the US west coast.

    The book looks interesting, too, from the reviews on Amazon in your link. I actually took a pause between reading your post and commenting to look up the details of what happened to Japanese Americans in the war, and that reminded me to check on the Japanese Canadian experience at that time, too. (Wikipedia has much on this.) I knew that the same happened in Canada, as I recall the eminent Canadian scientist of Japanese origin, David Suzuki, mentioning in a TV program that his grandfather had been interned. As another commenter mentions here, it happened in Australia, too. It's all worth reading.



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    1. If you get back this way Andrew make sure you have coffee or tea here! You are correct about looking into history: thanks to the comments on this post my eyes were opened to the fact that similar things were happening in Canada and Australia. It is time I do a bit more research on this. Glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for this comment.

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  11. What a fascinating history. I've never been to this hotel but would really love to tour it the next time I'm in Seattle.

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    1. Let me know when you are coming and I will buy you a cup of tea (or pot) and we can have a rendezvous there! Thanks for stopping by today!

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  12. Hi Jackie, thanks for the beautiful and interesting post. This book is one of those downloaded in my Kindle that I'm yet to read. You just made me move it to the #1 in the line up of next to read. Thanks for sharing your insight about your visit to the hotel and the tea house. I know this will bring a different dimension in my reading experience. I can't wait to start reading it now.

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    1. Oh I am only pages away from finishing the book and as so many of its readers have said in reviews, they just didn't want it to end. What a magical story and journey it is!

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