JENNIFER JACKSON’S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Book lovers walk into pages of bitter and sweet

ON SATURDAY, COLLEEN Freidberg stepped onto the streets of Seattle and into the pages of a novel.

The plot was familiar: a boy and a girl who fall in love and face barriers of heritage, culture and, ultimately, history.

But the setting — although practically on her doorstep — was not.

Freidberg is a member of the Port Townsend Library’s Book Lover’s Cafe, a literary discussion group that meets the first Monday of the month.

In September, members read Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a surprise best-seller about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl who fall in love in pre-World War II Seattle.

Led by Cris Wilson, the library’s adult services director, the group discussed the book at its October meeting, then three days later made a literary pilgrimage to the Emerald City to visit the places mentioned in the story.

“It was a rare opportunity to walk in the steps of people that you’ve read about, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction,” Freidberg said. “I was unfamiliar with the International District.”

That’s where they met their tour guide, Roldy Ablao, a docent at the Wing Luke Museum.

A college student of Korean-Italian descent, Ablao gave the group an introduction to the museum, including viewing a restored Chinese theater backdrop that still has sponsors’ advertisements on it.

After a walking tour of Chinatown, he led them up through a park where the novel’s main characters meet to the Panama Hotel, considered the gateway to Nihonmachi, or Japantown.

Conflict in the district

That the International District actually has these two distinct communities exemplifies the underlying conflict in the book.

Although poured into one area of the city by regulations restricting land sales to foreigners decades ago, Chinese immigrants maintained an animosity for the Japanese honed by centuries of warfare.

As a result, Henry, the son of a nationalist Chinese father, cannot bring his Japanese girlfriend, Keiko, home to meet the family.

Being introduced to the International District through the story and seeing the places in it where the characters met brought the whole issue home to Sharon Schlentner.

“It made a connection,” Schlentner said.

Book club member Macy Mullarky said that until she read the book, she had never thought about the dynamics between the Japanese and the Chinese communities.

As America’s allies in the war, the Chinese, she learned, were exempt from internment, and many supported it.

“Japantown was looted, except for the Panama Hotel,” Mullarky said.

The novel starts when Henry happens to pass the hotel when it was reopened in 1986, which was a real event.

In the basement were suitcases left behind by Japanese-American families who were interned during the war.

The book club members toured the hotel, which has a tearoom, and looked down through the glass panel in the floor to the basement, where the suitcases are visible.

In the book, Henry finds a parasol that belonged to Keiko among the luggage.

He also still has the “I Am Chinese” button he wore to deflect anti-Japanese sentiment during the war.

In real life, the father of author Ford wore an “I Am Chinese” button.

Family history

Ford’s great-grandfather, Min Chung, emigrated to San Francisco in 1865, later changing his name to William Ford.

His son, Jamie’s grandfather, reclaimed the family name, using George Chung as his screen name.

In addition to working as an extra in movies in the 1950s, his grandfather was a consultant to the “Kung Fu” television series in the ’70s, according to an interview with the author that is on the Internet.

Ford, who grew up in Ashland, Ore., and Seattle, said in the interview that his grandparents used to celebrate anniversaries at the China Gate restaurant, originally a Chinese theater in Chinatown.

During Prohibition, the restaurant was a jazz club where greats like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington played, Ford said in the interview.

The idea for the book started when he stumbled upon a reference to the Panama Hotel while researching the Wa Mei Massacre, which took place in the mid-1980s in a backroom casino in Chinatown where his grandfather had once worked.

Library event Thursday

Ford, who is making several appearances in the Northwest, agreed to add Port Townsend to his speaking tour free of charge, Wilson said.

He will speak at the Port Townsend Public Library, 1220 Lawrence St., on Thursday at 7 p.m. and will sign books afterward.

For more information about the program or the book club, call Wilson at 360-379-4441 or go to www.ptpubliclibrary.org.

For those who missed the tour, Wilson has printed up a self-guided version that is available at the library.

For their trip, which Wilson organized, the Book Lovers carpooled to Winslow, took the ferry, then walked to the Seattle light rail station and rode it one stop south to the International District.

The tour of Chinatown included a visit to a fortune cookie factory, a calligrapher’s studio and buildings that housed businesses advertised on the Chinese theater backdrop at the museum.

“One had a shelf of original items that were sold there,” said Bev Moore, a Port Townsend librarian who went along on the tour.

After lunch at a Chinese restaurant, some of the group stayed on to revisit the Wing Luke Museum, Moore said, while others explored more of Chinatown or visited Uwajimaya, a block-long complex that encompasses a Japanese grocery store — the produce and fish sections are a cultural experience in themselves — and a Japanese food hall.

Book Lovers who went on the tour say they are also availing themselves of the opportunity to meet the author Thursday.

And the next time Freidberg makes an overnight trip to Seattle, she plans to stay at an old hotel on a corner in the International District, a hotel she first entered through a book.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail jjackson@olypen.com.

More in News

Helen and Greg Starr, executors of James Minsky’s estate, cut the ribbon for LtCol James Minsky Place on May 17 with Cheri Tinker, executive director of Sarge’s Veteran Support, right, and Sarge’s board president Lorri Gilchrist, and city council members Harmony Rutter and Rachel Anderson. The facility will permanently house six disabled and/or elderly veterans in Sequim. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group)
Minsky Place opens to support elderly, disabled veterans

Sarge’s Veteran Support seeks five veterans for permanent housing

Public comment opens on Dabob Bay

State, county look to move lands into conservation

Clallam renews pact with investigative unit

Agencies are currently investigating shooting outside PA bank

Motrocyclist airlifted to Harborview after wreck

A San Antonio man was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center… Continue reading

WomenSpirit Coalition staff members include, from left, Michelle Williams, Dee Koester, Diane Good (in back), Cheryl Neskahi Coan, Erin Lopez Neskahi and Laura Fierro. (Elijah Sussman/Olympic Peninsula News Group)
WomenSpirit Coalition steps into new phase

Multi-service indigenous support organization to host open house

Members of the Mount Olympus Detachment 897 of the Marine Corps League give a 21-gun salute at a Memorial Day ceremony at Mt. Angeles Memorial Park in Port Angeles on Monday. The ceremony was hosted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6787 of Carlsborg and was one of many Memorial Day events held in Clallam and Jefferson counties. (Peter Segall/Peninsula Daily News)
Solemn ceremonies honor America’s war dead

Flowers, wreaths decorate gravesites across Peninsula

Peninsula College, teachers agree on contract

Three-year deal to raise faculty salaries

Clallam County pledges $1.5 million toward preserving two farms

Commitment would provide conservation easement on properties

Cub Scout Pack 4479 laid about 200 flags on graves of veterans at the Catholic Cemetery and the front portion of Laurel Grove Cemetery in Port Townsend to honor veterans who have died. Jim Little from Troop 1479 instructed the Cub Scouts prior to dispersing them to post the colors at graves that were either marked with a star by the VFW or an inscription that indicates past military service. (Lolo Sherwood)
Honoring veterans

Cub Scout Pack 4479 laid about 200 flags on graves of veterans… Continue reading

tsr
Piping plan could be reinstated

Votes reaffirm Sequim board members

Sequim police propose updated noise control ordinance

Public hearing set June 10 at civic center

Members of the Captain Joseph House Foundation gather in October to celebrate the gifting of a Gold Star Monument marker in front of the Captain Joseph House in Port Angeles. (Courtesy photo)
Captain Joseph House to host Memorial Day ceremony

Respite home provides space for Gold Star Families