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

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

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