The Panama Hotel and a Talk with Students

Summary: The Panama Hotel and the novel in which it is featured leads to a lively and thoughtful discussion with junior high students.

I recently was asked to speak to several classes of junior high students in the Mercer Island School District in the state of Washington. Students were reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.

The novel is a story about a young Chinese-American boy and his unlikely friendship with a Japanese-American girl, and their struggle to maintain their friendship after her family is sent off to an internment camp.

Panama Hotel, present-day

The hotel in the title refers to the Panama Hotel, which still stands at the western edge of the International District in downtown Seattle. The structure was declared a National Historic Landmark building in 2006, and designated a National Treasure in 2015 — one of only 60 across the nation.

Before WWII, the hotel stood in the center of Nihonmachi, or “Japantown,” which was a thriving hub for Japanese-American businesses, including stores, barber shops, bathhouses, and more. After the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, most of Nihonmachi passed to other groups, save for a few exceptions … most notably, the Panama Hotel.

Panama Hotel, circa 1920

Built in 1910 by the first Japanese-American architect in Seattle, Sabro Ozasa, the hotel has been restored to retain much of its historic condition. Many Japanese-American bachelors lived in the Panama Hotel before the war, and since the rooms had no closets, they fashioned wardrobes out of old wooden shipping containers. You may still find old labels from canned vegetables affixed to the back side of their walls.

A basement room of the hotel was filled with belongings of Japanese-American families that had to quickly prepare for their “evacuation” to the internment camps. Although some families returned after the war to retrieve their stored belongings, many did not.

Articles Left By Japanese-Americans

A Plexiglas-covered hole in the teahouse floor today enables diners to peer down at the items people left behind: luggage, a baby carriage, furniture. It is like looking through a window in time, and one wonders what became of the families who never reclaimed their belongings.

Teahouse in the Panama Hotel

I cannot encourage anyone enough to visit the hotel and take a moment to peer through the window in the teahouse floor, if you live near Seattle or expect to visit the city!

The daughter of a musician friend of mine attends the Mercer Island Junior High school, and a request was sent out by the school to anyone who might have experience with Chinese or Japanese immigrants in Seattle to come and speak. My friend reached out to me, and after several emails and phone conversations, we scheduled time for me to do a remote session to speak with the students about my mom’s family experience during WWII.

I was delighted to receive questions from many students the week before my scheduled talk. Questions ranged from living conditions in the camp to issues of identity, racism, and how we feel about the event in retrospect. I was glad to answer the questions, as well as think about them in preparation for my talk.

At the appointed time, through a remote computer connection, I showed pictures of my mother and her family, and pictures from “camp.” With only a half hour per class, I had to limit my talk primarily to the period of incarceration.

At the end of my talk, I encouraged the students to examine two take-away lessons:

1. Interview your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

I never knew my grandparents. They died around the time I was born. The only reason I know these stories is because my mom collected them and laboriously hand wrote, then manually typed them, and shared them with me.

Today, it is so easy with a cell phone to audio- or video-record a relative. Ask the person about his or her life growing up. Be persistent! You will be grateful to have the stories and recordings later!

2. Stand up and speak up for what you know to be right.

My mother often says it was not the mean, racist people who hurt her and her family the most. Rather, it was the many people who stood by silently and allowed the mistreatment and injustices to occur.

I told the students I believed they knew right from wrong, and encouraged them to speak up when they saw something wrong. Whether it happens at an individual, community, or nationwide level, speak up! Don’t let anyone try to persuade you that your voice does not matter.

I was happy about the reception I received from the classes and the thoughtful questions the students posed. I was also delighted to receive personal messages a week later from the students thanking me for the talk.

Many wrote how much more meaningful I had made the history for them. Learning a personal story helped them understand much better what had happened and why it was so important to not to forget. At least one also indicated his intention to interview his parents. That really made me happy!

History is sometimes taught as a random collection of names and dates, and it often glosses over or completely skips its darker chapters. I was glad to speak with the students, and left the experience with renewed hope for the future.