Part of our ongoing series of Book-It interviews conducted by TeenTix writers.
by Payton Schenck, Book-It TeenTix Writing Project Contributor
For many, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is simply a story about love enduring through the test of internment. However, for Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production, Carey Wong, scenic designer, found a more personal connection.
“Henry Lee is a character…[who is] my father’s age…He was in high school when he remembers students having to leave during the internment,” Wong said. During World War II, the U.S. government forced Japanese-Americans to leave their communities and live in camps further inland.
Wong explained that he was able to speak with his father about what is was like growing up during the time of internment, and many things that came along with it. “Being a Chinese-American, I didn’t experience this story. But my dad remembers the ‘I Am Chinese’ buttons and everything that occurred when the Japanese were interned, and because he had dear friends who were Japanese-Americans who went off to camp, it really resonated with him.”
Prior to accepting the position as scenic designer for Hotel…, Wong had never read the Jamie Ford novel. After being offered the position by good friend, Book-It Managing Director Charlotte Tiencken, Wong grew intrigued by the idea of working on a show with Asian-American themes.
“There used to be an Asian-American theater company in Seattle… And it gave a lot more opportunities for Asian-American actors to work and perform in this community on scripts that kind of told the story of Asian-Americans. So it was very exciting to have an opportunity to work on a script that is filled with Asian-American characters,” Wong explained.
However, because the theater no longer exists, Wong has found it difficult to find shows that focus on his cultural story. The very idea of working with Asian-American culture intrigued Wong, and brought him to accept the offer to design the scenery for Book-It’s production.
While working on the Hotel…, Wong found his father an invaluable resource in understanding the internment era, and found the story to be an incredible generational narrative, as he learned his grandfather was similar to Henry’s father.
“I know the kind of person who Henry’s father was, kind of having experienced him in my family. And I think in some ways, my father, who is very Americanized… had the experience of being torn between desires that his father had for him, and what he wanted to do with his life.” Wong discovered that these similarities made the project more personal and helped him to understand his family’s dynamic in a new light.
However, the cultural aspect of the project was not the only thing that Wong enjoyed about the project: “I found the story incredibly moving and heartfelt. Especially with this kind of budding affection that the young Henry and Keiko had for each other, which was in some ways cut short by the separation,” and how Henry is left “always wondering what happened to her.”
The love story, Wong feels, gives the story its charm, and helps the play strike chords with everyone in the audience. In addition, the Seattle-specific locations make the story particularly meaningful to local audiences, who may have been to the International District.
Overall, Wong has found the project to be a positive experience. “I really enjoyed working on it, I think it is a wonderful script and a wonderful story. I think it will have a lot of resonance to Asian-Americans in the community.”