New York 2009
Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle's Japantown. The old Seattle landmark was a place he'd visited twice in his lifetime. First when he was only twelve years old, way back in 1942 - "the war years" he liked to call them. Even then the old bachelor hotel had stood as a gateway between Seattle's Chinatown and Nihonmachi, Japantown. Two outposts of an old-world conflict where Chinese and Japanese immigrants rarely spoke to one another, while their American-born children often played in the streets together.
It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol. This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s
This is the story of Henry Lee (a Chinese American) through transitions in time between the 1940s and 1986 in Seattle. At the Japanese internment camp in Idaho, the young Henry gets a job as a server in the kitchen, and is able to visit his sweetheart, Keiko. In Seattle, in 1986, the older Henry begins to know his grown son, Marty. Henry was a widower now, and it was lonely ... there was an "Ethel-shaped hole" in his life without her.
The Panama Hotel is central to the story throughout. The new owner allows Henry and Marty to search in the dusty basement for belongings of Keiko's family ... particulary for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure.