Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s and ’60s, novelist Fae Myenne Ng (Bone) and her youngest sister accompanied their father to Portsmouth Square to visit the elderly “Orphan Bachelors” who gathered in the park “like scolds of pigeons.” Because of the United States’ exclusionary immigration laws, these men couldn’t bring their wives or children when they came to work in America. Ng’s father instructed his daughters to call these men Grandfather.
As she relates in her luminous, sometimes sorrowful memoir, Orphan Bachelors, Ng’s own maternal great-grandfather was one such bachelor. Born in the 1870s, he fathered two sons before leaving China to work in the abandoned gold mines in America. On a visit back to China in 1907 (it was common for Chinese workmen to travel home on occasion), he fathered a daughter, Ng’s grandmother. Nearly 50 years later, Ng’s mother arrived in America and found and cared for her grandfather, but Ng’s mother’s mother never met her own father.
No wonder Ng’s life was filled with secrets and mysteries. She peppered the Orphan Bachelors with questions about their lives and families, but most of these were ignored or answered with wildly inventive fictions meant to scare and instruct. Ng suggests that these stories seeded her desire to write.
Ng’s father, who worked as a merchant seaman and a laborer, arrived in San Francisco in 1940 as a “paper son,” a man who had purchased his identity from another family and studied a “Book of Lies”—a coaching book containing the “correct” answers to give during his immigration interview—before entering the U.S. Although some restrictions had been lifted since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Ng’s mother was one of only 105 Chinese people allowed into the country in 1953. After Ng’s father decided to participate in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Chinese Confession Program and admit (with the promise of forgiveness) that he had entered the U.S. using falsified documents, she and her sister eventually changed their surname to Ng; their younger brothers, however, retained their father’s “paper name,” Toy.
A simple confession is never simple, however, and much of the memoir tells the story of an immigrant family in conflict. Ng’s mother, who worked first as a seamstress in a sweatshop and then as a shopkeeper, and her father, who was often at sea, did not see eye to eye. At some point the children chose sides. This family story will resonate with readers partly because of the crackle of its conflict but also because of the keen observations of its writer.
Orphan Bachelors feels intimate and evocative, quiet rather than strident. Ng’s grace as a storyteller makes it possible to understand in one’s bones how heartless policy bends and misshapes lives for generations.