Fae Myenne Ng Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Fae Myenne Ng

Fae Myenne Ng

How to pronounce Fae Myenne Ng: "Myenne" is a single syllable. "Ng" is pronounced "ing."

An interview with Fae Myenne Ng

A Conversation with Fae Myenne Ng, author of Orphan Bachelors

What motivated you to write this memoir?

This is the book I always hoped to write. Orphan Bachelors is about the almost-vainglorious era in my San Francisco's Chinatown, a sliver of time when my parents and their community held on tenaciously to the pre-Mao culture they knew, much like how the Sicilians in Manhattan's Little Italy preserved the world of pre-Mussolini Italy.

Tell us how the Chinese Exclusion Act and US immigration policies directly impacted your immediate family and your Chinatown community?

Families were rare in the Chinatown of my youth, making it an intimate, insular village. Despite Exclusion being repealed in 1943, for over two decades, a quota limited the annual entry of Chinese to 105 persons. My father called it "the Little Exclusion".

In 1940, my father's sister, the wife of a merchant, was already in America and paid $4,000 (today's equivalent of $82,000) for citizenship papers that allowed him to enter the country. He was one of the last and youngest detainees on Angel Island in its final year of operation. There, he was interrogated; he'd memorized a book of lies to pose as the son of an American citizen. After several mishaps, he passed the interrogation. He lived in San Francisco as an Orphan Bachelor for eight years before returning to China to marry. The newlyweds left for Hong Kong just before the Communist takeover. In 1953, they came to San Francisco. Since he was a civilian employee in the Department of the Navy, his wife's entry was not counted toward the 105 annual quota. I was born in '56, my youngest brother in '66, we were children of a time when all the Orphan Bachelors had hope.

Can you explain who the Orphan Bachelors were and the role they played in your childhood in SF's Chinatown in the sixties?

Our Orphan Bachelors were leftover men without family. They came to America to make a living, worked the abandoned gold mines and built the Transcontinental Railroad. They developed California's agricultural and fishing industries; they cultivated the Bing cherry, the cluster tomato, the early-fruiting apple, and the cold-resistant orange. Across the country they worked restaurants, laundries, and in private homes. But the 1882 Exclusion Act would keep them captive on American soil. Anti-miscegenation laws would make it illegal for them to marry and have families.

When I was a child, the Orphan Bachelors wandered Dupont Avenue. The Blind Orphan Bachelor fixed our clocks and radios. The Fairmont Orphan Bachelor brought me all the newspapers the guests left behind. The Paper Collector Orphan Bachelor taught me to collect any piece of paper with writing, which he burned in a special furnace and then deposited the ashes in a secret place in the bay; he taught me that writing and the dissemination of writing was sacred.

When you were nine, your mother told you a story about your father, that he was stolen from his childhood home as a boy and sold far away. Why do you think your mother shared this with you? And why is it important that you call it a story, and not a secret?

This was family knowledge. Telling me was teaching me compassion.

My mother made this distinction: a story is fact; a secret is selfish. A story is told with no conditions. A secret is perhaps a manipulation of a story. She was teaching me that stories can migrate and mutate into another landscape, another language.

At the end of the book, I write:

Perhaps Mah told me the story I needed to carry, and perhaps Deh didn't tell what would imprison me.

My mother trusted me with the story; her trust made me a writer.

What was the experience of writing your story and your family's story in English? Tell us why the Ballad of Mulan was an inspiration to you.

When my Aunt Juvenda tired of tutoring me in math, she recited the Ballad of Mulan and I was mesmerized. The ballad opens with Mulan weaving and the jik jik jik sounds just like my mother's sewing. So, I realized that work sounds can be art and that a woman's work can be noble. That would lead me to textile design and then to writing.

In my writing, I want to recreate the cadence of Cantonese in English.

For example, I use the word "perhaps" in English to echo the archaic Cantonese word pei yu. It's a word about possibilities; an old-fashioned word which I think of as part of the vainglorious lexicon: wily, imaginative, and hopeful.

Why was Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of China, an inspiration?

When my father told me Sima Qian's story, I was inspired by his determination to finish the Records of the Grand Historian, the first written history of China, a two-thousand-year opus. Sima Qian inherited the book deadline from his father who died, leaving only some notes and an outline. Sima Qian inherited his deadline, but because he offended the emperor, he had to choose castration to complete his manuscript. After he finished his book, his daughter protected it from the emperor, and her son presented it to the world. This taught me that writing a book demands the devotion of generations. That has certainly been the case for me with Orphan Bachelors.

What do you hope readers find in Orphan Bachelors?

I hope anyone with family will find something in the book. We have our best loving and worst fighting and most honest laughing because we share time inside the family. Who else has our history? Maybe I was also trying to learn what it takes to forgive inside a family.

What does it mean to be a Baa-bai sister? How has your birth order played out in your family dynamics throughout your life?

Baa-bai is a uniquely Cantonese term that my parents used to describe the arrogant customer or the grand banquet, anyone who commanded a room with confidence. I was responsible for my siblings, and if they did wrong, it was my fault, so I was the baa-bai sister, bossy and loud, with grand responsibilities. Outside the home, I was my parents' translator and there was no tolerance for shyness or fear. There could be no grievance I would not translate and no room too scary to enter.

As a teacher, I spot the baa-bai student immediately, the one who wants to do everything, leads all discussions, hands in assignments first and volunteers for all extra credit projects. I try and relax them.

How do you try to help your students understand the legacies of Exclusion and Confession?

I know how hard it is to balance duty with desire so I tell my students to create the freedom to live their own lives first. They can still respect the sacrifices that gave them their privilege, but they don't need to be the obedient Communists their parents were or the sacrificial Confucians their grandparents had to be.

Many don't realize that the Exclusion Act is still a weight on their sexuality. The Confession Program, because of its manifestation of fear, still controls our ability to tell our truths; the program also engendered a paranoia that has sabotaged our freedom of expression as Americans. The Confession Program destroyed trust and loyalty within family and community, it has created a powerful insidious fear.

As my father said, Exclusion was brilliant because it was bloodless, no babies were killed, they just weren't allowed to be born.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by Fae Myenne Ng at BookBrowse
Orphan Bachelors jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Fae Myenne Ng but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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