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Reviews of Orphan Bachelors by Fae Ng

Orphan Bachelors

A Memoir

by Fae Myenne Ng

Orphan Bachelors by Fae Myenne Ng X
Orphan Bachelors by Fae Myenne Ng
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  • Published:
    May 2023, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Book Summary

From the bestselling and award-winning author of novels Bone and Steer Toward Rock, Fae Myenne Ng's Orphan Bachelors is an extraordinary memoir of her beloved San Francisco's Chinatown and of a family building a life in a country bent on their exclusion

In pre-Communist China, Fae Myenne Ng's father memorized a book of lies and gained entry to the United States as a stranger's son, evading the Exclusion Act, an immigration law which he believed was meant to extinguish the Chinese American family. During the McCarthy era, he entered the Confession Program in a failed attempt to salvage his marriage only to have his citizenship revoked to resident alien. Exclusion and Confession, America's two slamming doors. As Ng's father said, "America didn't have to kill any Chinese, the Exclusion Act ensured none would be born."

Ng was her parents' precocious first born, the translator, the bossy eldest sister. A child raised by a seafaring father and a seamstress mother, by San Francisco's Chinatown and its legendary Orphan Bachelors — men without wives or children, Exclusion's living legacy. She and her siblings were their stand-in descendants, Ng's family grocery store their haven.

Each Orphan Bachelor bequeathed the children their true American inheritance. Ng absorbed their suspicious, lonely, barren nature; she found storytelling and chosen children in the form of her students. Exclusion's legacy followed her from the back alleys of Chinatown in the 60s, to Manhattan in the 80s, to the high desert of California in the 90s, until her return home in the 2000s when the untimely deaths of her youngest brother and her father devastated the family. As a child, Ng believed her father's lies; as an adult, she returned to her childhood home to write his truth.

Orphan Bachelors weaves together the history of one family, lucky to exist and nevertheless doomed; an elegy for brothers estranged and for elders lost; and insights into writing between languages and teaching between generations. It also features Cantonese profanity, snakes that cure fear and opium that conquers sorrow, and a seemingly immortal creep of tortoises. In this powerful remembrance, Fae Myenne Ng gives voice to her valiant ancestors, her bold and ruthless Orphan Bachelors, and her own inner self, howling in Cantonese, impossible to translate but determined to be heard.

Orphan Bachelors

On this rare sunny day in the Outer Richmond of San Francisco, I take my late brother's tortoises down to the yard for their bath. My neighbor is in her garden and asks if I like gai choy.

"Love it,'' I say.

"Let me give you some."

I go to the fence and watch her cut the tall greens at their thick stems. When I reach for the bunch of bright stalks, I feel like a Miss Chinatown receiving her winning bouquet. The plumes of leaves are wider than bamboo and more delicate. I ask, "No slugs?"

"They don't like it," Fay says.

My name is Fae, too, but I don't know if we share the same Chinese character. Another day I'll ask if hers means smart or favored.

"Right. Too bitter," I say. Bitter is why I prefer gai choy over bok choy.

"Want more?" she offers.

Before I can decline, she's sending more over. The tall stalks double in my arms and I feel like a champ. Who wants to be Miss Chinatown anyway? my sister would say.

"Eat only once a week. Otherwise it's ...

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BookBrowse Review


Ng perceives Chu's novel as a kind of taking back of power for Chinese America, and this book, at its best, does something similar for a new generation with its humor and vulgarity and heart. Orphan Bachelors reads like compensation for the still-prevalent sanitized, stereotypical depictions of Asian Americans eager to earn their place through hard work and dedication to "family," a word that is today often used as a euphemism for the absence of sex ("family-friendly") or the absence of racialized people (as in, sometimes, "a good neighborhood for families"). Ng rejects this split between the family and the self, the family and the other, the family and the act that is frequently instrumental in creating it. Instead, she suggests that family separation and oppression have the insidious effect of stifling future generations' individual autonomy and desires — personal, creative, sexual — and that these things merit preservation and cultivation...continued

Full Review Members Only (886 words)

(Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Beautifully written, powerfully informative and never boring…. Thanks to Ng's fierce talent and unapologetic honesty, Orphan Bachelors is a revelation.

New York Times
Paints her story with flourish… Ng's narrative might be likened to a figurative oil work, with structured lines building layers of her family's history.

Booklist (starred review)
Each of Ng's exquisite books, Bone (1993), Steer toward Rock (2008), now this, is worth the 15- year wait in-between… Ng presents a luminous memoir, finding transformative, aching authenticity in revealing difficult lives… Her exceptional storytelling elucidates and illuminates.

Publishers Weekly
The author's straightforward prose and the work's staggering scope bring home the myriad ways misguided policies damaged generations of immigrant families. Readers will be rapt.

Author Blurb Gish Jen, author of The Resisters
By turns horrifying, hilarious and moving, Orphan Bachelors is a book that needed to be written. I was mesmerized by its intensity and haunted by its candor; it grips the reader and does not let go.

Author Blurb Hua Hsu, author of Stay True
Orphan Bachelors is so many treasures at once: an enthralling memoir, an act of reckoning, a history of American exclusion and Chinatown resilience, an attempt to conjure the vast horizons that her forebears were never allowed to imagine. Orphan Bachelors is the culmination of Ng's brilliant career.

Author Blurb Ishmael Reed, author of Mumbo Jumbo
Ng is part of a literary revolt that argued that it is not enough to be patted on the head for writing beautifully, which she does, but like Ng, one can be the archivist and librarian of the communities' stories before they become extinct. Fae Myenne Ng continues to be among the globe's finest writers.

Author Blurb Maxine Hong Kingston, author of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life
Aha! So that's what became of the men who went to sea. Aha! So that's what that word―that sound―means. Oh, so I am not alone. Fae Myenne Ng's memoir helps the reader recover memories, and to know lost history.

Reader Reviews

prem singh yadav

Orphan Bachelors: A Memoir
Fae Myenne Ng's memoir "Orphan Bachelors: A Memoir" is a profoundly personal investigation of the author's Chinese family history and the influence of US immigration rules on her relatives. Ng investigates her relatives' life, beginning with her ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Eat a Bowl of Tea by Louis Chu

Book cover for Eat a Bowl of TeaIn her book Orphan Bachelors, Fae Myenne Ng recalls her life-changing discovery of Louis Chu's "defiant, subversive novel" Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961), now considered a classic of Asian American literature, which depicts Manhattan Chinatown bachelor society in the late 1940s.

The novel begins with two friends living in this milieu, Wang Wah Gay and Lee Gong. They are both technically married men but have been separated from their wives for decades. This is a normal state of affairs due to racist immigration laws that have kept Chinese male laborers from bringing their families to the United States, but the Exclusion Act has been repealed, and it is now possible for a Chinese American man to bring a wife to the country from China. The ...

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