By Fae Myenne Ng

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“We were a family of three girls. By Chinese standards, that wasn’t lucky. In Chinatown, everyone knew our story. Outsiders jerked their chins, looked at us, shook their heads. We heard things.”

In this profoundly moving novel, Fae Myenne Ng takes readers into the hidden heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, to the world of one family’s honor, their secrets, and the lost bones of a “paper father.” Two generations of the Leong family live in an uneasy tension as they try to fathom the source of a brave young girl’s sorrow.

Oldest daughter Leila tells the story: of her sister Ona, who has ended her young, conflicted life by jumping from the roof of a Chinatown housing project; of her mother Mah, a seamstress in a garment shop run by a “Chinese Elvis”; of Leon, her father, a merchant seaman who ships out frequently; and the family’s youngest, Nina, who has escaped to New York by working as a flight attendant. With Ona and Nina gone, it is up to Leila to lay the bones of the family’s collective guilt to rest, and find some way to hope again.

Fae Myenne Ng’s luminous debut explores what it means to be a stranger in one’s own family, a foreigner in one’s own neighborhood–and whether it’s possible to love a place that may never feel quite like home.


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For encouragement,
I thank Eric Ashworth and Pat Mulcaby;
for the long heart, Moira Dryer;
for courage, Mark Coovelis.

FOR generous support during the writing of this book, I thank the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, the Djerassi Foundation, the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship at the University of New Mexico, Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, National Endowment for the Arts, Writers Exchange Program of Poets & Writers, The San Francisco Foundation's Joseph Henry Jackson Award, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Corporation of Yaddo.


WE WERE a family of three girls. By Chinese standards, that wasn't lucky. In Chinatown, everyone knew our story. Outsiders jerked their chins, looked at us, shook their heads. We heard things.

"A failed family. That Dulcie Fu. And you know which one: bald Leon. Nothing but daughters."

Leon told us not to care about what people said. "People talking. People jealous." He waved a hand in the air. "Five sons don't make one good daughter."

I'm Leila, the oldest, Mah's first, from before Leon. Ona came next and then Nina. First, Middle, and End Girl. Our order of birth marked us and came to tell more than our given names.

Here's another bone for the gossipmongers. On vacation recently, visiting Nina in New York, I got married. I didn't marry on a whim—don't worry, I didn't do a green-card number. Mason Louie was no stranger. We'd been together four, five years, and it was time.

Leon was the first person I wanted to tell, so I went looking for him in Chinatown. He's not my real father, but he's the one who's been there for me. Like he always told me, it's time that makes a family, not just blood.

Mah and Leon are still married, but after Ona jumped off the Nam, Leon moved out. It was a bad time. Too much happened on Salmon Alley. We don't talk about it. Even the sewing ladies leave it alone. Anyway, it works out better that Mah and Leon don't live in the same place.

When they're not feuding about the past, Leon visits Mah, helps her with the Baby Store, so they see enough of each other.

Leon's got a room at that old-man hotel on Clay Street, the San Fran. There's a toilet and bath on each floor and the lobby's used as a common room. No kitchen. I gave Leon a hot plate but he likes to have his meals either down the block at Uncle's Cafe or over at the Universal Cafe.

Leon's got the same room he had when he was a bachelor going out to sea every forty days. Our Grandpa Leong lived his last days at the San Fran, so it's an important place for us. In this country, the San Fran is our family's oldest place, our beginning place, our new China. The way I see it, Leon's life's kind of made a circle.

In the mornings, Leon likes to sit in the lobby timing the No. 55 Sacramento buses; he likes to hassle the drivers if they're not on time. They humor him, call him Big Boss. It was just after eight when I got to the San Fran, but the lobby was empty. There was a thin comb of morning light on the dusty rose-colored sofa, and the straight-back chairs were still pushed up against the wall, at their tidy night angles. When I pulled the accordion doors of the elevator back, they unfolded into a diamond pattern with a loud clang. I yanked the lever back and held it there until the number 8 floated by on the wheel contraption Leon called the odometer; then I jerked the handle forward and the elevator stopped level to the ninth floor. Leon's room was at the end of the corridor, next to the fire escape.

"Leon?" I knocked. "Leon!" I jiggled the doorknob and it turned. Leon forgets the simplest things—like locking the door: another reason it's better he doesn't live with Mah.

Without Leon, the room looked dingier. There was an old-man smell, and junk all over. Leon was a junk inventor. Very weird stuff. An electric sink. Cookie-tin clocks. Clock lamps. An intercom hooked up to a cash register hooked up to the alarm system. When they lived together, Mah put up with it all: his screws, his odd beginnings of projects scattered all over her kitchen table, on their bedside. But the day after he shipped out on a voyage, she threw everything into the garbage. She called it his lop sop. But that didn't stop Leon, who continued inventing on the long voyages. On the ships, his bunk was his only space, so every invention was compact. Leon made a miniature of everything: fan, radio, rice cooker. And he brought them all home.

Leon was a collector, too. Stacks of takeout containers, a pile of aluminum tins. Plastic bags filled with packs of ketchup and sugar. White cans with red letters, government-issue vegetables: sliced beets, waxy green beans, squash. His nightstand was a red restaurant stool cluttered with towers of Styrofoam cups, stacks of restaurant napkins, and a cup of assorted fast-food straws. Metal hangers dangled from the closet doorknob. On the windowsill were bunches of lotus leaves and coils of dried noodles. There were several tin cans: one held balls of knotted red string, another brimmed with tangles of rubber bands. The third was ashy with incense punks. Beyond these tins, I could see Coit Tower.

When I visited Leon, he'd make me coffee, boiling water in a pan and straining the grounds like an herbal tea, and then he'd show me every project he had in progress: alarm clocks, radios, lamps, and tape recorders. He'd read to me from his newspaper piles: The Chinese Times, The China Daily News, Wab Kuh, World News, Ming Bao. Leon snipped and saved the best stories for his private collection: Lost Husbands, Runaway Wives, Ungrateful Children.

Leon kept his private stash of money, what he called his Going-Back-to-China fund, in a brown bag tucked into an old blanket of Ona's. I called it his petty-cash bag. I slipped a red envelope inside. It was money from Mah, but Leon wasn't supposed to know. This was their crazy game, and I didn't like being in the middle of it. I also didn't like wandering around Chinatown looking for him, but that's what I had to do, so I clicked the button and shut the door behind me.

When I got downstairs, the lobby was as full and as noisy as the Greyhound bus station. A group of coatless men stood in front of the sofa, barking questions at an old man who was seated there. He'd gotten lost.

"How come you go there?"

"How long?"

"You're home now, savvy?"

"How about we call your daughter?"

The lost man patted his knees and kept his eyes downcast. "Don't know," he muttered in a low voice that hardly seemed a breath. "Don't know. Don't remember. Don't know."

"Move aside!" Manager Lee came rushing out of his office, yelling at someone to pour a cup of boiled water from the thermos for the old man.

The questions started again.

"Why you wander off like that?"

"How many more times you be lucky?"

Manager Lee waved the others away. "Let him drink. Shut up. Go do your day."

I followed Manager Lee into his office and watched him flip through a notebook. He dialed quickly, jabbing his long yellowed nail into the circles. The phone clacked and rattled. Then he looked up at me and said in a harsh tone, "What?!"

I stepped back, a little scared.

"Whatsamattah?" he barked again, this time letting his mouth hang open. "Leon lost, too?"

I said, "He's not in his room."

Manager Lee turned his head and shouted into the phone, "Hello-hello? This, Lee at the San Fran hotel. Can you ask Choi Wei-ling to come to the phone?" He covered the mouthpiece and said to me, "Try the Square."

I nodded my thanks and turned to go. The old guys were putting on their coats and shuffling toward the door. The lost man watched, picking at a hole in the arm of the sofa. Behind him, the gray shapes on the linoleum wall looked like shadows of faces. I didn't want to see Leon end up like that, all alone and lost.

I hated looking for Leon at the Square, seeing him hanging around with those time wasters, so I went and checked a couple of other places first. Uncle's Cafe was just down the corner from the hotel; often Leon passed his mornings there, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. At Uncle's Cafe, every single table is an old-man table. Old men telling jokes and laughing, but no old Leon. The register lady shook her head at me. No Leon, she said. So I continued, turning onto Waverly Place, the two-block alley famous in the old days as barbers' row. Leon still calls it Fifteen-Cent Alley, after the old-time price of a haircut. Now Waverly Place has everything: there's the First Chinese Baptist Church, the Jeng Sen Buddhism Taoism Association, the Bing-Kong Tong Free Masons, the Four Seas Restaurant and the Pot Sticker, several travel agencies and beauty salons, but only one barber shop.

On Washington, I looked into the Shing Kee Grocery, where Leon sometimes helped sort vegetables, but no luck. No Leon. I walked down the steps to Woey Loy Goey and looked for Leon's friend, the head cook. Mr. Wong sat behind the counter, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. He glanced up when he saw me and muttered, "The Square," and then went back to his paper.

I couldn't avoid going there.

THE overpass from the Holiday Inn to Portsmouth Square cast a broad shadow over the playground. Avoiding the beggars' corner, where the pissy stench was strongest, I followed the sliver of sunlight along the east side, crowded with grandmothers and young children.

A group of old men stood at the base of the stairs, playing cards. The one holding his cards close had a thumb like a snake's head; he stared at me, so I gave him a scowl. When I walked past the chess tables, more old guys turned, more stares. I never liked being the only girl on the upper level of the park. More than once, an old guy has come up and asked, "My room? Date?" It was just pathetic.

I heard a raucous laugh, a jeering curse, and then I recognized You Thin Toy's phlegmy voice. "I eat your horse!"

The men clustered close together at each table. They looked like scraps of dark remnant fabric. As I moved closer, the details became more distinct: tattered collars, missing buttons, safety-pinned seams, patch pockets full of fists.

You Thin Toy was buried four men deep, so I pushed into the crowd. He was my personal favorite of Leon's fleabag friends. They met on the S. S. Lincoln, coming over to America. Leon was fifteen, You Thin, eighteen, but their false papers gave them each a few extra years. On the long voyage, they coached each other on their paper histories: Leon was the fourth son of a farm worker in the Sacramento valley, his mother had bound feet, her family was from Hoiping. You Thin was the second son of a shoe cobbler in San Francisco, the family compound had ten rooms, the livestock consisted of an ox, two pigs, and many chickens. His older brother was a fishery worker in Monterey and his younger brother worked in San Francisco with their father.

After You Thin and Leon both passed the interrogation at Angel Island, they slapped each other's backs. Each called the other "Brother" and predicted the good life, "Hao sai gai!" Leon asked one of the friendlier guards on the Island for a word to describe their blood brotherness.

"Cousin," the guard said.

Maybe "cousin" was Leon's first English word.

You Thin changed back to his real name as soon as he could, but Leon never did. Leon liked to repeat what he told You Thin: "In this country, paper is more precious than blood."

"Pow!" A man slapped down a disk with the character "field."The painted green strokes were brilliant against the concrete table.

"Pow!" the man said again, "my elephant eats your fat queen."

"Wey!" You Thin held on to the back of his head as if it hurt. "Again!" He chanted the names as he reset the chess-board: "Cannon. Elephant. Field."

"Cousin." I tapped his shoulder. "You seen Leon?"

You Thin glanced up and muttered, "The Universal."

As I turned to go, old raspy voices followed me.

"Who's that?"

"Leon's oldest."

"Not bad."

THE UNIVERSAL is my favorite cafe, but not for the food. I like the old-style booths, the marble-topped tables with the bare bulbs overhead, and the soda fountain with the cushioned red stools.

The waiters were filling sugar and napkin containers, getting ready for the Greyhound tour crowds. Fat Croney Kam sat behind the caged register booth. His round head filled the window and he looked like a big plucked bird. Croney Kam pointed with his smooth chin toward the kitchen and said, "Leon's helping out. My no-good fry cook quit. Sell his mother!"

I saw Leon through the horizontal service window. His long neck and bald head reminded me of a light bulb.

I pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen. "You working all day?"

He smiled. "Just lunch rush. New York fun?"


Croney yelled through the service window, "Three fry wonton!" He winked at me, "Big Miss have time? Give a hand, help Uncle Kam out."

I had time, so I washed my hands and started folding wontons. Leon asked me New York questions.

"You go see Time Square?"

I made a face.


I shook my head.

"I took the subway be the wrong direction. I saw." From the raised subway tracks, he saw dilapidated buildings and huge cracks in the street. Leon was impressed; he said it was a good name, the right name: Brooklyn was broke.

"What about the Freedom Goddess?"

I had no idea what he was talking about.

"You know." He raised his arm over his head. "Green Lady in Ocean."

I laughed. "Statue of Liberty, Leon."

"What about Chinatown, you go there?"

"Sure, with Nina. Hey, Leon, guess what about Nina."

I saw Leon's worried brow and lowered my voice. "Don't tell Mah but she likes this Chinese guy." I paused. "Chinese from China," I said.

Leon scooped up some wonton and gave the ladle a whack on the rim of the wok. "What happened to that Michael?"

"She's better off without him."

Leon looked surprised and then he pushed a plate toward me on the counter. "Try," he said.

I nibbled on the hot tail of the wonton knot. "Better not tell Mah yet," I warned. "You never know with Nina."

"Don't have to worry. I keep a secret good."

Hearing that made the telling easy. "Guess what else, Leon."

He looked up.

I said, "Mason and me, we got married. In New York." Leon was quiet for a while and then his straggly brow twitched. "City Hall?"

"Yeah… But how'd you know?"

He winked at me, smiling big. "I been there, too."

It took me a minute to catch up with him. I relaxed, remembering that Leon didn't like fanfare and ceremony. He'd already said no flowers, no bugle and drums at his funeral. In matters of the heart, Leon preferred the simple.

What wasn't simple was my guilt about having a better life than Mah. She married my father for a thrill and Leon for convenience. She loves Mason and she'd be happy for us, but she'd have to face her bitterness about her own marriages and that's what I wanted to protect her from. Remembering the bad. Refeeling the mistakes.

"Wey! Croney Kam!" Leon was yelling out the service window. "Come congratulate me. My Lei just married the Louie boy."

For a fat man, Croney Kam moved fast. He came belly first through the double doors. "Who?" he demanded, looking at me and then at Leon. "What?"

Leon tapped his chest. "My Lei married the Louie boy."

"Louie? Louie who?"

"You know, Lam-kok Louie, the old herbalist."

"The one who cured old Jue?"

"Yeah. Him. Him grandson."

"Long-hair, that boy?"

"Say something good, why don't you?"

Croney grinned. "When's the banquet? Am I invited?" Leon jutted his chin at Croney. "You eat too much." Croney rubbed his belly. "Well, how about having the wedding banquet here and giving Uncle Kam some business?"

CRONEY gave us some lunch after the rush, so it was close to three when we left the Universal. Leon was in a good mood because he had made twenty-five cash and he felt like spending it. He talked about a stereo at Goodwill for the Baby Store. He was hinting. Leon's ideas were pretty good, but the problem was that he never finished anything he started. And I thought it was a lot of trouble. Did Mah even want a stereo? I told him fixing old things was a headache. But I was wasting my breath; what he enjoys most is making old things work.

We were on Pacific, walking past the red iron gates of the West Ping Projects when someone shouted down at us, "Wey! Mr. Walk-Around-in-the-Middle-of-the-Day!"

I looked up and saw Jimmy Lowe.

"Lazy bum," Leon yelled back. "I'm retired. I'm eating social security."

Jimmy Lowe waved from the emerald-painted balcony, "Wait, I come down. Tell you some news."

Leon bellowed back, "Your news is dragged in from the bottom of the sea!"

Yelling in the street! I was embarrassed.

Jimmy Lowe slipped through the iron gates. He turned a quick shoulder down and lowered his voice, still chewing on a toothpick. I knew the pose: committee talk, another get-rich scheme. Leon leaned closer, interested.

I shifted from one foot to the other. Great, I thought, so Leon is hanging around with Chinatown drift-abouts. Spitters. Sitters. Flea men in the Square. Mah calls Jimmy Lowe the Mo-yeah-do-Bak (Mr. Have-Nothing-to-Do). Most of the old guys have nothing to do, but Jimmy Lowe has less to do than any of them. Mah never liked the guy. When we had the grocery store, Jimmy was always coming by and sitting around for hours. He hasn't changed; he uses the Baby Store in the same way. I was just about to tell Leon that I'd meet him there when I heard him talking about me and Mason getting married in New York.

"Lucky for you! Happy for you!" Jimmy Lowe slapped Leon's back.

"Okay. Next time we talk. We go now to see Mason, my son-in-law." Leon winked at me. "Right?"

I nodded, glad it wasn't only the twenty-five dollars and the thought of another project that put Leon in a good mood. He was happy for Mason and me.

Crossing Kearney, Leon said, "Poor Jimmy Lowe. Got nothing better to do than to cook up schemes."

But wasn't going to see Mason a clever scheme? Goodwill was in the Mission, near Mason's shop—Leon figured he'd have time to hunt around for some junk before Mason got off. I thought, why not? We had a couple of hours before dinner, and besides, I was looking for some time out myself. I wasn't ready to tell Mah the news.

UP BROADWAY I drove fast, made every light: Grant, Stockton, Powell. No stops, a straight shot through the tunnel; Mason would've been proud. Just before moving into the shadow that led us out of Chinatown, we passed the Edith Eaton school. I work there. Five days a week I pass this spot.

Next to the school is the Nam Ping Yuen, the last of the four housing projects built in Chinatown. Nam means south and ping yuen—if you want to get into it—is something like "peaceful gardens." We call it the Nam. I've heard other names: The Last Ping. The Fourth Ping. For us, the Nam is a bad-luck place, a spooked spot.

My middle sister, Ona, jumped off the M floor of the Nam. The police said she was on downers. But I didn't translate that for Mah or tell her everything else I heard, because by then I was all worn-out from dealing with death in two languages. I knew Ona was doing ludes, but I'd gone through a downer stage myself, so I didn't worry. I was trying to break away from always being the Big Sister. And I really couldn't blame her for doing all that stuff and keeping quiet. Those days, Mah and Leon were giving her a hard time for going out with Osvaldo.

After Ona jumped, Mah was real messed up. She didn't think it was a thing to be gotten over. "Better a parent before a child, better a wife than a husband," she cried. "Everything's all turned around, all backward." Mah wanted to live with it and so we all did for a while. We lived with the ghost, the guilt. But then it got too dark.

Like that, we all just snapped apart. For me, it was as if time broke down: Before and After Ona Jumped. I didn't want anything to be the same. I wanted a new life, as if to say that person then, that person that wasn't able to save Ona, that person was not me. All of us took that trip, but we came back to ourselves, to our old ways. I had to believe that it'd been Ona's choice.

Ona has become a kind of silence in our lives. We don't talk about her. We don't have anything more to say.

I always thought Nina had the best deal because she escaped the day-to-day of it: the every-single-moment. She got time away from the fright of it; and to me, that was being free. But on this trip to New York, I saw different, I saw that Nina still suffered.

I caught a quick tangy whiff. Leon peeled a tangerine and handed me a slice. I popped the segment, its tart taste bursting in my mouth.

Having Leon in the car with me made it feel like a regular workday. I just started my new position as the community relations specialist for my school, and I do a lot of home visits. I've taken Leon along a couple of times. I told him I needed the company so that he'd think he was doing me a favor—the truth was I hated the thought of him hanging around with those fleabags at Portsmouth Square every single day.

My job is about being the bridge between the classroom teacher and the parents. Teachers target the kids, and I make home visits; sometimes a student needs special tutoring, sometimes it's a disciplinary problem I have to discuss with the parents. My job is about getting the parents involved, opening up a line of communication. I speak enough Chinese and I'm pretty good with parents, but it still surprises me how familiar some of the frustration still feels. The job sounds great on paper, but sometimes, when I'm face to face with the parent, I get this creepy feeling that I'm doing a bit of a missionary number.

Most of my students are recent immigrants. Both parents work. Swing shift. Graveyard. Seamstress. Dishwasher. Janitor. Waiter. One job bleeds into another. They have enough worries, and they don't like me coming in and telling them they have one more.

I invite them to the parent-teacher meetings, the annual potluck. At the evaluation conferences, I tell them that their participation is important.

They tell me, "That's your job. In China, the teacher bears all responsibility."

I use my This Isn't China defense. I remind them "We're in America." But some parents take this to heart and raise their voices. "We're Chinese first, always." I can't win an argument in Chinese and I've learned from experience to stop the argument right there, before I lose all my authority.

Being inside their cramped apartments depresses me. I'm reminded that we've lived like that, too. The sewing machine next to the television, the rice bowls stacked on the table, the rolled-up blankets pushed to one side of the sofa. Cardboard boxes everywhere, rearranged and used as stools or tables or homework desks. The money talk at dinnertime, the list of things they don't know or can't figure out. Cluttered rooms. Bare lives. Every day I'm reminded nothing's changed about making a life or raising kids. Everything is hard.

What's hard for me is realizing that the parents seem more in need than the kids. They try too hard, and it's all wrong; they overdo the politeness and their out-of-context compliments grate on my nerves. "You're so Chinese. You're so smart. You should run for Miss Chinatown."

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  • "An incantory first novel . . . [Ms. Ng] is blessed with a poet's gift for metaphor and a reporter's eye for detail."—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
  • "Brutal and poignant, dreamy and gritty, specific to its place and resonant in its implication about what it means to be an American."—Seattle Times/Post-Intelligence
  • "An extraordinary first novel . . . A hopeful, charming, and surprisingly joyous work."—Chicago Tribune

On Sale
Nov 3, 2015
Page Count
208 pages
Hachette Books

Fae Myenne Ng

About the Author

Fae Myenne Ng was born in San Francisco, and lives in Northern California and New York City. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s and other magazines, and have been widely anthologized.

Learn more about this author