"Stories can migrate into another landscape": Author & lecturer Fae Myenne Ng speaks about her book, Orphan Bachelors

April 9, 2024

Fae Myenne Ng, lecturer in the Department of Ethnic Studies, speaks about her memoir Orphan Bachelors.

Your book Orphan Bachelors was recently named a finalist for a 2023 California Book Award for non-fiction. Congratulations! What does this nomination mean to you?

I am honored to stand with books that celebrate the complexities of our state: opportunity, preservation, and memory. And who wouldn’t want to stand next to our extraordinary Anna May Wong?

What inspired you to write Orphan Bachelors and to share your family's story?

In 1940, my father memorized a Book of Lies and posed as the son of a legal American citizen to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Law (1882-1943). In 1966, he admitted those lies when he entered the Chinese Confession Program (1956-1966). In exchange, he was given the possibility of naturalization only if he signed an affidavit agreeing to be amenable to deportation.

My parents taught me that stories can migrate into another landscape, even mutate into another language. I learned Cantonese before I learned English. Now, in what my parents called the "Barbarian’s language," I write about the consequences of Exclusion and Confession, the two slamming doors of America. Orphan Bachelors continues in the genre that Exclusion has created, the lie in America.

You’ve been teaching at UC Berkeley since 2008 and include many teaching scenes in the book. How do you try to help your students understand the legacies of Exclusion and Confession?

It’s difficult 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 opportunities but they don’t need to be the obedient Communists their parents were or the sacrificial Confucians their grandparents had to be.

The Chinese Exclusion Act remains a weight in our lives. Exclusion controlled the birth of the Chinese American family for 61 years; four generations of the unborn exist among us as ghosts. 

Can you say more about the legacy of "orphan bachelors"?

I named them Orphan (tragic) Bachelors (romantic), for their hardcore lives.

The Chinese made up 90% of the workforce on the Transcontinental Railroad and helped build it ahead of schedule and under budget. This changed the economic landscape of America. Then the driving out of the Chinese began. The 1875 Page Act excluded Chinese women and the 1882 Exclusion Act excluded all Chinese. It’s the first law to exclude a nationality, a win for labor and fuel for the California Workingmen Party’s rallying cry, “The Chinese Must Go!”

In 1880, the ratio of Chinese men and women was 21 men to a single woman. Until 1920, it was never lower than 12 men to one woman. Exclusion made reunification with families difficult. Anti-miscegenation – effective in California till 1948 and not fully repealed till 1967 with the Loving vs. Virginia ruling – made intermarriage illegal, also for the Chinese.

My father raged about this calculated gender and sexual imbalance, “America didn’t have to kill any Chinese, they just made sure no Chinese babies were born.”

What’s the significance of your long subtitle, "On being a Confession Baby, Chinatown Daughter, Baa-Bai Sister, Caretaker of Exotics, Literary Balloon Peddler, and Grand Historian of a Doomed American Family"?

I wrote it as a record of Chinese American history.


The painting on the cover symbolizes Exclusion. In the book, I tell the story about the eight Chinese seamen on the Titanic. The last passenger rescued was a Chinese mariner - he was taken to New York City but forbidden to disembark. In 1912, Exclusion is in full force and he’s deported. I call him our first Deportee-Poet and write about him here.

On Being a Confession Baby/Chinatown Daughter/Baa-Bai Sister

My siblings and I are Confession Babies. I was born when the Confession Program was enacted; my youngest brother at its conclusion, which was the year my father confessed. My character was influenced by his need to stand his ground, hold his own truth. In the classroom, I’m bossy, loud, impatient, and demanding of the truth (ask my students).

Caretaker of Exotics

Tortoises are long-living creatures, and they teach me to meander and to luxuriate in time.

Literary Balloon Peddler 

Exclusion made children rare in early Chinatown and yet there was always a balloon peddler strolling down Dupont Avenue with a festival of balloons. I believe teachers are today’s literary balloon peddlers; they instill love of art in our young.   

Grand Historian of a Doomed American Family

The Grand Historian of China, Sima Qian, was the first to record China’s 2,000-year history in a book that was started by his father.  As one son inherits his father’s deadline, this daughter inherits the lost stories of her Orphan Bachelors. I hope my students will continue to write their own untold stories.

Your former student, Danielle Shi, shared an excerpt of her review for Orphan Bachelors:

“Then the Campanile starts playing its catchy six o’clock medley, my students gather their things. I admire how softly their hands go in and out of their packs, how gently they depart as if in a processional,” Ng writes. “I watch them move into the fading amber light, their faces unsure but unafraid.” The quiet stillness they display, she observes, is the body’s response to suffering. Yet these students, in the way her mother’s “life gives life,” and her father “gives his child courage in life,” are the new wave of hope for pushing beyond model minority stereotypes of economic horsepower and faces without rememory. Hope is the currency of Ng’s memoir, which is replete with valuable and artful depictions of a culture under erasure, as well as a family that “cashed in on luck; we were rich in hope.”

You teach writing – what have your students taught you?

Orphan Bachelors is also a book about writing. The teaching scenes are also learning scenes. We excavate memories and consider how to write them in the barbarian’s language. We talk about story as our ancient heartbeat. My mother was a teacher in China and she made this distinction: Story is fact, told without conditions; a secret is selfish, told as a manipulation of story. I ask my students to consider that lies are the wonder and the terror of the American story. My students are writing a new American truth.

Image of Fae Myenne Ng at a podium (dark haired woman)

Fae Myenne Ng speaks at the 50th anniversary of the Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies department.

I am honored to stand with books that celebrate the complexities of our state: opportunity, preservation, and memory.
Fae Myenne Ng, continuing lecturer
Book cover for Orphan Bachelors - a pink book with black and grey photo of an ocean with a red balloon on top

Orphan Bachelors, a memoir by Fae Myenne Ng

Hope is the currency of Ng’s memoir, which is replete with valuable and artful depictions of a culture under erasure, as well as a family that 'cashed in on luck; we were rich in hope.'
Danielle Shi, B.A. English '18