Fae Myenne Ng - Published 1993

Fae Myenne Ng was born in San Francisco, California, in 1957. She remembers associating with the elderly men who had come to America to earn money but who had expected to someday return home. Revolution in China and bizarre American laws regarding Chinese immigration had trapped many of them in California. Those men were remarkable to her: They had helped build California’s agriculture, mines, and railroads. One such elderly man, then working as a night janitor at a hotel, provided her with patrons’ leftover newspapers, helping her to become interested in current events and the world at large.

Her parents worked diligently—her father as a cook for a University of California, Berkeley fraternity, and her mother as an imaginative seamstress who made many different kinds of clothing. Her schooling seems to have been good, and her reading as an adolescent was rich in Chinese literary classics. Sources disagree about her college education, but she may have attended the University of California, Berkeley. The most reliable source says that she then attended the Columbia University School of Arts in New York, receiving her Masters Degree in Liberal Arts in 1984.

She married a writer, Mark Coovelis, and worked as a waitress in New York while writing Bone. She worked on Bone for ten years, rewriting it several times. Her publishers, Hyperion of New York, wanted her to change the title to something less forbidding than Bone, but she refused; for her, the title represented the Chinese immigrants who still felt ties to China, people who are the foundation of the society of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Upon publication in 1993, Bone was met with a storm of interest, and the book was reviewed extensively. It was praised for its stylistic brilliance and for bringing the culture of Chinatown to life. Not everyone liked the novel—some found it confusing or did not like its presentation of the Chinese Americans—but on the basis of the one novel, Ng became a significant literary figure.


Bone is the story of Leila, a young woman who relates her account of the suicide of her sister Ona and the family and society in which she grew up. The emphasis is on how three sisters’ lives are shaped by the environment in which they come of age, as well as how they feel culturally out of sync—not quite Chinese, yet very Chinese, not quite American, yet the essence of America. The novel’s appeal lies in its strong characterizations and its depiction of how cultural disorientation affects lives.


Most of the events in Bone take place in a relatively small area of San Francisco known as “Chinatown,” an area built and inhabited primarily by Chinese immigrants and their descendants. In Bone, Chinatown is a world apart, not only because of physical boundaries marked by streets and parks, but it is distinguished by a culture with distinct differences from surrounding communities. Ng brings to life this community with careful character studies, showing how different generations make their marks on Chinatown and how each generation of Chinatown’s inhabitants react to the culture they find there, and how they adjust to the larger American culture. Some inhabitants choose to have little interaction with the outside world, living their lives in Chinatown; others, like the girls’ father, Leon, find work elsewhere, but always return to Chinatown; still others never feel fully part of Chinatown or America and yearn to return to China, even if it is only after death, too poor to pay their way to China while alive.

Much of the appeal of Bone for young adults probably lies in Ng’s vivid portrayal of a well-known yet not well-understood American community. Ng’s novel is about a real place, and she populates with realistic, although fictional characters. One need not actually visit or live in Chinatown to visualize a place that Ng considers as much a part of one’s heart as a part of San Francisco.


Reading Bone is almost like gaining a new family. It is essential to the novel’s themes that the family of Leon and Mah be well rounded and vivid, not symbolic stick figures, because the essence of Bone is how the Chinese-American experience was created, shared, and valued by individual people. This is an American outlook, a perception of the experiences of individual people as more important than mass cultural movements in which individuality may be lost.

The narrator is Leila, nicknamed “Lei.” The eldest of the three daughters of Mah, Lei has been in a position to observe her younger sisters growing up in Chinatown even while observing her parents through the eyes of a youngster. Although the suicide of Ona marks a turning point in the lives of her family, Lei’s narrative is not so much about the suicide as it is about the changes in her family’s life that surround Ona’s death.

It is very clear from the novel’s outset that Lei has a deep attachment to her elders. In Leon and Mah, as well as other older inhabitants of Chinatown, she sees characteristics that are to be found in herself and her sisters. For instance, the profound belief that prosperity and happiness are to be created by relentless hard work seems to have passed unchanged from generation to generation. For instance, the sisters work every spare moment at the laundry that Leon tries to establish. Failure at the laundry does not mean an end to work; there are clothes to sew, or a shop to run, or studies to be pursued. Part of the great frustration that drives Leon from his family is that his belief that hard work will win him the prosperity that America promises is repeatedly repudiated by experience. Indeed, his working twenty hours a day on cruise ships does not even win him the fidelity of his wife. He sees himself as cursed, and it seems as though he is. Hard work does not even gain him the faithfulness of his family; Ona’s insistence on dating a man Leon detests is but one more repudiation, and her suicide perhaps the ultimate rejection of his belief in himself.

Leon says that his ill fortune is the result of Grandpa Leong’s bones. The novel is rich in accounts of the rituals of Chinatown, one of which was the returning of dead immigrants to China. When Leon entered America with forged papers, He paid Leong five thousand dollars to pretend to be his father and promised Leong to send his bones back to his Chinese village for proper burial. Leong, like many others, regarded America as a way station in his life. America was where he went to earn money to his “real” home, China. For many Chinese immigrants, failing to earn enough money to return home financially self-sufficient meant never leaving America. Thus they hoped that upon their deaths enough money could be raised to send their remains to China. Leon never had enough money to fulfill his promise to Grandpa Leong.

This belief and others like it inform the behavior of the people of Chinatown. They are not so much religions as a system of beliefs that help people cope with their lives. For instance, the idea that a family with three daughters and no sons is an unlucky family is one way of explaining the troublingly unhappy life of Leon. To his credit, and part of what makes him a complex, fully human personality, Leon says that having three daughters is good, that one daughter is worth five sons. An unpredictable remark from a man who is attached to the values of China, but Leon is a man of great strength of character who values his family above all else.

His pretty wife Mah is a puzzle through much of the novel, although Lei arrives at an explanation for much of her behavior with “Mah loved Leon.” There is more to Mah’s character than that, but it shows that Lei herself can recognize in her tough, demanding mother qualities that make her richly human. Yes, Mah had an affair with her sweatshop’s owner, and she caught the eyes of other men, and yes, she was not as understanding of her daughters as she could have been, but she was also a relentless hard worker who helped pay for her family, who kept a good home, and who overcame setbacks with creativity and energy. For instance, when she must leave her job at the sweatshop, she creates work for herself, enlisting her daughters in the sewing of clothes for sale. Eventually, she opens her baby shop, where she sells her work; in a way, she succeeds where Leon never did. Her shop survives and becomes a successful business.

The tension between parents and daughters is created by the daughters’ difficulty understanding or accepting their parents’ values. To the girls, Leon’s run to the old Chinese cemetery seems crazy, and his talk of bones and curses seems detached from reality. Mah’s attachment to traditional practices seems burdensome. Lei and Mason marry quickly in New York, to avoid the elaborate, cumbersome, and perhaps for Lei annoying, rituals Mah would insist upon. In Mah’s memory seems to be a great list of what favors are owed to what people, and a big wedding is a way to return favors and even accounts with some people, while causing others to become indebted to the family. Both Leon and Mah are very concerned about their standing in Chinatown and what others will think of their daughters. Nina, the youngest daughter, flees to New York, where she can be free of Chinatown’s demanding traditions. Lei speculates that Ona, the middle daughter, was torn between custom and America outside of Chinatown, because she seemed to ever be trying to find compromises, to mend differences between members of her family. Anguish over what her own identity might be is one possible (but not definitive) reason why she killed herself.

Lei’s own personality is in every event she describes and every comment she makes. She suspects that because she is the eldest daughter, she is the closest to her parents’ way of thinking among the daughters. Certainly, she feels strong obligations to her elders; in contrast to Nina, who cannot abide their company, Lei makes it her practice to visit Leon and to help at Mah’s shop. She has a college degree and can find work elsewhere, but her attachment to Chinatown is strong. She also has the good fortune to have found a lover who is understanding; Mason gives her a good reason to move a little way from Chinatown. Their relationship reveals some of Mah’s personality in Lei, who early on is gently pressing Mason to go into business for himself. The idea that hard work and perseverance can make the American Dream a reality is alive in both of them. Lei’s respect for her elders’ accomplishments and views combined with her belief that America, not China, is home makes her perspective a good one for observing the experiences of Chinese Americans. The fact that throughout her narrative she never fully come to terms with Ona’s suicide is touching and honest; the emotions she feels are confused and wrenching, obscuring her view. Her observation near the end of Bone that “The heart never travels” not only explains Leon’s attachments to his culture, but her attachment to her parents and others like them. She says, “Leon once told me that what we hold in our hearts is what matters,” and Lei has taken this to her own heart.


Readers are sometimes confused by the opening of Bone, in which New York and San Francisco are jumbled together and what is going to happen to the main characters is stated in the first chapter. Bone begins at the end and works its way back through Lei’s memories and the history of Chinatown to arrive at an understanding of the main events. Understanding does not necessarily mean explanation, for the exact reasons for Ona’s jumping to her death are never made plain, although there are several inferences to be made from her tortured love life. However, the structure of backward storytelling is an accepted literary practice, although rare in American fiction, and explanations are not necessarily the goal of Lei’s narrative.

Ng says that as a youngster she read many Chinese classics, which means it is likely that she is familiar with the Confucian approach to writing. Americans are used to the Aristotelian form, in which narrative has a logical progression dictated by the goals of the writer. For example, if one writes a family history, one generally begins with background on the family and follows with a chronological account beginning with forebears and ending in the present. In Bone, this structure is absent. Instead, one finds the Confucian approach that emphasizes the reasons why something happened over what actually happened; the point of the narrative is the narrative itself. Thus, Bone is about the getting there, not the actual arrival. Ona’s death is important mostly for what it reveals about her family and its heritage, and less important for what it reveals about her. The marriage of Lei and Mason is not as important as the reasons they married as they did; the breakup of Mah and Leon is not as significant as the reasons they break up. It is in the reasons surrounding these events that the story comes alive; this is where the hearts of the characters take form and where they shape their perceptions of themselves in a world in which concrete answers are lost in cultural confusions.

Ultimately, in Bone it all works. What is more important, Ona’s life or her death? Lei chooses her life. What is more important, that Leon has left Mah or that he has always regarded Lei as his own daughter? Is it more important that Mah and Leon are living apart or that “Mah loves Leon”? Lei chooses the fatherly love of Leon and treats him as a loving daughter would; she discovers in her exploration of her family’s life that her difficult, pretty mother in fact loves Leon, and that matters more than the family conflict. The result is a novel in which the family relationships themselves, in all their complexity, are more important than what anyone gets out of the relationships. Perhaps this is why Bone is an emotionally satisfying novel.


Bone covers a significant aspect of American history and culture. From the era of California’s Gold Rush to the present, Chinese immigrants have made significant contributions to the nation’s economy, helping to improve travel and transport, establishing farms and bringing new crops to their new country, establishing shops and building businesses that employ millions of people, thus generating tax revenues and prosperity beyond their communities. Bone does not cover all that Chinese Americans have accomplished, but its attention to the particulars of Leon and Mah and their relationships offers a picture of what motivated immigrants and their children, as well as how they strove to make the American Dream their own.

Hard-working Leon is frustrated by the promise of the American Dream and the failure of his life of labor to make him and his family rich. His children are torn between the culture of their elders, especially their attachment to China as their real home, and the larger American culture to which they and their elders contribute and enrich. Lei lives at a time of transition, when the elders are aging and dying, while she and those of her generation feel the forces of America working on them—pulling them away from their elders and their ties to China. Nina makes a clean break by moving to New York. Lei recognizes the change from one generation to the next as it occurs and chooses to remain in San Francisco, close to the elders whose lives have helped to shape hers. Her marriage to Mason indicates that she is thoroughly American in her views of her rights and her individuality, but she honors the Chinese culture that is an integral part of her character.


1. What does Lei mean by “Inside all of us, Ona’s heart still moves forward”?

2. Leon “said life was work and death the dream,” according to Lei. What would Leon mean by this? How does his life illustrate what he means?

3. What is meant by “The heart never travels”? How does it apply to the characters in Bone?

4. Lei mentions that Ona abused drugs but does not say much about where Ona would have gotten the drugs. Why would she leave out the details of the drugs?

5. Why would Ona choose suicide over marrying a man her father detests or dropping the man as her father wants? Or did it have nothing to do with that choice?

6. Lei points out more than once that Leon was not her biological father, who had moved to Australia, but that Leon was a real father to her. Why make this point? What does it suggest to us about how Lei views her family as the events of the narrative unfold?

7. In the first chapter of Bone, Lei tells all the main events to come: Ona’s suicide, her own sudden marriage, and the breakup of Mah and Leon. Why would Ng have her readers find out what is going to happen when the novel begins? What perspective on events is she creating with this technique?

8. Most of the characters in Bone are people who work with their hands—they sew clothes, do laundry, wait on tables, repair automobiles, and the like. Why not include college professors and corporate executives? What impression does Ng give of Chinatown by focusing on working-class people? Why is it important to the novel’s themes that working-class lives be portrayed?

9. Why does Lei not move away as Nina does?

10. Why would Lei and Mason marry in New York rather than in San Francisco?


1. What was the tradition of sending an immigrant’s bones to China for burial? How was this done, what was required to be done in the process, and why?

2. When was San Francisco’s Chinatown established? How was it established? Who lived there? How was the culture of Chinatown created?

3. In Bone there are allusions to laws that restricted Chinese immigrants. What were these laws? Why were they enacted? How were they enforced? What effect did they have on Chinese Americans? When did they end?

4. What did Chinese immigrants and their descendants contribute to California’s agriculture?

5. Some Chinese immigrants were gold miners. Where did they mine? How did they fit among all the other miners? What did they achieve?

6. Chinese immigrants to California in the nineteenth century are famous for their contributions to building the railroads of the West. Why did they come to the United States for the hard work of building railroad tracks? What did they achieve? What effect did they have on San Francisco’s Chinatown?

7. Although several American cities have “Chinatowns,” when someone says “Chinatown” the Chinatown of San Francisco is usually meant. What makes San Francisco’s Chinatown special? How does it figure in the culture of Chinese Americans nationally?

8. Ng often mentions street names and landmarks in her novel. Make a map showing where these places are in San Francisco. Do not forget to include the old Chinese cemetery. Can you identify the park where Leon would hang out with some of the friends Lei did not like? Where might the sweatshop where Mah worked be located? Where are the hotels?

9. Lei’s simple wedding ceremony is not what Mah wanted. What would Mah’s preferred wedding ceremony have entailed? What does her desire to pay off past debts to those whose weddings she had attended mean? What role would the wedding play in the social world of Chinatown?

10. “A failed family. That Dulcie Fu. And you know which one: bald Leon. Nothing but daughters.” Lei is one of three daughters, and she hears such remarks as these about herself and her sisters. What is the cultural foundation for the attitude that nothing but daughters is bad for a family in Chinatown? How does the attitude affect the sisters’ perceptions of their places in Chinatown society?

11. Characters in Bone often speak a mixture of Chinese (Cantonese) and English. Have any studies of the San Francisco Chinatown dialect been published? How do they describe the dialect? Is it spoken elsewhere?

12. The paper trail of false fathers (for instance, Grandpa Leong) and other fake relatives seems very complex. Why would Chinese immigrants go to such trouble? How did the practice begin? Who profited from it?

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