Ng’s second novel (Bone, 1993) depicts the tensions and affections of a complex Chinese-American family in San Francisco.
In 1952, Jack Moon Szeto is admitted to the United States as the “son of a native,” Gold Szeto, a businessman and fixer for whom he goes to work as a butcher. Jack becomes something of a Chinatown lothario (“Lord of the Peach Blossoms, lucky in the garden” to use his flowery phrase), but that ends when he falls in love with Joice, daughter of the neighborhood’s corpse-washer and thus, to many, untouchable by association. When Joice becomes pregnant with a daughter and Gold arranges for Jack’s Chinese bride—actually a mistress for his sponsor—to join her “husband” stateside, Jack makes a fateful decision. He informs on Gold to the McCarthy-era Chinese Confession Program, and Gold is deported—not before issuing the order that Jack surrender a pound of flesh (in this case a hand) for his betrayal. Joice, who longs to escape the physical and spiritual confines of Chinatown, moves away and marries. The first half of the book is written in spare, lyrical prose that can be affecting but also frustrating; there’s too much grand abstraction, too much dialogue like “Don’t be a coolie of love!” and “A muddled heart never leads the hero to a new dawn.” Yet Ng also provides brisk, unadorned descriptions of butchery, fortune-cookie making, and more. The book picks up considerably in the second half, which focuses on Jack’s American-born daughter and her loving but fractious relationship with her father, who’s hampered by poor English, his physical handicap and a childhood whose central, awful event she can scarcely imagine. Here the author discovers her true subject: the cultural gulf between immigrants and their children, between aliens and citizens, the naturalized and the native.
Ng’s novel finds its force in the latter stages, which explore the bond between a lively, confident American daughter and her remote Chinese father.