Guide to the San Francisco Chinatown of Fae Myenne Ng’s novel


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A Guide to the San Francisco Chinatown of Fae Myenne Ng’s novel Bone

 (1993) Prepared by Sarina Lowe, Swarthmore College, English 52B, Spring 2011

Note: The numbers for each annotation correspond to locations on the map below.

  • Page 3

(1) Salmon Alley: The street where Mah's house is, and where Leila, Ona, and Nina grew up.

  • Page 4

(2) Portsmouth Square: a popular hangout for the residents of Chinatown. Older men smoke and play Chinese checkers while the women hang around and gossip. The Holiday Inn connects to Portsmouth Square via a large concrete overpass.

(3) Broadway Tunnel: A tunnel approximately four blocks long that connects Chinatown to the Nob Hill district.

Page 14

(4) West Ping: The western most complex of the Ping Yuen Housing Project. The large building is located at 711 Pacific Avenue and is known for its large red gate, Chinese architectural elements and large mural.

  • Page 4

(5) Uncle's Café: The café down the street from the San Fran where Leon and the rest of the family often eat. In Chinatown, Uncle's Café is a popular hangout and a hub of the Chinatown community where local politics are often discussed.

(6) The San Fran: The "old-man hotel" on Clay St where Leon stays after he moves out of Salmon Alley. Because male laborers dominated Chinatown for many years these single room hotels were common in Chinatown.

(7) Universal Café: Another café Leon and Leila frequent. The café is composed of tables enclosed within wooden stalls whose entrance is covered by a curtain, thus providing privacy.

  • Page 14

(8) Edith Eaton School: The school where Leila works with the families of students. In reality, the school is called Jean Parker School not Edith Eaton, yet Ng named the school after the renowned Chinese author who wrote about the Chinese American experience in works such as Mrs. Spring Fragrance.

9) Nam Ping Yuen: The branch of the Ping Yuen Housing Projects, where Ona committed suicide.

  • Page 74

(10) Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Society: The Benevolent Society Leila goes to for information on the site of Grandpa Leong's grave. In San Francisco's Chinatown, the benevolent societies or family associations were an integral part of the community. There are six main benevolent societies, each one for a different last name.

  • Page 107

(11) Cumberland Presbyterian: Leila's childhood Chinese school. For children growing up in Chinatown, Chinese school was a must. Everyday after regular school they would meet in various places to learn Cantonese.

The numbers for each annotation above correspond to locations on the map below.


Prepared by Sarina Lowe, English 52B, Swarthmore College, spring 2011

  • Paper Names

Due to immigration restrictions and the Naturalization Act of 1870 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the immigration of Chinese into America was extremely restricted. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, however, provided many people with the opportunity to come to San Francisco, as all of the city’s public records were burned in the Great Fire that followed the earthquake. The typical story went as follows: a hopeful immigrant in China would buy an American’s “papers”, which included their family name, story, and residential information. These stories and facts were then carefully studied and memorized. Thus when the immigrant arrived at Angel Island for interrogation, they would simply say, “Oh I am Bill Lowe and I am returning from visiting relatives in China. I live at 753 Jackson St., and work in the Tai Yick Trading Company.” Because the authorities had no records, they would thus often allow them into the country. It became typical in San Francisco’s Chinatown to not have one’s real Chinese last name, but a “paper name” that was used to enter the country and usually retained for following generations.

Page 69

half-singed funeral papers” These papers are known as Joss papers or, informally, ghost money, burned in rituals worshipping ancestors or deities. This practices revolves around the belief that ancestors continue to live in the natural world and to influence fortune and fate.

Chinese burning rituals” This is a reference to traditional funeral practices, many of which involve the burning of Joss paper (see above) or incense. These practices are meant to help ensure the happiness of the deceased.

 Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries. He emphasized family loyalty, reverence of elders, and ancestor worship.

Page 71

"Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association" This Association was one of six benevolent associations in San Francisco. Interestingly, these associations used to discourage Chinese immigration, citing decreasing wages for both the Chinese and Americans and heightened hostility towards Chinese people as problems exacerbated by continued immigration. [8]

Page 72

41 Waverly Place” The current address of Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association.

Ironing the interfacing for the culottes”
 Culottes is a French word originally referring to popular knee breeches in the 19th century. The term was adopted by American women's fashion and now refers to shorts that look like skirts (

Mahjong (spelled many different ways) is a traditional Chinese game played by 4 people using tiles embossed with different Chinese characters and symbols. The traditional game varies in many ways from the popular Mahjong Solitaire computer game.

White Crane Gung-Fu Club White Crane Kung Fu is a martial art that originated in South China. The close-range hand techniques resemble the flapping of a Crane's wings. [11]

Page 73

The Chinese Times” There were a number of Chinese newspapers printed in San Francisco. The reference is quite general, but may be alluding to The China Times, a local newspaper that focused on family news.

Page 74

Ghost Festival”
 The Ghost Festival is a traditional Chinese holiday, celebrating ancestors and the dead. It is believed that during the Ghost Festival the realms of heaven and hell open up. The ghosts of ancestors that have not been given proper burials or appropriate tribute after their deaths wander the earth in search of entertainment. Food and incense burning rituals are performed to ward off bad luck.

Page 75

snake wine” Snake wine was an important herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine, celebrated for its healing and rejuvenating effects. The wine is made of, preferably, venomous snakes that have been soaked in wine to extract their essence.

Eight Holy Immortals” The eight immortals refers to the powerful immortals revered by Taoists and popularized in Chinese culture. References to the immortals frequently appear in Chinese art and literature.

Marysville” There are a number of towns named Marysville in the United States. This is most likely a reference to Marysville, California, near Sacramento. Marysville, at one time, had a large Chinese community until the town violently drove out its Chinese residents.

Page 76

Seaman's Union”
 This union is probably part of the International Seamen's Union, which split into two different parts in 1937. The Union protected and regulated the rights of sailors.

Western Union” 
Western Union is a North American financial services company. Money orders as well as telegrams could be sent via Western Union.

Page 77

Cantonese opera” Cantonese opera is a sub-division of Chinese opera. Storylines revolve around Chinese history and myths, and involve much singing and martial arts. Before formalized education, the operas were used to convey important messages and morals that were sanctioned by the government. Performances were popular in Chinatowns in the U.S. as well as in China.

Page 79

Portsmouth Square” Portsmouth Square is a small park in Chinatown of great historical significance. The square is nicknamed the "heart of Chinatown."

Grandview Theatre”
 The Grandview Theatre, opened in the mid 1930's, showed only Chinese films until its closing in 1989. Although no longer in operation, the building still stands.

Page 83

sticky cakes” This is a reference to nian gao, literally meaning "high year", a rice cake typically consumed around Chinese New Year. Eating nian gao during the New Year celebration is said to bring good luck.

Page 85

Lucky Strikes” Lucky Strike is an American brand of cigarettes that enjoyed great popularity in the 1930s – 1980s.


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