Punk-influenced playwright Alvin Eng plays laundry in Memoir
Our Laundry, Our City: My Chinese-American Life, From Flushing to the Downtown Scene and Beyond
Alvin Eng’s writing follows a conversational style: fast, easy-going, and witty. This Eng is a playwright and the stories from his memoirs Our laundry, our city are taken from his 2006 monologue The Last Emperor of Flushing contribute to the pleasures of the memoirs of Eng. Of particular note is her choice to call her family matriarch “The Empress Mother”, a name that not only describes her temperament but also the particular stories of an immigrant family that began with a paper woman and extends to Alvin, the youngest of five siblings. who grew up spending much of her life behind the scenes of a laundry service in Flushing, New York.
The Empress Mother is a loving caricature that neutralizes Eng’s mother, allowing the reader to understand the complexities of family dynamics. Her reluctance to speak English kept her away from laundry customers and having to interact with teachers, neighbors and others. Eng notes that both of his parents were deeply devoted to their children but due to their arranged marriage, they weren’t particularly attached to each other.
Eng revisits tropes from Asian immigrant memoirs, finding humor in his eagerness to assimilate, making extensive use of 1970s popular culture to connect with classmates and peers. Rather than dwell on the teasing he suffered as a cultural outsider, Eng focused on the opportunities he had to use music and cartoons to bond with friends. He explains, with some regret mixed with love, that his siblings named him after Alvin the Chipmunk and that the three eldest siblings named the fourth child Herman, after the cartoon character single image of the same name. Alvin admits that for many years he thought TV character Herman Munster inspired the name, but The Munsters did not air until well after Herman was born.
His story is also one of growing up and navigating the age differences between him and his older siblings who had their own experiences of assimilation. His sister and brothers started their lives in the rooms behind the laundromat: Alvin’s childhood was mostly swung between the laundromat and his home in the suburbs. While telling his story, Eng recounts the lives of his mother and father in China and how they each emigrated to the United States while immigration quotas were still in place. The emotional impact of their struggles, as well as their separation from their families in China, impacted their parenting. Through their stories, Eng is better able to understand how his relationships with them shaped his own identity.
Our laundry, our city also offers a slice of Flushing’s cultural history. Eng navigates the famous neighborhood of Chinatown, writing about his friendships with Jewish-American and Italian-American schoolmates and how he learned to find a place in both cultures. As an avid fan of punk and rock music, Eng reflects on the relationship between Flushing and Manhattan, which he perceived as the ultimate cultural hub he couldn’t belong to as a kid in Queens.
“Like most of my friends in Flushing stayed in local heavy metal and prog rock cliques, I dove headlong into the punk rock and new wave scenes that seep into ‘The City,'” writes Eng . “Befitting NYC’s bankrupt and crumbling infrastructure, this DIY (do it yourself) punk/new wave ethos was, if not a completely fresh breath of air, a breath of less polluted air for the school-bored, street-savvy teenagers of the late 1970s.” In a performance piece currently in progress, Eng’s punk rock spirit is mixed with his personal history, investigating the prevalence of addiction to opium among Chinese diaspora men of his grandfather’s generation. Here Comes Johnny Yen Again (or How I Kicked Punk) is the last of Eng’s plays to be performed off-Broadway and in theaters across the United States.
Although he finally finds his way to the city, he reflects on the difficulties of reinventing himself in New York when his past is only a few train stops away. While in college, Eng’s fandom blossomed into freelance writing gigs in the music press. He interned at A&M Records and then landed a job as a publicity assistant for Island Records. Eng finds that at music industry functions he was usually the only Chinese person present. The question to get to know you, “Where are you from?” often has a catch for first-generation Americans. Eng’s response to “Flushing” did not serve as an adequate answer, so a second question often followed: “Where are you really from?” He remembers having met Marc Storace, the leader of the Krocus group, and having surveyed this dialogue. When Eng says his parents are from Canton in southern China, Storace asks if he’s ever considered visiting them. The answer had always been a resounding “no”, but that moment opened the door for Eng to embrace his Chinese heritage.
He traveled to China with The Empress Mother, then joined the staff of the media and arts advocacy group. Asian CineVision At New York. Eng writes that it was a turning point in his professional life and his worldview and “desire to belong as an adult”. Growing up in a bilingual household shaped her identity, but her Chinese skills were still somewhat raw. Eng recounts the great pride he felt in working at the International Asian American Film Festival in New York in 1988. “The time had finally come to cross the final frontier: speaking the mother tongue…a bit like when television Kung Fu master Kwai Chang Kaine was ready to snatch this pebble from his master’s hand.
He goes on to explain that he was trying to form a line for ticket holders outside the theater, but despite his careful pronunciation, onlookers seemed taken aback by his request. “From behind me, I heard a loud peal of laughter from my Hong Kong-born supervisor,” Eng writes. asking ticket holders to line up in front of him, he would shout, “Big: come on!”
Despite this humorous setback, he became deeply involved in the Asian theater scene in New York, earned an MFA from NYU, and eventually served as a Fulbright Artist-in-Residence in Hong Kong in 2011. Later, he was a guest by the United States. Embassy to organize theater workshops in Guangzhou, China. Eng’s contentment in fully embracing both his American and Chinese identity is full of humor and heart. Her mastery of cultures – not only in New York and China, but also in rock music, theatrical performance, playwriting and journalism – lends itself to an engaging, multi-faceted memoir.