From behind the counter of his parents' laundry and a household rooted in a different century and culture to the turbulent, exciting streets of 1970s New York City, playwright, performer, acoustic punk rock raconteur, and educator Alvin Eng delivers an illuminating time capsule of the Chinese-American experience in his new memoir, OUR LAUNDRY, OUR TOWN: My Chinese American Life from Flushing to the Downtown Stage and Beyond (Fordham University Press| Empire State Editions, May 3, 2022, $27.95).
Here is an interview with the author:
What motivated you to write your book, to force you
from taking an idea or experience and turning it into this book? I grew up
personally as a rock & roll fanatic and garage band rhythm guitarist and
songwriter. I grew up professionally as a playwright. To me, songwriters and
playwrights are portraitists and chroniclers of their times. That both the
songwriting and playwriting process involves the solitude of creation and the
collaborative spectacle of live performance also greatly appealed to me.
I also loved the
open-ended excitement that within each live performance, the play or song can
take on a new interpretation in genre, tone, shape and yes, meaning. Of equal
fascination and inquiry was the “permanent record” option of the songs being
recorded for an album (yes, I’m old enough to still have a substantial vinyl LP
collection) and the plays being made into a film. The album and film
adaptations had the intimacy of being experienced in one’s home or wherever the
listener or viewer preferred to take in the work…but it was still a step
removed from the direct one-to-one intimacy of reading a book.
decades of participating and loving the fulfilling yet ephemeral medium of live
performance, it was time to let my work have a more intimate conversation in
the “permanent form” of a book. The foundation for Our Laundry, Our Town: My
Chinese American Life from Flushing to the Downtown Stage and Beyond, began on
stage as two solo performance pieces, The Last Emperor of Flushing and The
Flushing Cycle. These works were developed and performed in NYC at Pan Asian
Repertory Theatre, Queens Theatre in the Park and Dixon Place. The Flushing
Cycle was also the first work I wrote after the passing of my mother and second
parent. With both parents no longer living in this realm, I sought to create a
work that chronicled the hardships and challenges that they and our family
My parents had an
arranged marriage in a farming village outside of port city of Toisan in the
Pearl River delta region of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. They
were both illegal immigrants to America who had to circumvent the Chinese
Exclusion Act followed by The Cold War-era McCarthy red scare environment. How
this was absorbed into the lives and dispositions of my four siblings and
myself is a big part of this memoir and my wanting to share our story on the
print page for posterity.
2. What is it about and who is it for? Our
Laundry, Our Town is a memoir that decodes and processes what I call the
fractured urban oracle bones of growing up in the Flushing, Queens neighborhood
of that singular universe that was New York City in the 1970s. My family was
one of the few immigrant Chinese families in a far-flung neighborhood in New
York City that, by the late 80s became NYC’s second Chinatown. My parents had
an arranged marriage and ran a Chinese Hand Laundry. From behind the counter of
that laundry and within the confines of a household that was rooted in a
different century and culture, I sought to reconcile this insular home life
with the turbulent yet inspiring street life that was all around us––from the
faux martial arts of TV’s Kung Fu to the burgeoning underworld of the punk rock
scene and punk-influenced performance art community of NYC’s downtown theatre
scene of the 1980s. Through the transformative power of Asian American arts,
activism, punk rock and theater, I finally found my voice, identity and
community. So, this memoir is for anyone who has ever struggled with fitting in
and finding a personal and professional community––both within their own time
and place and mostly within themselves…so I guess this book is for everyone!
3. What takeaways might the reader will be
left with after reading it? As we are all made up of seemingly disparate parts,
the journey of going from perennially feeling like none-of-the-above to finally
accepting that you are all-of-the-above is liberating and healing. Being able
to accept and share your personal and cultural history goes a long way in
arriving, or at least getting closer, to that destination of connecting your
story to the larger narrative of your time.
4. How did you decide on your book’s title
and cover design?
The Our Laundry part of the title draws on my growing up in my family’s Chinese
Hand Laundry––as well as the labor and activist history of the Chinese Hand
Laundry Alliance and other organizations that paved the way for my parents. The
Our Town part reflects how learning of the seldom-discussed Chinese influence
on Thornton Wilder’s seminal Americana drama, Our Town became the unlikely
catalyst for a psyche-healing pilgrimage to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China.
This discovery led to conducting an Our Town-themed Fulbright Specialist
devised theatre workshop residency at City University of Hong Kong. In
conjunction with this residency, the U.S. Consulate, Guangzhou, invited me and
my wife, director/dramaturg Wendy Wasdahl, to conduct theatre workshops and
stage a performance of my autobiographical monologue, The Last Emperor of
Flushing, in my family’s ancestral Guangdong province. The cover design is
largely the brilliant work of Fordham University Press’ amazing designer and
editorial director, Mark Lerner and Richard Morrison. I just provided a photo
and life story. (Rimshot.) Playwright David Henry Hwang, whose Tony Award-winning
play M. Butterfly changed my professional trajectory, provided the cover blurb.
5. What advice or words of wisdom do you
have for fellow writers? Writers know what they need to do. I just wish us all
much resilience in every aspect of the writing and in the pursuit of
publishing…and try to enjoy the ride––no matter how rocky it may get.
6. What trends in the book world do you
see -- and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading? I feel there’s a
need now for even more authenticity and cultural transparency to make a
visceral connection. How will that manifest in the publishing industry? Anyone
making commercial predictions in this topsy-turvy, war torn, social
media-addicted, towards-the-end-of-the pandemic world is a true gambler…of
which I am not.
7. What challenges did you overcome to
write this book?
The hustle-and-bustle-balance of all artists with day jobs… years of revision
and endless self-examination of the content and narrative style of the book, as
well as the content and narrative of my life.
8. How would you describe your writing
Of the many lanes in which I operate: a playwright; monologist; songwriter; and
now memoirist, I would like to call myself a Verbal Portraitist and Acoustic
9. If people can buy or read one book this
week or month, why should it be yours? Well, it’s 30% off this week––just
kidding! Really, by exploring the historical precedents of the Asian American
experience through this personal NYC lens, Our Laundry, Our Town speaks to our
current moment of rising anti-Asian hate crimes while classrooms, boardrooms,
cultures and communities, throughout the city (and country), continue to
re-examine the parameters of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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