Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Interview With Chinese-American Author Alvin Eng


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:


1.      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.


After several 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 faced.


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 style? 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 Punk Raconteur.


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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Brian Feinblum, the founder of this award-winning blog, can be reached at brianfeinblum@gmail.com He is available to help authors promote their story, sell their book, and grow their brand. He has 30 years of experience in successfully helping thousands of authors in all genres.


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About Brian Feinblum

Brian Feinblum should be followed on Twitter @theprexpert. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2022. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester with his wife, two kids, and Ferris, a black lab rescue dog. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s The Independent.  This blog, with over 4,000 posts over the past decade, was named one of the best book marketing blogs by BookBaby  http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2021 and 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. It was also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.” For the past three decades, including 21 as the head of marketing for the nation’s largest book publicity firm, and two jobs at two independent presses, Brian has worked with many first-time, self-published, authors of all genres, right along with best-selling authors and celebrities such as: Dr. Ruth, Mark Victor Hansen, Joseph Finder, Katherine Spurway, Neil Rackham, Harvey Mackay, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Warren Adler, Cindy Adams, Susan RoAne, Jeff Foxworthy, Seth Godin, and Henry Winkler. He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America, and has spoken at ASJA, IBPA, Sarah Lawrence College, Nonfiction Writers Association, Cape Cod Writers Association, Willamette (Portland) Writers Association, and Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. His letters-to-the-editor have been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Post, NY Daily News, Newsday, The Journal News (Westchester) and The Washington Post. He has been featured in The Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. For more information, please consult: linkedin.com/in/brianfeinblum. 


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