Alvin Eng’s writing flows with a conversational style: quick-paced, easygoing, and witty. That Eng is a playwright and the stories in his memoir Our Laundry, Our Town are drawn from his 2006 monologue The Last Emperor of Flushing contribute to the pleasures of Eng’s memoir. Of particular note is his choice to call his family matriarch “The Empress Mother”, a name that describes not only her temperament but also the particular histories of an immigrant family that began with a paper wife and extends to Alvin, the youngest of five siblings who grew up spending much of their lives in the backrooms of a laundry service in Flushing, New York.
The Empress Mother is a loving caricature that neutralizes Eng’s mother, enabling the reader to understand the complexities of family dynamics. Her unwillingness to speak English kept her at a distance from the customers in the laundry and from 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 were not especially attached to each other.
Eng puts a spin on the tropes of Asian immigrant memoirs, finding humor in his eagerness to assimilate, largely using 1970s popular culture to connect with his classmates and peers. Rather than dwelling on the teasing he experienced as a cultural outsider, Eng focused on the opportunities he had to use music and cartoons to form bonds with friends. He explains, with some degree of 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 single-frame print cartoon character of the same name. Alvin admits that for many years, he thought the television character Herman Munster had inspired the name, but The Munsters did not air until well after Herman’s birth.
His story is also one of growing up and navigating the age differences between himself and his older siblings who had their own experiences of assimilation. His sister and brothers began their lives in the rooms behind the laundry: Alvin’s childhood was mostly shuffling between the laundry and home in the suburbs. While telling his story, Eng folds in the accounts of his mother’s and father’s lives in China and how they each emigrated to the United States when 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 Town also offers a slice of Flushing’s cultural history. Eng navigates through the prominent Chinatown neighborhood, writing about his friendships with Jewish American and Italian American classmates 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 center of culture to which he could not belong as a kid living in Queens.
“As most of my Flushing friends stayed in local heavy metal and progressive rock cliques, I dove headlong into the punk rock and new wave scenes percolating over in ‘The City,’” Eng writes. “Befitting NYC’s bankrupt, crumbling infrastructure, this punk/new wave DIY (do it yourself) ethos was, if not a completely fresh breath of air, a breath of less-polluted air for school-bored, street-savvy teens of the late 1970s.” In a performance piece currently underway, Eng’s punk rock spirit is blended with his personal history, in studying the prevalence of opium addiction among men in the Chinese Diaspora of his grandfather’s generation. Here Comes Johnny Yen Again (or How I Kicked Punk) is the latest of Eng’s plays performed off-Broadway and in venues across the United States.
Although he does finally find his way to the city, he reflects on the difficulties of reinventing yourself in New York when your past is only a few train stops away. While in college, Eng’s fandom was parlayed 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 in attendance. The getting-to-know-you question, “Where are you from?” often has a rub for first-generation Americans. Eng’s response of “Flushing” did not serve as an adequate response, so a second question often followed: “But where are you really from?” He recalls meeting Marc Storace, frontman for the band Krocus, and pacing through this dialogue. When Eng says that his parents are from Canton in southern China, Storace asks if he has ever considered visiting. The answer had always been a resonant “no”, but that moment opened a 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 in New York. Eng writes that this was a turning point in his professional life and worldview and “longing to belong as an adult”. Growing up in a bilingual household shaped his identity, but his skill with Chinese was still somewhat raw. Eng relates the great pride he had in working at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York in 1988. “The moment had finally arrived to cross the final frontier: speaking the mother tongue…kind of like when TV Kung Fu master Kwai Chang Kaine was ready to snatch that 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, the theatergoers looked bewildered by his request. “From behind me I heard a loud burst of laughter from my Hong Kong-born supervisor, Eng writes. The supervisor quickly and correctly explains Eng’s intent: his inflection and pronunciation were so poor that rather than asking ticket holders to line up in front of him, he was calling out, “Fat people: get over here!”
Despite this humorous setback, he becomes deeply involved in the Asian theater scene in New York City, earns an MFA from NYU, and eventually serves as a Fulbright artist-in-residence in Hong Kong in 2011. Later, he was invited by the U.S. Embassy to conduct theater workshops in Guangzhou, China. Eng’s contentment in fully embracing his identity as both American and Chinese is full of humor and heart. His fluency across cultures – not just in New York and China but also in rock music, theatrical performance, playwriting, and journalism – lends itself to a multifaceted, engaging memoir.