Reviewed by Christine Jacques
Our Laundry, Our Town
by Alvin Eng
Empire State Editions (Fordham University Press)
May 2022, Paperback, $27.95, ISBN: 9781531500368, 212 pages
First-generation children of immigrant families, with feet in two cultures, have a special take on what it means to belong. For Alvin Eng, a Chinese American punk rocker who is now an educator and a playwright, this has meant ‘a spiritual state of homelessness,” moving between the Foo J. Chin Chinese Hand Laundry and an American frame of reference. This reflective and personal narrative is his first memoir, and a change from his dramatic writing.
Eng is the youngest of five American-born children of his native Chinese parents, in a marriage he describes as “difficult, strained, arranged”, held together by the laundry of the title. Stepping outside its confines, he turned punk: a high school rock journalist,a guitarist with The Grips and a New York Dolls superfan, one of the few “who didn’t have to dye their hair black.” The heroin anthem “Chinese Rocks” deeply triggered a culture clash for him. David Johansen rode on Eng’s shoulders into club crowds, but were Chinese Americans really welcome in the real NYC, just a #7 train ride away? Eng’s success in public relations for the British/Jamaican Island Records said “yes,” but the question persisted, from others and from Eng himself: “Where are you really from?”
This self-doubt and his ABC (American Born Chinese) status, without a solid grasp of Mandarin, left Eng feeling limited, and in need of a reinvention. It came at an Asian CineVision-sponsored public reading of the future Tony Award winner “M. Butterfly”, about a French diplomat in love with a Beijing opera singer, left him buzzing as he had not “since first hearing The Who’s Tommy or David Johansen’s Funky but Chic.” Authored by David Hwang, M. Butterfly showed him that “there was a place for our voices and visions on the NYC stage, and in the world.“ Eng got busy, connecting traditional Cantonese opera with characters like the decidedly untraditional Goon Hay Kid to show how the Gorgeous Mosaic played in “Floo-shing.”
Costumed as a memoir, Laundry begins to sputter after Eng’s dramatic career is born. Without Eng’s theatrical devices, it loses the emotional color which infused the earlier chapters. His pride in a field trip to the Chinatown History Project (now The Museum of Chinese in America), The Goong Hay Kid’s debut at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, even the Empress Mother’s death lose their punch on the printed page, without the synergy created in a theatre between actors and their audience. “Think of the Great Leap forward,” he directs the reader, as he tours China teaching Our Town to Chinese thespians. “Do you even remember Linsanity?” he asks his reader. An in-the-moment audience would answer back; a reader doesn’t know the lines. Laundry’s energy wanes.
Eng gets it back in his conclusion, staging his Flushing-based Last Emperor in China. In Flushing, the Last Emperor’s departure from his faux Emperor’s role always felt bittersweet. Playing the same final scene In Guangzhou, the scene felt more joyful. Eng takes the moment to a post-show party where a guest, frustrated by Eng’s inability to speak Mandarin, informs him that “You’re just a foreigner who looks Chinese!” The teen who took Chinese Rocks to heart hears it. But the man Eng has become just smiles. His Emperor persona has “helped him complete the very real journey of bringing some of our family’s stories home to China.” His wife is there, he’s among friends, he has nothing to prove, as a son, as a Chinese American, or as a dramatist. Telling his own story has made him whole. He belongs.
Laundry leaves an audience curious about the rest of the Eng story. Best friend, partner in crime, bandmate, and muse Ray Wong deserves a star turn of his own, as does Eng and Wong’s musical partnership with the filmmaker Steve Ning. Eng also briefly hints at the mark his opium-addicted grandfather left on his father, and consequently the Eng Dynasty. I hope Eng will show us more of his rich, confused, thoughtful experience in the future.
About the reviewer: Christine Jacques lives in Colorado. Literature is her first love, but her husband is a close second.