New Memoir by Playwright, Musician Alvin Eng Captures the Heart of the Asian-American Experience
WASHINGTON — You think you know a guy. Many years ago, the playwright and author Alvin Eng and this writer were a pair of young rock journalists, honing our craft at numerous small publications around the New York metropolitan area and planning our days and nights based on the availability of interview subjects and random free concert tickets.
So small was the community at the time that Eng even succeeded me as editor at one of the publications that frequently included both our works, a tabloid-sized freebie called The Island-Ear.
There was even a point when Eng took a stab at Chinese-American rap, and I wrote a profile of him for a long-gone publication called The Music Paper. He was the Goong Hay Kid then.
“I did the math, and that article came out 27 years ago,” he joked when we reconnected last week.
“Let’s shave a decade off that when we tell anyone about it,” I said.
Eng may have been Asian-American. And I may have traced my heritage to Ireland and England. But these were differences without distinction. He was a brother among scribes, not the other.
And then, over the ensuing decades, we followed different paths. I went on to so-called “straight” journalism, while Eng became a celebrated off-broadway playwright and a mover and shaker in New York City’s downtown arts scene.
The advent of social media allowed us to keep an appreciative eye on each other’s accomplishments.
And then came a pleasant surprise. Eng, I heard through the grapevine, was about to publish a memoir and it just happened to be coming out during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which runs through May 31.
The annual observance recognizes the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture and achievements of the United States.
And after reading Eng’s book, “Our Laundry, Our Town,” which is being published Tuesday, May 17, by Fordham University Press/Empire State Editions, this writer determined there was no better way to celebrate the month and all it means than to shine an extended light on this important author.
The reason was despite our friendship, it turned out there was so much this writer didn’t know about a good friend’s life experience and internal journey or the Chinese diaspora that eventually brought his family to the borough of Queens, New York.
It is a remarkable story. One that extends from the southern China of the early 20th century to New York City in the 1970s to the present, along the way illuminating the shared secrets, triumphs and tragedies of the Chinese-American experience.
Throughout the book, Eng explores issues of identity, race and societal expectations with humor, serious introspection and deep empathy. It’s impossible to walk away from its pages without a profound sense of enlightenment.
In short, as one blurb celebrating the work attests, “Our Laundry, Our Town,” is truly an account of a “psyche-healing pilgrimage.”
It also happens to be the second book Eng has published in the past six months. The first, is called “Three Trees,” a dramatic portrait of the Japanese philosopher Isaku Yanaihara, the artist Alberto Giacometti and the artist’s wife Annette Giacometti.
Since our paths last crossed for real, Eng’s plays and performances have been seen Off-Broadway, throughout the U.S., as well as in Paris, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, China.
Eng is the editor of the oral history/play anthology, “Tokens? The NYC Asian American Experience on Stage” (Temple, 2000) and his plays, lyrics, and memoir excerpts have also been published in numerous anthologies.
In addition, his storytelling and commentary have been broadcast and streamed on National Public Radio, among others.
Eng and his wife Wendy Wasdahl live in Manhattan.
TWN: I knew you many years ago as a rock journalist, an editor and a guy who, if I remember correctly, was a great admirer of the writing of Ray Davies from the great British rock band the Kinks. But what a whole other side of yourself you reveal in this memoir. What made you undertake it, and why now?
AE: Well, I’ve always said we all become period pieces quicker than we know. And coming from the rock-n-roll world … and the playwriting world as well … what I’ve been struck by is that when the inevitable books come out, everybody involved has a different perspective of what transpired.
It doesn’t matter how many times a song or a play has been performed, it always gets interpreted in different ways and performed in different ways. To answer the broader question of why I do what I do, I think the thing I’ve always loved about both is you have the solitude of writing and then you’ve got the collaborative nature and spectacle of performance.
So that’s what, in essence, drove the narrative of the book, “Our Laundry, Our Town.”
As for a more direct answer to your question, I’ll make an analogy from our shared past. After years of touring, I felt like it was time to make an album, to set down a permanent version of these shows.
And in fact, the bulk of “Our Laundry, Our Town,” started out as two solo shows. The first dates back to the late 1990s, when there was a play called “The Kentucky Cycle,” which took like two nights to perform.[Author’s note: “The Kentucky Cycle” is a series of nine one-act plays by Robert Schenkkan that explores American mythology, particularly the mythology of the West, through the intertwined histories of three fictional families struggling over a portion of land in the Cumberland Plateau. The play won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.]
Inspired by that show, I decided to write a slightly satirical version of it that I called “The Flushing Cycle,” setting it in the neighborhood where I grew up. It was much shorter, and could be done in one night. And I started performing it in the city.
Then things really changed after my mother died in 2002. After that, for some reason, I really became attached to the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. I loved the haunting feel of it … and I started writing a new theater piece that would become “The Last Emperor of Flushing,” and starting performing that.
Basically, with “The Last Emperor,” I was putting together pieces of my family — taking the bones of our family, if you will, and putting that onstage, and then flash forward a number of years to look at those lives from that perspective. And since it was kind of like “Our Town,” when I decided to write the book, I thought “Our Laundry, Our Town” was the perfect name for it.
TWN: And this was because …
AE: Because, while it’s a cliche, when most people look back at Chinese immigrant families in the 20th century, they see people who either opened a Chinese restaurant or a Chinese hand laundry here. We had the hand laundry.
TWN: Got ya …
AE: So, going back to how the book came to be, my wife Wendy, who is also a theater artist, and I got a Fulbright residency at the City University of Hong Kong to teach “Our Town” to students there, and have them write their own plays in response to it.
While I was there, the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, invited us to do a workshop there and perform “The Last Emperor of Flushing” in China. That was a thrilling invitation, as you can imagine. And at the same time, I was relieved to get a chance to perform it in China with at least some English speakers in the room because I don’t speak Chinese.
It was after that experience that I thought, “Okay, this story feels like it has the gravitas for a book. And I consider it a real good capper to a specific chapter of my life.
TWN: The thing I always wonder about memoirists, particularly in light of what you said about the divergent memories of participants in events, is how many go and interview friends and relatives to fill in certain pieces. You have four siblings … did you ever go to them and say, ‘Hey, do you remember this? Or am I just making it up?”
AE: I absolutely know what you mean. And it’s funny, you do that, but I think, in some ways, with family members and longtime friends who you’ve gone through things with, it’s not so much corroborating facts as it is gaining new perspectives from their totally different interpretations of what happened.
One of the things that really helped me with this book is getting to be friends with cousins again … in just the last few years. They were family, of course, but distant enough from my immediate family to give me a little bit of an outside view of things that occurred.
TWN: Were these people you’d totally lost touch with?
AE: Pretty much. But what happened was, I was in a midlife crisis rock band. We were all Asian guys. And I wanted to call it “Asian American Rock Party,” you know, AARP, but none of the other guys thought it was funny and the lead guitarist, in particular, was like, what are we going to pretend like we’re 30 or 40 again?
Now, the reason I mention them is that some of the members were lifelong Chinatown guys, and knew some of my cousins who grew up there and they provided the opportunity to re-meet them. The thing you have to understand is that Chinatown, in the 1960s and 1970s, was like a war zone, so my family didn’t venture there very often.
What’s funny to me is that today they remember going to Flushing, Queens, during that period as going to the country. For them it was like a country vacation and I didn’t see it that way at all. They were like, “Oh yeah, we could ride bicycles out there and everything, and I was like, “Oh, my God, really?”
One thing my cousins told me that absolutely surprised me was that the family would have parties and my father was the life of these events. I told them, “Well, I never met that guy.” But they swore he dressed like Sinatra and played these old swing records, and I was like, “Really? I swear, I never met that guy.” So It was a fascinating process.
And of course, for the non-family things, the historical things, I did research on those.
TWN: The setting, the principle setting, is Flushing, Queens, in the 1970s, and the Chinese Hand Laundry your parents — immigrants to this country — established there. Tell me a little about your parents and how they came to be in America?
AE: Sure. Well, to begin with, let me warn you that there are a lot of what I think they call “Romanization” of the spelling of Chinese place names, and what I use is the oldest I know of. My parents are from a small village called Toisan and that’s just outside of Guangzhou in Southern China.
For some reason, historically, there was a pipeline from Toisan to Guangzhou to Hong Kong and ultimately America. From the late 1880s up until the late 20th century, a large percentage of Chinese immigrants followed that route to the United States. And if you went to the Chinatowns that proliferated in American cities, you’d find two things in almost every city you visited. The first was that Chinatowns were invariably located right next to the Little Italy [neighborhoods] in those cities — I have no idea why — and secondly, a large percentage of the Chinese in these Chinatowns were from Toisan.
Another twist in the story is that the language people in Toisan speak is a dialect of Cantonese. It’s almost like Creole French or something. It’s its own dialect. And early on during this time period I’m describing, we ran the Chinatowns and a lot of the working class Chinese communities throughout North America.
That all changed in the 1980s. That’s when there was a new influx of Chinese immigrants and Flushing, Queens, became the new Chinatown in the New York City metropolitan area.
Why am I telling you so much about the history of language and dialect? Well, because when I was young — like a lot of youngsters in the families of first-generation immigrants — I rebelled and refused to speak Chinese like my parents did at home. I regret it now. But you know how it is, especially when you’re a teenager, you want to fit in with what’s around you.
But this taught me a lot about assimilation in the late 20th century. It was almost as if my time in Flushing had arrived and there was no there, there. I mean, for the first time, almost everyone in my neighborhood looked like me. But they were all from [North] China and spoke Mandarin — and remember, because of my rebellion, I couldn’t really speak even my own Cantonese — so I couldn’t communicate with them. It was bizarre that that happened. Suddenly, I was an outsider again.
Leaving my problems aside, I will say that my parents went through a lot to get here, immigrating at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act was largely still in place, and at the height of the Cold War. And I think they came to this country because conditions would be better for us. I’m the youngest of five children.
TWN: I’m just fascinated by all this because, of course, my heritage is tied up exclusively in the European immigration story. Tell me, why did your parents wind up on the East Coast, as opposed to settling in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or somewhere between the two coasts?
AE: Speaking of the Chinese immigrants of that period in general, there were connections in play to bring people in to work in Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants. There was a whole industry based on people being “paper” sons or “paper” daughters. People would purchase all manner of false identification — it was actually illegal immigration, though they would later become citizens.
So there was this whole circuit, a whole support system, for people from Toisan to get these jobs in restaurants in Chinatown and this network of Chinese laundries.
There’s also this thing that I liken to Neil Young’s album “After the Gold Rush.” You know, there’s this line in there that says, “I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships lying in the yellow haze of the sun …” Well there was a point, after the gold rush began, when a lot of changes occurred and Chinese were essentially kicked out of the west, forcing them to migrate east. For instance, there were all kinds of outrageous laws passed — like the fee to become a gold miner, if you were Chinese, was ridiculously more expensive than for a White prospector. There was a sad history of that.
Then came the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first and, God help us, last American law that made it illegal for one race of people to become citizens here.
So there was a lot going on. To give you another example, though many Chinese immigrants worked on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, they were not allowed to take part in the celebration or the commemorative photograph when it was finished. And so that was another thing that drove Chinese immigration toward the eastern part of the country.
I don’t know if you know this, but in just the past couple of years, a photographer named Corky Lee passed away, and one of the things he was famous for was, on the 145th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad he recreated the celebratory photograph by inviting the descendants of the Chinese immigrant laborers to gather there and be in the new version. I mean, that was just an amazing thing for him to do — an artist’s attempt to right an old wrong.
So that’s why Chinese immigrants came east, and among them, eventually, were my parents. My father came in the 1930s and my mother came in the 1940s.
TWN: Now that surprises me because another aspect of their story, that I know, is that they had an arranged marriage. So was it a case of his coming over to get established and then sending for her?
AE: That’s kind of how it’s supposed to be. My dad came over first and he started working in restaurants in Chinatown in New York City … and despite what little he made here, by the standards of his village in China, he was a rich man.
So he went back to China and a marriage was arranged and he was only 16 and my mother was 14.
TWN: Amazing …
AE: I know, it’s a crazy story. But it gets crazier. They got married and then my father left China to return to Chinatown — and my mother did not hear from him for 10 years.
AE: Right, that came separately. And what happened was, she arranged, with the help of some people in her village who knew where he was, to raise some money and come over as the paper wife of someone else to get into the country.
And through those village connections and the laundry network, she was able to find him and they opened their first laundry together, in Hoboken, New Jersey. And that’s where my eldest brother was born.
Of course, as a kid growing up, you know almost none of this; at least, you don’t know the whole story.
Now, what’s interesting is that my mother stayed in touch with the family of her paper husband, the man who actually brought her over. He passed a few years ago, but luckily, about 10 years ago, while he was living in California, I got to speak to him. And I said, “Listen, no judgments on my part, I’m just curious, but why did you help my mother out? Was it just a financial arrangement?” And his response was, “No, I just really wanted to help bring in people who really wanted to be in America and part of what America is about.” He was an American citizen and a veteran and he saw this as an almost patriotic duty. And it sounded like he did this several times, to help Chinese people come to America.
TWN: You have four siblings. Aside from working in the laundry, what were your parents expectations for you all? Was there a sense of, we’re sacrificing, now you all go out and achieve the American dream?
AE: Well, yes and no. In a sense, my generation of the family was really two separate generations. Because my first three siblings were born in pretty rapid succession in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Then my brother Herman and I didn’t come along until 1957 and 1962, respectively, and in many respects our experience as first-generation Americans was very different from that of our older siblings.
For instance, for the first thing, I don’t think the pressure was on to fulfill the American dream. It was more about achieving the Chinese-American dream. And by that I mean, my parents chose to be in America, but there was a strong belief that my older siblings were going to uphold some very Chinese traditions. For instance, they wanted my oldest brother to have an arranged marriage, and that created some problems.
My older siblings rebelled against this and it created a lot of friction. There was a lot of tension.
Thankfully, I didn’t have that kind of pressure placed on me. Part of it is due to the fact that my dad passed away when I was 14, but by that time he had really changed too.
Looking back now, it appears to me that when they first got here they were not only trying to import their Chinese culture into America, they were trying to import their 19th century culture into the 20th century and it didn’t quite work.
TWN: Let’s talk about how the clash of cultures manifested itself in your life. We’re the same age. We both experienced the tensions that rock and roll and the drug culture and the unrest at home and abroad brought into American homes of that era. But what was it like for you personally, with the added aspect of being a first-generation American? Did your life in our American culture clash with the culture at home? And if so, how did you resolve it?
AE: Absolutely. Yes. There was a sense of that. Because, as you know, in the 1970s, things were getting wild. All previous morals and customs and institutions were being changed or had changed by the 1970s.
Like I said, it wasn’t even the difference between two cultures, it was the difference between the perspectives of two centuries. Luckily, one aspect of this experience was that my parents didn’t object to our playing loud music — because loud music was always a part of what our home was about.
Like, at the laundry, my parents loved to crank up their Cantonese opera records. So loud music was always around, and the music they loved was very aggressive and very percussive.
Now, for my first three siblings, there was no escaping this. My family lived, literally, in the back of the laundry. But by the time Herman and I came along, we lived in a house. So you could escape the Cantonese opera a little bit. At the same time, however, starting with my older brother, who I’ll call sibling number three, there was always a band practicing in our garage.
So I grew up in a home filled with people who loved playing music, whether it was those Cantonese opera records that drove me crazy as a kid or the rock music of me and my brothers.
TWN: You’ve already said your dad died when you were 14. Had you expressed an interest in going into the arts by then, and if so, what did they think of it?
AE: For better or worse, they were very loose with me, and you know, when I was young, I just wanted to fit in because I felt like such an outsider. So the progression for me was to do the things the other kids did. I gravitated to sports first, and I was on the basketball team. And then the whole dynamic changed after my father died.
My family decided not to carry on with the laundry and thankfully they were able to sell the laundry and the property, and my mother retired.
The funny thing is, my mother never learned to speak English and I never learned to really speak Toisan Chinese, but somehow we communicated with each other and she was very supportive in her way.
I mean, I can remember being really into punk and seeing the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video by Queen for the first time and I immediately painted my fingernails black. Later, she saw me with the black fingernails and laughed. “Haha,” she said. “Batman.” So that kept things in perspective. And she really took my interest in the arts in stride.
TWN: Did it all start with music or did you start with writing prose?
AE: Was it writing or music that took control first? I would have to say I think it was music. My first creative outlets were being in bands and writing songs for bands.
And of course, you know, we came of age in the pre-MTV generation. So when you wanted to see someone perform, you weren’t going to see them recreate their clinical product; we wanted to see something different. We wanted to see a performance.
And thankfully with punk, that was a total outsider scene and I finally felt like I belonged. I finally fit in because everybody was an outsider, and that stimulated my other interests. With punk rock they said, we’re going to shout our differences and our opinions to the rooftops. We celebrate those things here. And that was very liberating.
TWN: Otherness suddenly becomes an advantage …
AE: Absolutely. And I have a whole chapter on that in “Our Laundry, Our Town.” But even then, you could run, but you couldn’t hide. That punk ethos opened a lot of doors for me, and I remember, I was feeling good. I was feeling I finally had a community. But even then, there were these weird moments.
For instance, I can remember picking up an album by Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers — not Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers — in a record store and seeing the words “Chinese Rocks” and thinking “Chinese? How did that get invited to the party?” That’s what I was escaping.
And it really sent me back to thinking about this idea of identity. It was only later that I found out that “Chinese Rocks” was a euphemism for heroin. And of course, I laugh about it now because what a surprise that two famous heroin users, Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone, would get together and write a song about that.
And you know, no one I knew wanted to be an addict or even to use heroin, but we all wanted to embrace this kind of heroin chic cool in the late 1970s.
TWN: Which is interesting because in your case …
AE: My grandfather had been an opium addict and he had actually died of an opium overdose in China.
So again, an experience I was having as a first-generation young person in America was causing me to look at the impact of opium and the Opium Wars on China and on the Chinese diaspora.
And that later played a part in my gaining a deeper understanding of my family’s experience, because while my Dad was very lenient with me, he was intensely anti-drug with my three older siblings — all due to his father having died the way he did. So I’ve been looking at that too, and in fact, I’m working on a new piece about it.
As an outgrowth of that, I now call myself an acoustic punk raconteur. That’s my new thing.
TWN: I had heard that and was going to ask you to explain …
AE: Sure. Well, it comes down to this: If you are not quite a trained musician and not quite a trained actor, that’s your lane. And that’s my lane. If I didn’t write the things I write, I wouldn’t deserve to be on the stage.
So this piece I’m working on now is called, “Here Comes Johnny Yen Again or How I Kicked Punk.” And it’s jumping off again goes back to when I was a teenager and wondering why Iggy Pop and David Bowie were taking a character created by William Burroughs and making him the central character in “Lust for Life.” Again, of course, it turned out it was just based on more slang for street drugs.
But I was worshiping this music as an escape, and it just kept leading me back to my heritage.
I just got a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council grant to do a short performance and participate in a one-day panel on the Hong Kong handover, 25 years later.
Of course, Hong Kong became a British colony as a key concession to ending the Opium Wars. That was the settlement. And I’m now looking at that, all these years later, with a sense of appreciation of how cultures mesh and collide and interact.
A while back I was working with the Asian American Film Festival and The Irish Times requested press credentials. And I said, “We’re glad you’re coming, but do you mind if I ask why?” And their response was they were particularly interested in a film we were presenting on Hong Kong, because Northern Ireland and Hong Kong are among the last of the British colonies, and they wanted to compare and contrast the experiences of those two places. And I thought, “Oh, my God, what a fascinating angle. I never thought of that.”
TWN: When did you morph into becoming a playwright?
AE: Well, the bands of my youth fizzled out, and I realized I had much more facility with words than music. I love the three-and-a-half chords I know, but the audience didn’t love it as much. They did like the lyrics, though … and that was the bridge from where I was to where I am now.
At the time, a lot of people seemed to be gravitating between what I would call the punk world and like, the downtown theater and performance art worlds. It was a period of a lot of raw commentary and it made me realize as a writer that there were far more ways to do a narrative than a two-minute song. And that’s what led me to theater.
One of the really lucky things that happened to me during this period of my life was working at Asian CineVision and the Asian American Film Festival. By sheer luck I was asked to help them with their literary series and the first guest they were bringing in was the playwright David Henry Hwang. He was reading from “M. Butterfly,” which was scheduled to open a few months later on Broadway. That reading changed my life. Oh, my God, I had never heard anything like it.
And that made me want to really buckle down and study playwriting and go into theater.
TWN: Did your mother get to see your work?
AE: She did. I write about that a little bit in the book. But I have very mixed feelings about it. I was so honored that she was there. And she was happy to be there. She appreciated that her son’s work was being done, but she couldn’t get everything because of the language barrier.
But again, it made me reflect on the uniqueness of our relationship, because we obviously communicated for all those years, but we didn’t have a common language.
Obviously, we shared everything, as mother and son, but the thing that was most important to me about my writing I could never share with her because it all came down to language.
TWN: Playwriting is quite different from the writing we did when we worked together. Can you walk me through the process, and compare and contrast it to composing in straight prose?
AE: Well, there’s a lot of revision, and then there’s the three-dimensional part, which I still liken to songwriting, where you get the notes on the page, do the charts and assemble people to play it and bring the music off the page.
And as you know, the devil is in the details. Writing is rewriting … and that’s particularly true of a play that takes a long time to come together. And of course, as with any creative process, there’s no one way to do anything.
Some might have a character in their mind, maybe inspired by someone from their childhood, and they’re looking for the best vehicle for that. Others have a situation they want to dramatize.
Some start simply with two characters embroiled in a conflict. And then they flesh them out from there, eventually making them human.
I’m actually working on something now called portrait plays, which are historical dramas about artists.
TWN: Now, I was going to ask you about that. You just had one published in December by NoPassport Press, didn’t you?
AE: I did. It is called “Three Trees,” and it grows out of a fascination I have with portraiture. I love the whole dynamic of the portrait painter as artist and model as sitter, and I’ve often wondered, when they have that synergy, that collaboration, who has more influence over what ultimately appears on the canvas or on the page or in the sculpture?
To my mind, the answer is the dynamic keeps changing. And I thought, this is an idea for a play, but how do I approach it? I mean, on stage, as a play, the action could be very static. After all, the model is just sitting there. And I thought about this for a number of years. How could I do this?
Ultimately, it was a gift of our honeymoon. My wife and I went to Paris on our honeymoon and they had recreated Giacometti’s Atelier. You see, Giacometti used his walls as his sketch pads. So when he was evicted from his studio in the 1960s, his wife had the wherewithal to have his drawings taken off the walls so that they could be used in the future in some way.
Then I read about this relationship between Giacometti and the Japanese philosopher Isaku Yanaihara.
The thing about Giacometti is he had a way of overpowering people, physically and intellectually, and he could go for hours after his models were begging him to stop. But Yanaihara was different. Because he was trained in meditation and philosophy, he couldn’t be dominated by Giacometti.
My interpretation of their relationship is that because of this, Giacometti couldn’t quite capture Yanaihara the way he captured other models. And the experience of his trying to do so on paper and in clay and directly in paintings changed both their lives. It became this big traumatic thing.
So that was my first portrait play. And personally, I feel like everyone — be they a journalist or a songwriter or a choreographer or whatever — is doing portraits. In some way. It’s a very universal form to me.
TWN: A part of your story that fascinates me is a reference to your discovering an “Under-chronicled Chinese influence on Thornton Wilder’s drama “Our Town,” which is typically thought of as an expression of pure America — tell me about that?
AE: Well, what happened was, I was teaching a theater class and doing research on Thornton Wilder and “Our Town,” and discovered that his father was consul general to Hong Kong and Shanghai, and again, it was one of those moments where I said, “Oh, my God, look at this.” In this case the discovery being that the Americana play has a Chinese influence. There’s a great question of legacy that runs through it.
And then I discovered the existence of a letter exchange between Wilder and Gertrude Stein in which he says, “Dear Gertrude, for my next play, I’m stealing all the ideas from part three of your ‘The Making of Americans’ as well as the concept of the property manager from the Peking Opera.” And I thought, incredible — the property manager from Peking and Cantonese opera became the state manager in “Our Town.”
TWN: This led to your getting to China and actually visiting your family’s ancestral home …
AE: I had gone once before, with my mother, back in the 1980s, and it was a very different world. For instance, the country was still dotted with these kinds of smaller Soviet airports traversed by Soviet-style planes. And it was all a little nerve-wracking. Plus, for some reason, my mother did not want to go back to her village, having some intense mixed feelings about it.
So fast forward 20 years later, 2007, and my wife Wendy and I went back, but I didn’t quite know how to find what I was looking for … so I contacted an organization called the Eng Family Association and somehow, after convincing them my motives were sincere, they told me where to get a map of our village. And there were even hotels in the nearby city where you could hire a driver to help you find your way.
It was incredible to see the village of my ancestors, though. Some 80 years after my father left, we didn’t have any relatives left there. The funny thing is, with my limited Cantonese, it was the only time in my life where I could carry on even a semblance of a conversation and have them understand what I said.
Despite the absence of relatives, the trip gave me a sense of what my parents experienced when they lived there and what they were leaving behind. And again, this is one of the experiences that led to the book.
I thought all of these experiences added up to something that could be explored in a longer form. And I just love the intimacy of a book. I love the theater and performance because it’s literally common ground with other human beings and we have so little of that anymore.
And yet I also love the intimacy of a book, or a record album, where you experience it in your own time and your own space wherever you want to, and that intimacy is something I want to experience as a writer as well.
TWN: I can’t end our conversation without asking you about the tremendous surge in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the onset of the pandemic, something aided and abetted by people in positions of power referring to the coronavirus as, among other things, the “Chinese flu.” Did this experience strike very close to home for you?
AE: I have two friends, both women, who’ve been assaulted. Thankfully, nothing has happened to me directly, but it’s definitely in my head. And you’re right, we were scapegoated for COVID. It became a very scary time.
In a sense, I was lucky because we lucked into a house upstate and stayed there, but even then I remember watching my back. So it hit close to home in that way. Sadly, a lot of the attack victims have been women — and elderly women too.
And I had friends of mine who would actually cover their eyes because they did not want to reveal their Asian identity. They wore shades and stuff and the situation brought things full circle in a bad way for me because I can remember, when I was growing up, someone coming by the laundry and opening the door and yelling something like, “Why don’t you go home?” Or “Where are you from? Or “Charlie, can you speak English?” Stuff like that. I struggled with that verbal taunting back then, but it was never like what has been happening lately. At the height of the pandemic it was almost like open season on Asians. It was unbelievable.
But I think because of what happened, the Asian American community got stronger. It’s like the late Leonard Cohen wrote in one of his most famous lyrics, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
So I see these attacks, and this being under siege, as something that puts a spotlight on the resilience of this community. And I think a great way to fight back is through the arts and literature. This year has been a banner year for Asian theater in New York with something like 10 Asian American plays in production. I think that’s a great way to combat hate. It really humanizes us. The arts, in a very real sense, is a way to get deep inside everyone’s humanity.
Alvin Eng is holding an in-person and virtual book launch reach talk on Friday, May 20. Event registration links follow: The Virtual Book Launch, will be held 5:30 pm – 7pm, eastern time from the Asian American/Asian Research Institute, City University of New York. The In-Person Book Launch will be held at City Lore (7-9 pm), at 56 East 1st St, East Village, Manhattan.
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