The playwright/performer talks punk rock, Toisanese Sicilians, and the importance of humor.
A native New York City playwright, performer, and acoustic punk-rock raconteur, Alvin Eng has had his work produced throughout the U.S., as well as in Paris, Hong Kong, and China. An adjunct professor of theatre arts at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY) and at Marymount Manhattan College, Eng is also the editor of Tokens?: The NYC Asian American Experience on Stage and author of the play “Three Trees.” His new memoir is Our Laundry, Our Town: My Chinese American Life from Flushing to the Downtown Stage and Beyond.
One of the most powerful feelings in the memoir is your search for a sense of belonging, a place you can be yourself. How did rock music help you find that place?
Thanks for focusing on rock ‘n’ roll — it plays a central role in my life. I’m the youngest of five children from an arranged marriage of illegal immigrants from Toisan in the Chinese province of Guangdong. My parents ran a Chinese hand laundry in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens from the 1950s to the 1970s. Although Flushing became New York City’s second Chinatown in the 1980s –– sometimes referred to as “the People’s Republic of Floo-shing” –– when I was growing up, we were one of the few Chinese families there. My parents’ arranged marriage also made our household feel like a different century. I was always looking for American frames of reference to contextualize my outsider experiences. Rock ‘n’ roll was certainly one of the primary ways I processed and continue to process things. Through rock ‘n’ roll, I had my first peer group as a teenager. I also first started to express myself by writing rock songs –– focusing on the lyrics much more than the music.
In many ways, rock ‘n’ roll was always in my family. As far back as I can remember, my older brothers were always playing in rock bands in our garage. Yes, being the youngest also made me the “spoiled one” –– the only one of our family who grew up entirely living in a house and not in the back of our laundry.
In our laundry, my parents blasted their Cantonese opera records at very loud volumes. Looking back, I can now see how this loud music from their own culture helped them create an aural cocoon in the often-hostile environment that we faced. People would regularly open our laundry door and shout racist taunts, such as “Can you speak-eee English, Chah-lee?” Of course, this aural cocoon is analogous to igniting loud fireworks to ward off evil spirits during Chinese New Year celebrations.
After seeing my parents absorb these racist taunts and experiencing personal bullying on the streets or in the schoolyard, I would create my own aural cocoon with my brothers’ rock ‘n’ roll records. Through these records, the world became larger than my own neighborhood of Flushing. Not many of my childhood friends shared this passion for rock. That’s why I still feel very lucky that during my teenage years, punk rock took hold. With punk, all misfits fit in. Rather than trying to cover up or change our “societal shortcomings” or related reasons for being considered “other,” we punks shouted these traits to the rooftops and beyond. This went a long way in my lifelong battle of “longing to belong.”
We are close to the same age and have some of the same taste in music. But I have to say, I’m amazed that you got to the Who’s Tommy and “Hey Jude” by age 6 or 7 and to the New York Dolls by your early teens. How did you get such great taste so young?
In two words, older brothers. In the 60s, I remember my brother Vic –– who is 12 years older –– playing the Stones’ “Satisfaction” with his band in our garage. His shining moment came when the drums are featured between the “I can’t get no –– no, no, no” and “Hey, hey hey –– that’s what I say” refrains. Vic also raved about Murray the K shows he saw in Brooklyn with the Young Rascals, as well as seeing Motown greats like the Temptations. In the 70s, my brother Herman –– five years older –– and his friends were playing hard-rock covers of the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and the Allman Brothers.
Rock ‘n’ roll also helped Herman and me to cope with our parents’ volatile and antagonistic marriage. As my parents would battle psychologically and physically, we would escape to our music. For a few years during a very tumultuous time, the lyrics from the Who’s rock opera, Tommy, became virtually our entire vocabulary. The inner escape of Tommy’s narrative mirrored our own domestic challenges.
Your book is very funny, and it is obvious humor is important to you. Do you get that from your family?
My mom, in particular, had a raunchy, confrontational sense of humor. As I write in the book, following some racist tirades being hurled at us in our laundry:
“Dad would take one for the family and grow sullen and speechless. The Empress Mother, however, would respond to these taunts with a lusty: ‘Ai-yah! Moe-Yung Bok-Gwai, kare see um ben!’ [‘Useless white devil ghosts, you can step on shit and it will not bend!’]”
Later on, as my parents became landlords, my mother would often rant in Toisan at the tenants’ demands, “Do you want us to wipe your ass, too?”
From the late 18th to the late 20th century, 80 percent of Chinese immigrants in North American cities were from Toisan. The Toisanese were very much like the Sicilians. Toisantowns, or Chinatowns, like Sicilian “Little Italy” enclaves, operated under their own rules, regulations, and justice systems. When words, deeds, and laws failed, there was always the meat cleaver…and a wicked sense of humor.
John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.