The playwright and storyteller Alvin Eng grew up with five siblings in a house near the family’s business, the Foo J. Chin Chinese Hand Laundry in Flushing, Queens. Sunday, the only day the laundry was closed, was a big deal, as he recounts in his new memoir, “Our Laundry, Our Town: My Chinese American Life From Flushing to the Downtown Stage and Beyond.”
“My parents would drive us across three boroughs and two bridges to the bustling Chinatown in ‘the city,’ as us outer-borough-born-and-raised kids will always call Manhattan,” even though he would rather have stayed in Queens, playing stickball with friends in his mostly Jewish neighborhood, he said.
These days, Mr. Eng, 60, lives in TriBeCa with his wife, Wendy Wasdahl, a theater director, dramaturge and actress who also teaches tai chi in senior centers. But Chinatown “in the city” is nearby, so they can often be found there, including this Sunday at 3 p.m., when Mr. Eng will read from his memoir at 21 Pell Street, one of his favorite cultural centers in the neighborhood.
MUSIC CLEANSE I get up around 8:30. We linger a little in bed, and then I play two songs, “Sunday Morning” by the Velvet Underground and “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen. It’s almost like mental palate cleansing; during the week, we turn on NPR. Then we start to prepare breakfast. I’m the main cook. Our ritual is smoked salmon with Tofutti spread, capers, onions, tomatoes and some arugula on gluten-free bagels or whole wheat pumpernickel. We listen to NPR’s “Weekend Edition” while we’re putting it together. Then, when we sit down, we watch “The Sunday Show” with Jonathan Capehart on MSNBC. He’s such an endearing, engaging host. And he doesn’t back down with his questions.
BACK TO THE FUTURE We trek up Worth Street to Chinatown. For me, present, past and future resonate vividly and viscerally during these walks. What I love about Chinatown now, compared with when I was a kid, is that there’s so much art and culture mixed in with all the great restaurants and groceries. There’s Think!Chinatown and the 21 Pell Street community center. Both present performances and workshops and other events. I’ve performed at 21, which is actually a historic Chinese Baptist church that is still active. When my musical friends are in town, we’ve jammed there. We play our own songs and ’70s glam/punk covers, ranging from Lou Reed to Mott the Hoople and New York Dolls.
PAGING MR. PROUST On Mulberry is Yu and Me Books, which is on the new side and is New York City’s only Asian American-female-owned bookstore. It’s modern and hip and a nice addition to the neighborhood. A few doors down there’s a huge funeral parlor, Ng Fook Funeral Services. Both my parents had their funerals there. When it’s good weather we may get some to-go Tasty Dumplings next door, then pick up some hamantaschen (Jewish triangular cookies) from Tria Diner off Chatham Square and walk over to City Hall Park, which is our favorite park. The hamantaschen and dumpling combo is symbolic of my childhood. I grew up in a very Jewish section of Flushing. After we eat, we’ll linger in City Hall Park to read The Sunday Times, people-watch and dream.
UNFORGOTTEN Sometimes we walk further uptown. I have a lot of deep memories in the East Village, too. Some of my first performances were there, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and P.S. 122 (now called Performance Space New York). It’s good to wind up anywhere we can see the Statue of Liberty. The role of immigrants in the city is very much on my mind when I’m in all these neighborhoods, especially when I’m thinking about my parents. Something about a Sunday makes you think about all these things a little more reflectively.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT On Sunday nights we take it easy at home and have what we call a hodgepodge enhanced leftover dinner. That’s whatever’s left over from the week or the day before, plus whatever we pick up during the day, like bok choy or red cabbage from Chinatown or something from the Ukrainian National Home, now called the Ukrainian East Village restaurant. As a writer and activist and teacher — I teach in the theater arts departments at Marymount Manhattan College and the Borough of Manhattan Community College — I love making disparate parts work, whether it’s ingredients or people or points of view.
ALWAYS MORE TO DO After dinner I start catching up on emails and getting my lesson plans ready for the week. We usually DVR Al Sharpton’s show, “Politics Nation.” We’ll watch that as we’re winding down. And we always make time to read. I just finished a great book of essays called “The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care and Racial Justice.” I get to bed around 10 or 11. There’s always more to do, though. Always more to think about and catch up on.
Sunday Routine readers call follow Alvin Eng on Twitter @AlvinEng8 or Instagram @alvin.eng8.