By Janine Chow:
Today, in one of its most highly anticipated fireside chats of the year, Yale-China hosted Professor Alvin Eng for a talk entitled: “Our Town: China/USA.” Professor Eng, a professor of creative writing at Fordham University and a Fulbright specialist in theatre, he introduced himself simply as a “playwright, performer, and educator.”
The simplicity of his chosen epithet belied the consummate artistry with which he crafted his speech today. Eng’s speech was at once about his family history growing up the American born son of illegal Chinese immigrants in Flushing, New York and the story of a theatre program he brought to Hong Kong in 2011. And so his talk was part oration, part monologue, part past, part present, part China, part U.S.A.—all securely woven around a dancing timeline.
Theatre, he said, is a “dialogue between the people on the stage and the audience about the present day.” In this way, Eng brought Yale alumnus Thorton Wilder’s quintessential American play Our Town to the City University of Hong Kong. In a program envisioned and carried out with his wife, Wendy Wasdahl, Eng worked with students write their own Our Towns, transplanting early 1900s small town New Hampshire to the modern global city that is Hong Kong. The project’s title: “Hong Kong Time Capsule 2011,” said Eng with a smile, as a reference to the time capsule of Wilder’s play, meant to capture the simple but meaningful details of everyday life for future generations.
In the figurative Hong Kong time capsule, students placed everything from the polluted air to the dwindling Victoria Harbor to the shrill cries of marketplace vendors. The experience was deeply meaningful to Eng, who commented: “while money may still be Hong Kong’s raison d’être, this new generation had very different values.” The plays, he said, were “really witty” and “dug beneath the slick surface of Hong Kong.” The students had had little to no theatrical experience and had written the plays in their second language, English. Said Wendy Wasdahl, Eng’s wife, “We cried. We’re criers.” This was Eng’s present.
But his past lay with his immigrant family in Flushing, New York (what he called “the People’s Republic of Floo Shing”). Eng read and performed segments from his memoir monologue “The Last Emperor of Flushing”—a deeply personal and nostalgic work reflecting his role as “the guardian and figurehead of a dynasty that no longer existed.”
The dynasty came to him, the last emperor of Flushing, from his family and especially from his mother, a seemingly indomitable spirit who never quite assimilated into the American lifestyle. “The emperor’s mother did not speak English, but she was damn proud of it.” Eng mimed holding a pair of black shoes which his mother had worn on a trip home to Xiazhou, China. On that trip, said Eng, “I was acutely aware that I was in my mother’s land, not my motherland.”
The monologue concluded as Eng placed the final items into his “Death of a Salesman suitcase,” finally packing up and leaving the imperial palace of the Flushing dynasty.
After that, the emperor left the stage—“and that stage of [his] life.” With the death of his mother, “the way of life that [he] had dedicated his life to preserving was now extinct.” But he now has a “new spiritual home”—and today, his role as playwright, performer, and educator is clearer than ever. His is a passion he shares, a passion for the theatre, that “most ephemeral of art forms,” and that most attuned to the mysterious movements of the human soul.
Janine Chow ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards college. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.