In “Chinglish”, a new Broadway play by David Henry Hwang, an American businessman goes to China to rustle up business for his family's ailing sign-making company. The title of the play refers to those famously kooky translations found in China, where a mundane phrase in English such as "Please keep off the grass" is translated into "I like your smile, but unlike you put your shoes on my face."
Set in Guiyang, a “small” city of 4.3m in south-west China, Mr Hwang’s shrewdly funny play, directed by Leigh Silverman, is performed in English and Mandarin with English supertitles, and features plenty of faux pas and intrigue. But what is surprising is just how well Mr Hwang, a Chinese-American playwright, manages to capture the nuances of rapidly changing China and a shifting global order. He also conveys the skewed expectations that Westerners and Chinese have of each other—and themselves.
Now 54, Mr Hwang pioneered plays with Asian and Asian-American themes in the 1980s. Since then he has worked on a variety of projects, including co-writing the libretto for Elton John’s Broadway musical “Aida”. He is best known for his 1988 play “M. Butterfly”, about a French diplomat who has a 20-year affair with a Chinese singer who turns out to be a man, which won a Tony award and was a Pulitzer-prize finalist. At the time Mr Hwang’s plays were, as he recalls, “exotic ethnic theatre”. But now that China plays a bigger role on the world stage, the country is becoming more visible on a theatrical one.
Yet Mr Hwang makes for a curious ambassador. Born in California, he had been to China only once on a family trip. That changed six years ago, when Chinese cultural officials began bringing him over to help develop their own Broadway-style works. Mr Hwang was a natural choice, he explains, as the “only even nominally Chinese person who has written a Broadway show”. The trips sparked the idea for “Chinglish”, as the play considers what it means to try to do business in China.
For these trips, Mr Hwang's cultural advisors urged him to “always bring your own translator”. In “Chinglish” the audience witnesses a Chinese interpreter mangling communication between the American businessman, named Daniel, and Minister Cai, a Chinese government official. “We’re a small, family firm” turns into “his company is small and insignificant”; “I appreciate the frank American style” becomes “He enjoys your rudeness”.
Other nuggets of wisdom about China—described by Daniel as “the greatest pool of untapped consumers history has ever known”—are dispensed early on by Peter, his British consultant and translator. As Daniel is on his first trip to China, Peter primes him on the critical Chinese concept of guanxi (personal connections) and the fact that “no one expects justice”. He advises his client to “criticise yourself, but make sure there’s someone else in the room to contradict you.”
The play acknowledges China’s clichés and elicits laughs from absurd examples of Chinglish, but it also thoughtfully illustrates the confusion afflicting everyone—both residents and Westerners—in booming, transforming China. “Sometimes I miss my old army days…times were simpler then,” laments Minister Cai, the gatekeeper to lucrative government contracts. In a candid moment, Daniel appears humbled by his time in China: “Nowadays, to be successful, you have to understand your place in their picture.”
"Chinglish" is now playing at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in New York.