'Chinglish' makes comedy out of cultural confusion

June 24, 2011

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(Courtesy of the Goodman Theatre)
Director Leigh Silverman (left) and playwright David Henry Hwang discuss a scene during rehearsal for 'Chinglish.'

Despite the politics of strategic partnership, the U.S. and China sometimes seem to inhabit two different planets. In the new comedy Chinglish, Tony-Award-winning Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang shares a story of absurd cultural misunderstanding between these nations. Chinglish follows a Midwesterner in China as he desperately tries to land a big contract for his family’s sign-making firm. There, he learns the extent of all he doesn’t understand about both business and humanity.

Hwang shares with us the back story behind the play, which debuts Monday at the Goodman Theatre. His semi-autobiographical play Yellow Face is also being staged at the Silk Road Theater Project. He explained that it was the poorly translated English signs that he saw on a trip to China that inspired him to write Chinglish, which refers to this ungrammatical use of English (one example is of a sign Hwang saw during his travels that said "F- the certain price of goods, which should have been "Dry goods pricing department").  As follows are some the insights Hwang shared with Jerome McDonald:

On his own Chinese-speaking skills:

“I need to have a translator when I go to China. And when I was growing up as a kid, I actually kind of needed a translator to deal with relatives.”

On the state of Chinese culture today:

“In fact, in China right now, there is sort of a nostalgia movement for the cultural revolution.”

"I think that China is dealing, again, with this sort of pace of change and dislocation, and then trying to figure out how to reconcile that. And I think it’s something that, you know, in America, we’re mostly focused on China’s growth as an economic power...[but] they are really looking at how they relate to their own past and where they’re going."

On business between different people:

“I think that you, especially when you’re doing business, working with people, dealing with people you don’t know – if you’re smart, you use whatever’s available.

For instance, in Chinglish, the American businessman does get a certain mileage out of this sort of straightforward, Midwestern honesty. And we find out his real situation is actually more complex.”

On language and communication:

“Even if you understand literally what the other person is saying, you still might not understand what the other person is saying.”

“I wanted to write a play that would deal with the issue of language. It seems to me that one of the main things that anyone deals with in that dynamic is the barrier of language.”

As a Chinese-American, I have written about the dislocation of Chinese Americans here, not totally respected as Americans.

On projecting the translator to show the audience what specific characters are saying:

"I thought it would be really amusing. The audience knows what everyone on stage is saying – but not all the characters on stage know what everyone else is saying."

On his hopes for the future:

“Well I hope the audience is able to understand a little better what its like to have to work between cultures, because in some sense, it’s not just the American businessman traveling to China who has to work between cultures today. Really, all of us do that, because the world is getting smaller, because of globalization.

And so, just to be aware that some things are difficult to translate, some things that are concepts, that even if you understand the literal word you might as well be speaking another language, and I hope it humanizes the experience of what it is to be Chinese, to be American, and to try to travel between those two cultures.”

On whether his plays will be performed in China:

"You know, I think there is an ambition among certain producers in China, but it’s something that the government will not allow to happen....[However] Because the movie for M Butterfly was banned, a lot of people saw it."

On casting according to race:

“When it comes to casting, I feel like there is an employment issue, where we still wouldn’t cast James Earl Jones to play George Washington. But basically I feel that actors, playwrights, directors, producers, have the right to cast whoever they want to cast. But people who don’t like it have the right to complain as loudly as they want, and that’s the whole way to ensure everyones civil liberties.”

“Yes, the goal is a post-racial society…but on the other hand too, racist things still happen, and when they do, then you have to fight that.”