Chinglish: no dictionary needed

by laurie song

Playwright David Henry Hwang’s newest production has come to Berkeley: Chinglish follows an American signmaker as he makes his first business trip to China and discovers the linguistic and cultural differences that get lost in translation. Hwang, a second-generation Chinese American and one of the preeminent Asian American dramatists in the U.S., is best known for his critically acclaimed plays such as FOB and M. Butterfly, for which he has won multiple awards in theatre. In Chinglish, he takes a more lighthearted comedic look at how guanxi—personal relationships—can drive both business and private interactions in China.

Hwang explains his inspiration for Chinglish, which comes from his personal experiences: “China has become very interested in Broadway-style shows. And I’m the only even nominally Chinese person who’s ever written a Broadway show so I started to be called over for a lot of different meetings. And I think that Chinglish the play comes out of my trying to deal with what it means to do business in China, and the things I understood, and the things I didn’t understand.”

 Chinglish, directed by Leigh Silverman and produced by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is full of snappy, quick-witted dialogue that effortlessly transcends language barriers through the universal language of comedy. Because a significant portion of the dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, English supertitles are projected onto the set, often to amusing and contradictory effect. The scenic design—set in Guiyang, China—is impressively coordinated, with sleek transitions between sets accompanied by snippets of pop music by Taiwanese American musician Wang Leehom.

Cast members include Michelle Krusiec, whose varied filmography includes a leading role in Saving Face and numerous film and TV appearances, as Xi Yan, the “suspiciously sexy bureaucrat”; Alex Moggridge as Daniel, the American businessman; Celeste Den as Miss Qian, a well-meaning but comically inaccurate interpreter; Brian Nishii as Peter, a British expatriate in China; and Larry Lei Zhang as Minister Cai of the local Guiyang government.

Though advertisements for Chinglish portray the play as a farce—a comedy full of hilarious linguistic misinterpretations, cultural misunderstandings, and sex—I find the message behind the madness far more interesting. Hwang makes incisive points about what it means to do business in a globalized economy in which the U.S. is no longer the sole superpower, and in which China is emerging as a land of perceived entrepreneurial opportunity. For instance, when Daniel becomes frustrated with Xi Yan’s limited English, Xi Yan asks him why she should speak English and why he cannot learn to speak Chinese instead, revealing the double standard present in these exchanges.

Hwang also highlights the cultural differences that ultimately prove more difficult to bridge than the permeable language barrier. Most notably, he portrays this through the characters of Minister Cai and Peter, the British expatriate who serves as Daniel’s “consultant”—his linguistic and cultural translator. Hwang frames the underlying dissonance between the older Chinese generation from the Cultural Revolution and the younger generation within the context of politics and internationality. Though Minister Cai, a Communist Party member, seems to hold the key to doing business in Guiyang, it is later revealed that the navigation of guanxi is far more complex than either he or Peter could have imagined: when you play the game of personal connections and the owing of favors, the boundaries between legality and corruption become blurred. Surprisingly, the two—despite their generational and national differences—find mutual (and somewhat ironic) ground in their nostalgia for an idealized China of the past, for Chinese operas and army days left behind in the wake of China’s rise.

In Chinglish, David Henry Hwang interprets modern China’s continual political and cultural transformation—in which both Chinese and Westerners often find themselves lost—through the lens of personal relationships and comedy. Sharp, intriguing, and fast-paced, Chinglish is a play that has the audience laughing at the theatre and pondering its message all the way home.