In the feel-good view of humankind, people the world over are more alike than different. We have the same needs and wants, and we celebrate our commonalities. We're one giant chorus singing We Are The World. To that, Chinglish is a refreshing and rollicking slap in the face.
Focused on just two peoples, Americans and Chinese, David Henry Hwang's newest play probes our mutual miscommunication and miscomprehension about everything from business negotiations to sex. Chinglish is a clever, laugh-out-loud comedy that's at the Berkeley Rep through October 21, 2012.
Before arriving in the Bay Area, Chinglish had its world premiere in Chicago in 2011 and then moved to Broadway. Directed by Leigh Silverman, it is on Time magazine's 2011 list of Top 10 Plays and Musicals and Bloomberg's list of the best New York theater shows in 2011.
American Salesman in China Confronts "Deformed Man's Toilet"
On his first trip to China, Cleveland businessman Daniel (Alex Moggridge) lands in Guiyang (population 4 million, "small" by Chinese standards) to score some work for his family's sign-making company. His interpreter and consultant, a long-time British expat, gets them an audience with the minister of culture. The "Chinglish" signage like "Deformed Man's Toilet" (pointing to the handicapped restroom) in a recently opened performance hall in Shanghai has become a national joke and international embarrassment, so the minister seems enthusiastic about Daniel producing correct English signs for the local vanity project, a multimillion-dollar cultural center. Later, though, the smart and gorgeous vice-minister, Xi Yan (Michelle Krusiec), tells Daniel privately that the job has already been promised to another firm. She nevertheless offers to help him snag the contract.
Malapropisms and Tortured Translations
Chinglish afflicts China's lavish new buildings, public safety signs ("Keep valuables snugly, and beware the people press close to you designedly") and restaurant menus ("chicken without a sex life"; "onion explodes in sheep") alike, and Chinglish spews deliciously mangled idioms, slang and pronunciation. The dialogue is partly in Mandarin Chinese; English supertitles, mostly translations of botched translation, let the audience in on the faux pas while the characters on stage remain clueless. The funniest lines come from the earnest if bumbling interpreters, who, for instance, turn "My hands are tied" into "He is in bondage."
Like most Americans, Daniel is monolingual, and he butchers language as creatively as the Chinese translators do. He thinks he is telling Xi, "I love you," but he's actually bleating, "My fifth aunt" and "Frog loves to pee."
Beneath the miscommunication are the gaps between Chinese and American norms, values and perceptions. In the U.S., the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In China, the boaster is presumed to be boorish and insubstantial--while the strategic networker, the one with the best guanxi (personal connections), prevails. Daniel and Xi wind up in bed together, but with distinctly different assumptions and expectations for their affair. In China, marriage is a friendship between teammates. Yet Americans like to believe that marriage runs on romantic love. As Xi tells Daniel, love "is your American religion."
In Chinglish, the mutual misunderstanding is usually hilarious--and it's hysterical in a scene where Daniel's modest but sketchy work experience in the U.S. wins him accolades from the Chinese. But we see sobering consequences as well. When Xi says, "One day, China will be strong," Daniel insists that it is already so and that the U.S. is the weaker power. That's the problem with the U.S., Xi replies: Even when it's strong, "America acts like it's weak."
Who Are These People?
The actors, the dialogue and the supertitles trot and keep us laughing. While the script acquaints us with the players, it unfortunately doesn't draw us closer to them. Vice-minister Xi, the most developed of the characters, is a new-millennium woman with a high-flying husband, her own prestigious career, a chic wardrobe and the mindset and freedom to have an affair (with a foreigner, no less). But Chinglish barely hints about her other dimensions, such as her cultural belief that one's face is telling of one's character. In a fleeting aside, Xi wonders whether she is "any happier than my grandma" who had bound feet and an arranged marriage.
Daniel's business consultant, Peter (Brian Nishii), is even more intriguing. The scruffy British transplant, who's lived in China for two decades, mentions that he cannot go back home again. He's the most fluent English-Chinese interpreter in Guiyang. He sings Chinese opera with the cultural minister. Given these glimpses of his soul, I wanted to see more.
Chinese-American David Henry Hwang wrote his first play while he was a Stanford undergrad; FOB went on to New York and won an Obie Award in 1981. He is best known for his Tony-winning M. Butterfly, based on the true story of a 20-year affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese male transvestite. A violinist, Hwang has also written libretti for several operas and Broadway musicals, including the updated Flower Drum Song.
Chinglish arose from Hwang's trips to China starting in 2005, when Chinese producers consulted him about developing Broadway-style shows in China. That's when Hwang saw warped English, such as the "Deformed Man's Toilet" sign in a sparkling new cultural center. Other authentic Chinglish signs are posted at the Berkeley Rep for your amusement, such as "Let's leave gladly and come back safely" (meaning, "A happy farewell, and a safe and sound return home").
For Chinglish, the Los-Angeles-born Hwang, who describes his Mandarin as "really lousy," drafted a script in English and worked with Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong on the Chinese parts. After the opening night's curtain calls at the Berkeley Rep, Hwang said the audience reacted "more emotionally" than the Broadway theater-goers had.
"We've had more time to work on the piece and gotten to know it better," he said. "This production struck the right balance between humor and seriousness."
Larry Lei Zhang, the only China native among the actors, emphasizes the show's serious side. "Country to country, people to people, even two lovers--do they really understand each other?" says Zhang, who plays cultural minister Cai Guoliang.
For Zhang, who emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1990s and helps with a family business in China, Chinglish hits home. Corruption and even extramarital affairs between Chinese officials and foreigners are topics "recently quite open" in China, he notes. (In the spring of 2012, news erupted of a scandal in Chongqing, a southwestern Chinese city, involving a Chinese Politburo member, his wife and a dead British businessman. The official, since stripped of his titles, and the wife, who's widely suspected to have had an affair with the Brit, are under investigation for murder).
Zhang is the only cast member who has been in both the original Chicago production and the Broadway run of Chinglish. He was at home in Fremont when he got an email about the Chinglish casting call from his alma mater, the Shanghai Theatre Academy. Rehearsals were to begin in Chicago in a month.
He read the script, and "right away, I knew I [could] play" the minister, Zhang says. Over the past couple of years, he says, he and his family have been working on opening a dental clinic (in scandalous Chongqing, by coincidence). Within a mere six months, they secured the 16 approvals necessary to establish their business--thanks to good guanxi.
"Acting skills are just one part" of an actor's job, Zhang says. It's "real-life experience that will help you create" and own the role.
Written by David Henry Hwang; directed by Leigh Silverman
Through October 21, 2012
Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre
2015 Addison St., Berkeley 94704
Tickets: $14.50-$99 (includes half-price tickets for those under age 30), subject to change.