Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Broadway's Chinese Language Barrier

David Henry Hwang is in an interesting cultural position. Born in the U.S. to immigrant Chinese parents, he grew up speaking proper English and poor Chinese around relatives whose English was poor but whose Chinese was perfect. This has influenced many of the plays he has written, including the Tony-winning play M. Butterfly. His newest play, Chinglish, has begun previews and, for the occasion, he has composed for the following essay.

My newest play, Chinglish, currently in previews, tells of a white American businessman who travels to the Chinese provincial capital of Guiyang, in hopes of landing a deal. It grew out of the many trips I’ve been making to China over the past five or six years. China has gotten very interested in Broadway-style theater, and I happen to be the only even nominally Chinese person who’s ever written a Broadway show. So I’ve been called over for a lot of meetings to discuss very grand schemes—a new theater district, homegrown mega-musicals—all of which have resulted in absolutely nothing, except that I’ve gotten the opportunity to witness the amazing changes going on over there.

On a trip in 2005, I was taken to a brand-new cultural center in the ultra-modern city of Shanghai, where my father was born and raised. The facility was amazing—Brazilian wood, Italian marble, German design. And then there were these ridiculously translated signs: For instance, the handicapped restrooms read, “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” I imagined using these signs as a jumping-off point for a play about doing business in today’s China. During the last 10 years of his life, my father built a consultancy firm helping American firms land deals in China. So I’d heard a lot of stories about working there, and the misunderstandings that can derail dealings between cultures.

I also wanted to deal with the issue of language. When you’re trying to do business in a non-English speaking country, language obviously becomes the first barrier to understanding. Yet I’d never seen a play or movie which really tackled what that feels like. Normally, authors and directors come up with some kind of convention—the non-English speaking character speaks with an accent—which doesn’t even begin to convey the reality. As the child of immigrants, I grew up with many relatives whose English was poor to non-existent. And despite taking Chinese in college, my Chinese sucks. So I’ve spent a good portion of my life struggling across the language barrier. In Chinglish, we’ve given the Chinese characters the dignity of their own language, thanks to my wonderful translator, the Hong Kong-based playwright Candace Mui-Ngam Chong. But non-Chinese speakers needn’t worry—we project the English translations right onto the set, so you can easily understand what everyone is saying.

In fact, based on the play’s amazing reception in Chicago, where we were the most successful play in the history of the Goodman Theatre, audiences love that they know what everyone is saying onstage, even when the characters can’t understand each other. Americans today view China with both admiration and fear. An uncle of mine—a very successful Chinese businessman based in Manila—once told me, “When the West says Chinese are good, we’re never as good as they think. And when they think we’re bad, we’re never as bad as they say.” I hope the characters in this play from both sides of the Pacific are neither saints nor villains—and that we can laugh together at the virtues as well as the flaws that make us all human.

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