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Beyond translation

'Chinglish,' a new play about China, deftly tackles tricky cultural terrain.

By Amy YeeContributor / November 22, 2011

‘Chinglish,’ a new comedy on Broadway written by David Henry Hwang is performed in both English and Mandarin (with English supertitles). The play explores and mocks the cultural differences of Americans and Chinese as they try to understand each other.

Michael McCabe

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Over the years, "chinglish" – those merrily mangled Chinese-to-English translations found in China – have spawned a subculture. Books and websites showcase how in China, mundane English phrases are unwittingly transformed. For example, "Handicapped Rest­room" is changed to "Deformed Man Toilet"; "Keep Off the Grass" becomes "The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please Don't Disturb It."

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Now those mistranslations are center stage. In the new Broadway comedy "Chinglish," they serve as metaphor for the cultural complexities facing for-eigners in China as the global order shifts.

The play humorously tells the lost-in-translation tale of a Cleveland businessman trying to revive his fortunes in China. Playwright David Henry Hwang, a Tony winner and Pulitzer finalist, insightfully explores the blunders and shenanigans that occur across cultures and languages. The portrayal has even amused some tough critics: native Chinese and "China hands" – foreigners who have lived or worked in China.

Xinhua, China's official state news agency, reviewed the play when it premièred this summer at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Although "Chinglish" spotlights corruption, nepotism, and other scandalous behavior, the review glowed. It called Mr. Hwang "one of the most extraordinary writers now working in American theater."

China Daily, a state-owned English-language newspaper, was also positive about "Chinglish" after its Broadway debut late last month. It works "because of the light-hearted authenticity Hwang has brought to the play," the revew read.

The responses are surprising considering Chinese media are often prickly, if not downright defensive, about the way China is portrayed in the West. This may have to do with the play's roasting of both China and the West, and its acknowledgment of economic woes in the United States as China rises. "Chinglish" satirizes Westerners, too, rather than merely poking fun at Chinese ways.

Simply put, the play "addresses both the common Western misconceptions about China, and the Chinese misconceptions about the West," observes Linda Yu, an ABC television anchor in Chicago who moderated a Q-and-A with the cast this summer. (Ms. Yu was born in China and moved to the US as a child.)

William Sun, vice president and professor at Shanghai Theatre Academy, notes that the play's two Western characters are themselves seriously flawed. Hwang is "poking fun at everyone," he says. "It's not really Americans laughing at Chinese."

It helps that Hwang has explored cross-culturalism in his plays for decades. He helped pioneer plays with Asian and Asian-American themes in the early 1980s when works about China were "exotic ethnic theater," Hwang remembers. Eventually they attracted a mainstream audience. His 1988 play "M. Butterfly," about a 20-year affair between a French diplomat and a male Chinese opera singer, won a Tony Award and was a Pulitzer finalist.

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