Beyond translation

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

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    ‘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.
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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."

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.

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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.

Yet in all his years in theater, Hwang had never seen the theme of language barriers explored in a play. Nevertheless, it was familiar territory for him. "Having grown up with immigrant parents and relatives, I've spent most of my life dealing with trying to communicate across language barriers," he explains in an interview in New York.

Invited to help start Broadway in China

Hwang was born and raised in Los Angeles by Chinese immigrant parents who are also Christian evangelists. His religious views diverged from theirs when he began college at Stanford in the 1970s. The strong Christian beliefs of his parents and relatives created for him another exercise in cross-cultural communication.

Until recently Hwang had been to China only once on a family trip in 1993. But in 2005, Chinese cultural officials invited him to China to brainstorm about developing their own Broadway-style works. Broadway in China has yet to materialize, but for Hwang, the trips to China sparked the idea for "Chinglish."

He drew first on his own experience navigating China. Hwang's cultural advisers commanded him to "always bring your own translator." In "Chinglish" the audience witnesses what happens when someone doesn't: A hapless Chinese interpreter mangles communication between Daniel, the Ohio businessman, and Minister Cai, a Chinese government official. Daniel says that his "hands are tied," which is innocently translated into he's "in bondage."

Hwang interviewed many for-eign­ers who have lived and worked in China and consulted with cultural ad-visers and translators to develop the play, performed in English and Mandarin with clever supertitles. To lend more authenticity, the team took note of small details, such as the books and trinkets on the shelves of actual Chinese officials, and incorporated them into the play's set.

Even when masked with comedy, the resulting characters, situations, and dialogue ring true. "I recognized all the characters in the play," says Matt Pottinger, an American who saw the play in New York. Mr. Pottinger worked in Beijing for eight years from the late 1990s as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Reuters and now advises businesspeople in China.

"It reminded me of the early days in China when foreign investment started to take off," Pottinger says. "You had these quirky Westerners showing up in China – the American businessman showing up to make it, but he doesn't know what he's getting into."

The sense of naive ambition reminded Pottinger of a friend "who showed up in Beijing with a hot dog stand he shipped from New Orleans. He got the stand set up and on the first day, the [Public Security Bureau] confiscated it."

In "Chinglish," Daniel's business consultant, an Englishman named Peter who also teaches in China, advises his client on Chinese ways, such as the important concept of guanxi (personal connections). Peter also instructs Daniel to "criticize yourself, but make sure there's someone else in the room to contradict you."

That line struck Qian Yi, a Shanghai native in her 30s who now lives in New York. "Exactly!" she laughs. Normally she doesn't notice Chinese cultural quirks because she grew up with them. But the play was "like a mirror to me," she says. "I see what's going on with my own culture."

She was also struck by a line in "Chinglish" by Yan, a female Chinese official: "Love. It is your American religion." Ms. Qian agrees. "Americans are a little brainwashed about love. They think, 'We'll live happily forever.' Chinese people, especially women, are [more] realistic."

The play eventually reveals Daniel to be not quite the Midwestern rube he seems. The blunt assessment? "He's an American loser coming to China trying to make it," says Mr. Sun of the Shanghai Theatre Academy.

"Chinglish" plays on other misconceptions, too. Chicago TV anchor Yu applauded the playwright for going beyond stereotypes about Asian women. When the comely Yan teaches Daniel about business, Chinese-style, she upends his expectations with her brazen ambition and hard-nosed self-interest.

Where are the stereotypes?

At the Q-and-A Yu moderated in Chicago, she recalls, "One audience member was flummoxed because he didn't recognize any beautiful, delicate, compliant, soft-spoken Chinese women in 'Chinglish.' "

Yu adds, "As a Chinese-American woman, I can't help but appreciate what David [Henry Hwang] has done with the 'white guy falls for the beautiful, delicate Asian woman' stereotype."

Those doing business in China also saw their experiences reflected in the play's fun-house mirror. The character of Daniel "touched a nerve vis-à-vis people I've known who came to China years ago and got close to snatching the gold ring in business, but somehow never did," says Joe Simone, an American lawyer based in Hong Kong who has been doing business in China for 23 years. Mr. Simone saw the play with his father in New York. "I felt embarrassed at the shenanigans, most of which had their roots in reality."

While Pottinger covered business in China as a reporter, his current role as an entrepreneur gives a different perspective. "You're always trying to figure out people's motives ... you don't know why things aren't working out for you. And there are unclear rules about what businesses can and can't do."

Issues such as corruption presented in the play are not new in China, observes Sun. "Chinese all know about these problems." "Chinglish" reflects the early stages of foreigners doing business in China in the 1990s, he says. Foreign corporations got a lot of leeway, but in fast-changing China, they are losing those privileges as government regulation tightens.

"What's portrayed in the play is slowly becoming passé," Sun says. "Guanxi still works a lot, but just guanxi is far from enough. Now it's much more complicated."

As a character in "Chinglish" astutely explains, "you're trying to understand the words, which cannot be translated."

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