Chinglish Is More Than Just Mangled Language
* By Scott Brown
A lot of Western expressions get hilariously and perilously lost in translation in Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s doggedly accessible, avidly entertaining new comedy. But one particular term comes through loud and clear. “All person know ‘screwed’!” Vice Minister Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim) informs clueless American businessman Daniel (Gary Wilmes) in their first one-on-one encounter. It’s a core tenet of commerce and congress they both understand instantly and intimately — and, it turns out, on multiple levels. Chinglish, that ungainly ligerlike copulation of English and Chinese translations celebrated in blogs and on T-shirts, is always at its most delightful at its most double entendrous. (“Please don’t touch yourself. Let us help you to try out!”) And so it is with Chinglish, a sexy labyrinth of “backdoors,” slippery idioms and comically low-stakes intrigue. (Daniel is in China to sell English signage to an arts complex, not missile components to the People’s Liberation Army.) A game is certainly afoot, with the Westerner lagging three steps behind, but unlike the Chinese boxes of David Mamet, this play isn’t designed to snap shut and take off a finger. The bite is softer, and perhaps even a little too soft: Subplots that touch on abuses of power in still-totalitarian China feel a wee bit breezy-cute and lightweight. (The China of Chinglish is more or less the inverse of Mike Daisey’s dystopic panorama of city-size, orphan-packed iPad workhouses; here it comes off practically postindustrial, populated entirely by entrepreneurs, apparatchiks, and subscribers to Thomas Friedman podcasts.)
But Hwang isn’t attempting a repeat of M. Butterfly, his signature East-West meta-tragedy, and audiences may well find that Chinglish’s ache outlasts its sting. Hwang is, at heart, a teacher, and he’s written a teaching play, with a sound-it-out approach to Sino-American cultural chasms and the power asymmetries that arise when naive Western absolutism stumbles into the quantum fog that is guanxi, i.e. “relationships.” He’s also, God love him, made his show great frisky fun, with savory chemistry between its leads and a refreshingly grown-up undercoating of well-earned melancholy. Wilmes (best known for the great boors and heavies he’s played in Gatz and Red Light Winter) first comes off a little too slow and galumphing as the lonely, credulous Westerner, but stick with him: He’s building a complex, if recessive character, a broken dreamer with a need to project his own desires and beliefs onto any situation — or alluring top-level bureaucrat — he can’t grasp. And there’s so much in China for him to not-grasp, starting with the language. (“Love” becomes “dust,” “I love you” becomes “My fifth aunt,” then “absolutely useless,” and finally, gloriously, “frog loves to pee.”) The object of his inarticulate affection is Lim’s Xi, a local party official who might be trying to help him win a game-changing contract — or might simply be serving her own agenda. Xi certainly has her own woes: Her once-passionate marriage to a local judge has gone cold, and she finds herself in need of escape. “We were the new generation, who would pick good men, and live for love — I did everything right,” she muses, wondering where it all went wrong. But her Xi is no wistful lovelorn maid, waiting patiently for Pinkerton to return: She has plans for herself, for her country, and, yes, for the occasional afternoon delight. Lim is just plain superb in a role that makes us realize just how few solid multidimensional roles for powerful adult women exist these days, on stage or screen. Rarely do we get to see a woman over the age of 30 and under the age of 60 express herself with such self-possession, such unquirky steadiness of soul, such sexual and emotional matter-of-factness. Funny, fierce, effortlessly precise (she transforms one word — “What?” — into a dizzying symphony of evasions, feints, and strategic retreats), Lim turns in a Tony-worthy performance of a marvelous role, a triumph in any language.
In Hwang’s hilarious ‘Chinglish,’ the Chinese tiger roars, American business trembles
At the moment in David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish” when Sino-American business relations develop to the point a Chinese buyer and a U.S. seller find themselves in bed together, you get a sudden flashback to “M. Butterfly.” That brilliant 23-year-old drama, which made this playwright’s career, explores how Western men have long been vulnerable to the seductive mysteries of the beautiful, er, women of the East. And so, as you watch two bodies move through space in a Chinese hotel room, you first think that Hwang, America’s premiere dramatic chronicler of East-West relationships, has returned to an old theme.
Indeed he has. But China has changed and so — we come to see in this shrewd, timely and razor-sharp comedy premiering at the Goodman Theatre and logically headed to Broadway — has Hwang. The power has shifted in one direction only: East. Skyscrapers now abut opera houses. Bullet trains cut through butterfly gardens. And recession-weary American businessman are left salivating over “the greatest pool of untapped consumers history has ever known.”
So the vulnerable party in this 2011 tryst is the American, an unhappily married man whose family business is on the point of collapse and whose striving past is pockmarked with the scandals and past moral failings of the American business and banking sectors, screw-ups followed closely in the new provincial China where names like Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow aren’t unfamiliar. China isn’t an exotic dalliance for this anxious corporate traveler — it’s last-gasp bailout for the desperate.
Meanwhile, the Chinese woman who holds all the cards — and the lucrative contracts — neither flicks her pretty eyes nor looks down like her ancestors. She’s in it, and she controls the exchange, entirely for her own purposes and her own sexual pleasure.
In “Chinglish,” the provincial Chinese control their provincial American suppliant, who comes, inevitably, from Cleveland, with the pleasure that comes from reversing the flow of an aged river. But although the world of “M. Butterfly” has been turned on its head, some things, some themes, have not changed. One of Hwang’s main points in “Chinglish” is that East and West still struggle to deal with each other honestly. And those games are still played at considerable cost to each of the players. A deep authorial ambivalence about the new China ripples through this play, providing it with just the nuance and complexity it needs. The Pacific, Hwang notes, as he did in 1988, is no barrier to hypocrisy.
“Chinglish,” surely Hwang’s best work since “M. Butterfly,” gets most of its many laughs from the mis-translations that invariably accompany any attempts made by Americans and Chinese to speak with each other. These sequences, based on Hwang’s own experiences, are exceedingly funny: we watch “my hands are tied” become “he is in bondage” or “travel home safely” get mangled as an instruction to “leave in haste.” The Cleveland businessman (played by James Waterston with a deft mix of the bland and the earnest) is actually in the business of making signs for public buildings, which adds another level of absurdity to the amusement.
By necessity, the play is performed in Mandarin and English by a mostly bilingual cast, with subtitles projected in changing spots on the set. But the savvy director Leigh Silverman makes sure that everything is crystal clear to the audience, even as the characters are lost at sea.
This is a complex comedy, involving not just the central deal for signs, but also an intermediary — Peter (Stephen Pucci), an Australian-born teacher of long Chinese residency who has reinvented himself as a business consultant but is as confused about the modus operandi of the new China as everyone else. It’s the complexity of this show that makes the sync-up of Hwang’s plotting and Silverman’s staging so impressive: this is no simple domestic or marital situation like, say, this spring’s “God of Carnage,” but a multi-locale sweep throughout a provincial Chinese town (where they like to say they hate the “coastal elites”). And with only a few wobbles, and five or 10 minutes of superfluous material, the entire structure of this world premiere already hangs together very well. You never find yourself ahead of the play — which is staged on a very clever, kinda-interlocking set from David Korins that suggests nothing so much as a jigsaw that’s impossible to fully solve. All this production really needs is more willingness to further confront the play’s darker themes and add to the quotient of bicultural shivers. The comedy is already flying. So are the smarts.
This was, no doubt, a very tough play to cast. But the well-chosen Jennifer Lim, who plays the vice minister driving the action and the deal, offers a very clever performance that catches the many sides of the current Chinese coin. Pucci’s work is broader and could use some attention, not least because the character is so fascinating. If you were in China in the 1980s or early 1990s (as I once was), you doubtless met a couple of those well-cushioned expats whose hard-to-find knowledge of a language opened up an entire continent of influence. Not any more. Now there are architects and lawyers who speak Mandarin themselves to clients far more likely to speak English.
The vice minister’s out-of-fashion boss, deliciously played by Larry Zhang, is both funny and rather poignant. In one of the most amusing scenes, this Chinese bureaucrat caught in a whirlwind of tough-to-navigate changes launches into a frank and politically injudicious attack on the famous Chinese acrobats and expresses his desire to one day walk up to a guy who spent decades learning to balance a chair on his nose and tell him that he has, in fact, totally wasted his life.
Of course, I’m only getting that from the English translation. He might have wanted something entirely different.