David Henry Hwang's Broadway hit translates well for British audiences
On its surface, Chinglish appears to be a lighthearted take on the miscommunication issues that inherently occur when the west and China try to do business together. However, as David Henry Hwang’s sharp and witty play unravels, it becomes apparent that Chinglish is more of a critical insight into Chinese and western businesses practices rather than a merely whimsical comedy.
That’s not to say that Chinglish failed to deliver in its promise of comedy. The clever use of a projector displaying subtitles overhead provided the audience with many a chuckle due to the disparate and somewhat incompetent translations spoken on stage. Although it hardly resulted in the audience erupting in laughter, it proved to be a running gag throughout the play that didn’t seem to tire. Chinglish also benefited from its incredibly talented cast whose comedic timing was only exceeded by their acting ability.
In today’s society where racial tensions are high, running a play that toys with cultural differences is somewhat risky – especially in a comedic setting. The premise of the play is simple: Daniel, played by the very capable Gyuri Sarossy, is an American signage businessman who wants to expand into China. Unfortunately, he can’t speak English and is unfamiliar with Chinese customs. Already, alarm bells are ringing. If done distastefully, Chinglish could run the risk of making a mockery of Chinese customs as perceived by Daniel. Conversely, Daniel could be seen as an uncultured and naive American that ridicules western businessmen. In any case, highlighting the cultural differences could run the risk of offending people from either culture, if done insensitively.
Fortunately, Hwang demonstrates a profound understanding of Chinese customs and being American himself, a comprehensive understanding of western thinking. As a result, Chinglish sidesteps the landmine and bodes well with both cultures. By focusing on the importance of guanxi in Chinese business and augmenting it by incorporating elements of Chinese culture, Chinglish feels authentic to its cause. Daniel himself is not shown as a typical stupid foreigner, which we’ve seen far too often. Instead, Daniel is simply a businessmen who sincerely tries to adjust to Chinese customs, whilst being haunted by his own past. It’s refreshing and easy to sympathise with him.
Candy Ma’s character, Deputy Minister Xi Yan, represents the complexities and intricacies of Chinese business. Power struggles, corruption and self-interest are elements that plague businesses from any culture, but Xi shows Daniel and the audience how these complications play out in a guanxi setting. It’s less of a haughty derision of Chinese customs as a whole but more of a delicate look at the dark sides of individuals in Chinese business. It’s fascinating and intriguing rather than humiliating and offensive. Ma is exceptional as Deputy Minister Xi.
Duncan Harte, who plays a British teacher/consultant performed magnificently in delivering a complex character whose weakness and confidence are in equal measure. Harte’s extremely impressive spoken Mandarin is beyond excellent too. Lobo Chan delivers a stern but funny Minister Cai Guoliang, who serves as an authentic ambassador for traditional Chinese authority. Siu-see Hung, Widson Liang and Minhee Yeo who play a variety of supporting roles are all commended for their convincing performances too.
Overall, Chinglish is an immersive and engaging play that tickles your funny bone whilst tickling your curiosity. Kudos to Andrew Keates and Tim Johanson for bringing this production across the pond.