There couldn’t be two languages more far apart in humanity than Chinese and English. As the world has become more global, and China has become the next great power of the world, it makes sense that a play like David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish” would explore and fully develop the comedy that ensues when culture clashes hit their apex.
The show centers around Ohio businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (James Waterston) as he heads to the relatively unknown city of Guiyang to sell properly translated signs. What are some of the poorly translated signs that preceded them, you ask?
That is where some of the comedy of Chinglish comes from. Chief Financial Officer becomes “Financial Affairs is Everywhere Long.” You’re hands are tied? That becomes “He is in Bondage.” The play has just as much spoken Chinese and it does English, so subtitles are used consistently, often to generate large amounts of humor.
Standing in his way of landing a deal is the city’s cultural minister (Larry Zhang) and vice minister Xu Yan (Jennifer Lim). Cavanaugh’s liaison to the Chinese world is the western-raised, but Mandarin-speaking consultant, Peter (Stephen Pucci). Surely, because of the bi-lingual nature of the play, the roles must’ve been difficult to cast. But each seems to be perfectly suited for the role. With that said, Lim shines the most, as her character is the key to the play. She executes her role perfectly, moving effortlessly between being brash and bold to humble and introspective when the occasion calls for it.
The plot is brought along nicely, as each of the characters has their ulterior motives revealed. And that is one of the surprises of the play. It’s evident that the show will be funny right from the get-go. But as the play goes on, the story that unfolds is intriguing, and goes far beyond just closing a deal. As we learn about the motives that drives each of the player’s actions, we see characteristics and motives that aren’t very far off from the people we interact with in America.
Perhaps that is Hwang’s overarching theme. To be sure, there are cultural differences across the board. But, maybe we’re more alike than we think. At least, that’s what I gleaned from the play. Hwang’s true intentions may have been lost in translation.