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David Henry Hwang.

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Chinglish Playwright David Henry Hwang on Bringing Mandarin to Broadway, Growing Up Chinese-American, and Translation Fails

Tony Award winning playwright David Henry Hwang is returning to Broadway with his poignant comedy Chinglish, which opens tonight at the Longacre Theater. The play, directed by Leigh Silverman, tells the story of an American businessman named Daniel (Gary Wilmes) who travels to a provincial capital in China to try to revive his family’s business by arranging contracts to make English-language signs. Despite his ignorance of Mandarin, he ends up in a hilariously confusing extramarital affair with Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), the city’s vice minister of culture. Linguistic mix-ups are just the tip of the iceberg, as the characters stumble over their culturally bound assumptions about everything from romance to finance. Vulture spoke with Hwang about bringing Mandarin to Broadway, growing up Chinese-American, and the sorts of ludicrous translations that, in part, inspired the play.

How did you come up with the idea for the play?
I’ve been traveling a fair amount over the past five or six years to China, because China became very interested in Broadway-style musicals. I happened to be the only sort-of-Chinese person who’s written a Broadway show, so I got called over for a lot of meetings to discuss these huge schemes, none of which ever resulted in anything, except that they gave me a chance to witness the amazing changes going on over there. I visited a new cultural center in Shanghai in 2005 that was pretty much perfect, except for the really badly translated Chinglish signs: a handicapped restroom that said “Deformed Man’s Toilet,” that kind of thing. And I began thinking of using the signs as a jumping-off point to write a play that would deal with doing business in China but would also tackle the issue of language, which I’d never seen any play or movie attempt to do. Normally we come up with a convention, like the person who isn’t speaking English speaks English with an accent, and that doesn’t really begin to capture the experience. So my idea was to write a play where the Chinese characters would have the dignity of their own language, where the characters who would speak Mandarin do speak Mandarin.

Did you experience that language barrier growing up as a first-generation Chinese American?
Yeah. I’ve studied Chinese in college, but basically I’m not bilingual. What’s interesting is that in some sense I don’t [relate to] the language piece, but a lot of the underlying assumptions feel quite familiar and comprehensible to me. I kind of understand guanxi [business relations strengthened through personal favors] for instance, because I remember watching my father who was a businessman and how all his clients were his “friends,” and he would always cultivate them by taking them out to dinner. All of that just feels very familiar to me. When I go to China, it’s interesting, because even though I feel like I don’t literally understand the language, I feel comfortable with the underlying concepts. And so I discovered that I know some things that I didn’t know I knew.

The dialogue is at least a quarter Mandarin. Did you have any concern that that might be too much for a Broadway audience?
It seems to me from watching the preview audiences that everybody seems pretty happy and seems to be having a good time, so I think we've gotten the proportion right. But you don't really know. We'll see what the reviewers have to say, and we'll see if people decide to buy tickets.

You use surtitles to project translations of the Mandarin dialogue. How did you decide on that technical approach?
Because I wanted to do this bilingual play, and clearly at least its initial audience was going to be a New York audience, the majority of which would not understand Mandarin, I figured we’d have to do it through surtitles. I’d worked enough in opera, so I’d gotten used to seeing my words in titles. The formal question for this play at the beginning was always, “Does it work?” People are not used to seeing titles in plays, so is an audience going to accept that? If you look at traditional comedy, particularly out of the farce tradition, it comes from the idea that the audience knows more than the characters do. So we know that the mistress is hiding in the closet, but the characters don’t all know that. Then our pleasure derives from the fact that we’re in on something that the characters aren’t. In some sense, the formal device of the surtitles serves the same function in this play, for the audience to be more omniscient than the characters.

Do you think this could encourage more bilingual plays in the future if the production is successful?
I certainly think it could shift the paradigm a bit. One of the first things that Daniel says in the play is, “If you are American, it is safe to assume that you do not speak a single fucking foreign language.” That’s not such a great thing, actually, and as a monolingual person I indict myself in that statement. I think anything we can do to be more open and accepting of other people’s perspectives is good. So if this pushes the culture a little more to being able to tolerate bilingualism, even when everything is surtitled for you, I think that’ll be a good thing.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.

Photo: Patrick McMullan