The joys of Chinglish

October 24, 2011

We roared with laughter yesterday at David Henry Hwang’s latest play Chinglish which is in previews at the Longacre Theatre after a successful run in Chicago. Anyone who has been to meetings in China, done any business there or met a government official will recognize the hilarity of the miscommunication that results from two countries divided not just by culture but by language. The folly of poor translation has not been rendered so incisively since the famous scene in “Lost in Translation” in which the extensive instructions given by the Japanese director of a whiskey commercial that Bill Murray is acting in is reduced to just a few words.

Chinglish is about the adventures of a befuddled businessman from Cleveland who tries to get a contract to produce signs for Guiyang City’s new arts center. He is taken to meet a Minister who can hand out the contract but the Minister is being pressured by his wife, who insists that the contract be given to her sister’s husband. Not wanting to offend, the Minister dissembles, the vice minister steps in and the play effortlessly moves to its final conclusion. Along the way there are promises of long meals which are interrupted by the inevitable trill of the cellphone, massive misunderstandings about everything and translations that just make it all the more confusing.

The interpreters veer from repeating things that aren’t mean to be said. Translating the friendly remarks about the Midwest made by officials of Guizhou province, which is in the center of China, one interpreter announces, “We despise the coastal cities of Shanghai and Beijing.” Key points in the contract negotiations are muddled up by an interpreter who turns out to be the Minister’s smart alecky nephew and the help given by an English teacher turned  business consultant only makes things more confusing.

It all turns out right in the end (sort of). But along the way we laughed at the confusion and sympathized with the pressure the minister faces as well as the desperation of the Cleveland businessman who is the archetypical innocent American abroad. The sign company becomes a metaphor for the perils of international (mis)communication and adds to the humor as the clever stage sets include real-life examples of confusing Chinglish. Hwang’s light touch with the script and sense of the absurd keeps the whole audience amused.

Chinglish is a very different play from “The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs,” which we saw on Friday performed by Mike Daisey at the Public Theater. This is an earnest recounting of Daisey’s experiences visiting the Chinese factories that produce iPhones and iPads for Apple. Daisey is shocked by what he finds: child labor, overcrowded dorm rooms for the workers, obscenely long shifts and toxic chemicals. The material is familiar — it reminds me of my time in Vietnam in the late nineties covering the poor working conditions and low pay at the Keyhinge Toy Factory in Danang which produced toys given away with McDonald’s Happy Meals. But it’s good to be reminded again that Chinese workers are paying a very high price to gratify our insatiable love of the consumer gadgets that keep us connected in this globalized world.

Photo: A man wearing a red star cap, stands outside of a McDonald’s restaurant on Wangfujing shopping street in Beijing October 21, 2011. REUTERS/Soo Hoo Zheyang

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