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Playwright David Henry Hwang gives language lessons in 'Chinglish'

by Oscar Garza and Robert Garrova | The Frame

American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Matthew Jaeger) with Xi Yan (Kara Wang) in East West Players' production of "Chinglish," written by David Henry Hwang. The play's Mandarin lines are translated above the stage. Michael Lamont

David Henry Hwang is arguably the most prominent Asian-American playwright in the country. His Tony Award-winning play, “M. Butterfly,” was the first Asian-American play produced on Broadway, where it ran for nearly 800 performances and toured internationally. Since then, Hwang has worked consistently on stages big and small. His 2011 play, “Chinglish,” is currently at East West Players in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo. 

The comedy is a playful look at language and the power it holds. And it’s a personal production for Hwang, not only because of his Chinese heritage, but also because the theater at East-West Players bears his name.

Hwang is a busy man these days. He’s adapting “Chinglish” into a feature film to be helmed by “Fast and the Furious” director Justin Lin; he’s writing for the Showtime series, “The Affair”; and he’s scripting a film for Dreamworks Animation.

When Hwang stopped by KPCC recently, The Frame’s Oscar Garza spoke with him about the inspiration for “Chinglish” and his experience as a first generation American.

Interview Highlights 

What was the inspiration for “Chinglish"? 

Starting around 2005 I started going to China fairly regularly because they became very interested in Broadway-style shows. And I happen to be the only — nominally even — Chinese person who’s written a Broadway show. So I would get brought over for a lot of meetings. And on one I was taken to a brand new cultural center that was gorgeous and expensive, except for the really badly translated signs. So, for instance, the handicapped restroom read, “Deformed Man’s Toilet.”

That’s actually a scene in the play.

Yeah. And I think most people who have been traveling to China for a number of years are pretty familiar with “Chinglish” — the mistranslated signs. You see it less now in the major cities, but it certainly exists in the secondary and tertiary-sized cities.

And from that first visit did you start to think about writing the play?

Well, I wanted to write a play about doing business in China, but one that would deal with the question of language. Because, as Americans, we tend to be monolingual. And I'm no better than anyone else in that regard. I know a little Chinese, but my Chinese basically kind of sucks ... As Americans, we create these pieces where an American goes to Brazil and all the Brazilians speak English with a Brazilian accent and it doesn’t capture the experience at all. So I wanted to give the Chinese characters the dignity of their own language, and then I hit on this idea that we could then use supertitles to translate the Chinese into English for audience members who are monolingual — just like you would in the movies.

“Chinglish” premiered in Chicago in 2011 and went on to Broadway. But it had its L.A. premiere while Chinese President Jinping was making his first visit to the U.S. He took office after you wrote the play. Have you noticed any change in the way that China conducts itself that has made you want to revisit your script?

I don’t know if it necessarily makes me want to revisit the script, but it is interesting to see how U.S.-China relations have continued to evolve since 2011. Number one, just this year, the kind of myth of Chinese economic invisibility — that bubble kind of burst.  And number two, if anything I would say that the content restrictions in terms of what you can present in China — in terms of the limits on artists and artistic freedom — are more severe now in my view than they were three or four years ago.

You eventually were allowed to produce “Chinglish” in Hong Kong. Was it received well?

It went really well. And, you know, the play is a comedy and you get a lot of laughter from the audience. But I feel like we got even more laughter in Hong Kong. And the laughter we got there was of the identification variety ... As opposed to some of the laughter here, which is about learning.

Do you enjoy being in China?

I do. I don’t necessarily have the sense of coming home. I feel like my home is here — I’m from L.A. But it is interesting to me, as I travel around, [there are] things that I identify with and things that I find I know how to do, kind of intrinsically, that I didn’t know I knew how to. For instance, I know how you behave at a banquet. I know how you behave in a business meeting — the niceties of social interaction. A lot of things kind of come fairly naturally to me and, if people explain them to me, it’s easy to adapt.

For any of us whose families have roots in another country, and we’re now fully assimilated, when you go back there is sometimes tension. What has been your experience when you go to China?

I’ve always expected to be more rejected in China than I am because I feel like I know so little about Chinese customs. And again, I don’t really speak the language. And the degree of acceptance that I feel has always been quite moving to me. And I think it’s because China is such a huge country. So there’s a mentality that’s developed that China is a big umbrella. And I’m a very specific sort of Chinese — I’m an overseas Chinese, but I still kind of fall into the Chinese family as it were.

How did your parents talk with you about China when you were young and how do you talk with your children about your roots?

Because I grew up in the ‘60s and it was a much more assimilationist culture here in America, my parents didn’t talk much about China. And also, China was [closed] at the time, so nobody could go there. My dad came here because he loved America and he wanted to be an American. And he didn’t really think that well of China. And at this point it’s interesting because I have a 19-year-old and a 14-year-old,  so they’ve grown up in a period when China is cool. They’re mixed-race, but they really claim [being] half-Chinese. Then, on the other hand, my daughter decided she was going to study Spanish because she thought it was really cool for an Asian-looking girl to know Spanish instead of Chinese.

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