Asia is where it’s at these days. Who hasn’t heard this little nugget of wisdom before? The once mighty West is now falling over itself to do business with growing Asian economies – especially China.
The interest that the United States and China have in each other gave award-winning Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang the idea for Chinglish, currently staged by Singapore’s Pangdemonium! at the Drama Centre Theatre.
Performed in both English and Mandarin, the play follows Daniel Cavanaugh, an American businessman who goes to China in the hopes of reviving his family’s flagging signage company by scoring a contract to provide the signs for an upcoming cultural centre in Guiyang. Knowing next to nothing about China or the Chinese, Cavanaugh muddles his way through, learning about guanxi and the convoluted relationships between Chinese business and politics.
Cue the predictable language gags, complete with three outrageous translators (all played by Audrey Luo). A preliminary meeting between Cavanaugh, his consultant Peter Timms and the Culture Minister and Vice-Minister of Guiyang is full of awkward grins – you know, the one you use when you have no idea what the other person is saying but don’t want to be rude – and terrible translations, leaving the audience roaring with laughter.
Still, there were moments, particularly in the first half of the play, when it felt like the joke had gone on too long. Yes, there are language issues. Yes, everyone knows Chinglish is embarrassing, hilarious, and embarrassingly hilarious. It was great for a chuckle, particularly for Mandarin speakers in the audience who had the advantage of understanding both sides of the conversation, but ultimately superficial.
It is in the moments that Chinglish transcends the language barrier that we see the true heart of the story. Particularly arresting are the interactions between Daniel Jenkins’ Cavanaugh and the sleek, self-confident Vice-Minister Xi Yan, played beautifully by Oon Shu Ann. Their exchanges more about each character: the haughty Xi Yan only expresses her true thoughts in the language she knows he cannot understand, while he speaks English to her with an earnestness that practically begs to be understood. Caught in the presence of foreign-ness, each finds a curious, limited freedom.
Watching Chinglish was an interesting experience as a Chinese Singaporean. Watching the back-and-forth of both hopelessly confused sides, I found myself straddling that divide; understanding both languages as well as appreciating where each culture is coming from. In Adrian Pang’s Minister Cai Guoliang I was surprised to find characteristics I recognise in my Chinese-born father – the affable bravado, the agreeableness (even when you know you can’t quite deliver) and, most amusingly, the way he answers calls. While neither a child of America nor of China, there were many moments within the play in which I felt able to relate to both.
And perhaps that comes from the core of the play: beneath all the language mix-ups and culture clashes lies a shared humanity of friendship, ambition, desire and even isolation and fear that we can all understand.
Chinglish will run until 25 October; tickets are all already sold out.