By Douglas Yu
“Execution in progress.”
“Slip and fall down carefully.”
“Keep off the lake.”
These are just a few of the “chinglish” signs one can see in China. Tony and Obie Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang of “M. Butterfly” brought his bilingual, culture-clashing comedy “Chinglish” to the Lyric Stage Company on Dec. 2.
In “Chinglish,” American businessman and former Enron employee Daniel Cavanaugh travels to Guiyang, China, to win a contract to translate signage into English. Miscommunication, both in language and culture, abounds when he employed a translator to make his case to a government minister. The drama mixes romance, manipulated truth and morality under cultural misunderstanding.
Celeste Oliva played Chinese woman Xi Yan, who falls in love with the American businessman and tries to balance her public and private self.
Hwang was born in California to a father from Shanghai and a mother from the Philippines. He got the idea for “Chinglish” when he traveled to China, encountering an abundance of funny signage.
“Most audiences are non-Chinese speakers. But humor, human behavior, human relationships are universal. That’s a wonderful thing about art,” said Chen Tang, who performed in the play. “I think David Henry Hwang wants to give characters the dignity of their own language.”
Chen was raised in Memphis, Tenn. He was living in New York when “Chinglish” first played on Broadway.
“I enjoyed it. The Lyric Stage said they had me on file, they emailed me to ask if I wanted to audition for it, then I got it,” Chen said.
Chen said, “I couldn’t stop thinking of the character of the main woman. She reminds me of my mom. Even just the expression, the lines you can tell they are written in a Chinese way.”
Barlow Adamson, who played Daniel Cavanaugh in “Chinglish,” said, “I came to realize the mistakes of the signs … they are really poor translation. There is a reminder that we don’t really understand each other that well.”
America and China have misunderstood one another, reflecting their radically different cultures and histories. “Chinglish” expresses the misunderstanding by focusing on an intertwined love affair and business partnership.