Comic “Chinglish” tells how translating culture is about more than language

By Lucy Komisar

David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish is a highly improbable but entertaining diversion about a U.S. sign-company owner from Cleveland who goes to China to persuade government tourism officials that they need better translations. For example, Deformed men’s toilet doesn’t quite cut it for handicapped men’s toilet. The play benefits from comic, fast-paced direction by Leigh Silverman.

Hwang’s point is that translating a culture is about more than language. Businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (a straight-forward, earnest Gary Wilmes) discovers that in China things work not so much by contracts as by relationships – guanxi. Favors for favors. (Rather like in Italy.) And everyone seems to have an angle.


For example, Xi Yan (smoothly portrayed by Jennifer Lim), the very smart English-speaking deputy minister, favors Cavanaugh’s company – in both respects. She wants to give him the contract and also to share his hotel bed. She tells him her husband is a jerk. He is an innocent and is smitten. But all is not as it seems. She and her husband represent the on-the-rise let-nothing-stop-them force of Chinese economic and political development.

Reflecting the old style is her boss, Minister Cai Guoliang (the physically comic Larry Lei Zhang), who misses the Cultural Revolution. He can still sing the old opera songs. Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), a Brit working as an English teacher and translator, shares his cultural nostalgia.


The Chinese officials are impressed when they learn Cavanaugh worked for Enron and knew Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow, who he puffs as the smartest guy I ever met. He could have been Chinese.

The Chinese officials communicate among themselves in Mandarin, with projected translations. The English ventured by young bureaucrats hired because of their connections are funny: His hands are tied = He is in bondage.

Some of the plot is convoluted and hokey. And I thought the Chinese music too loud and out of place. But the China expert I brought said the Mandarin, the caricatures of the Chinese and the cultural depictions were on the mark.

It’s not in class of Hwang’s M Butterfly, but it’s a worthy play that will both educate and amuse.

Chinglish. Written by David Henry Hwang; directed by Leigh Silverman. Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, NYC. 212-239-6200; . Opened Oct 27, 2011; closes Jan 29, 2012.


Click here to donate to The Komisar Scoop

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.