In a trend I am highly excited about, South Coast Repertory, that Tony Award-winning regional theater smack-dab in the middle of Orange County, California, seems to be experiencing a sort of renaissance of diverse voices this year. Okay, granted, we're only in the second month of 2013, but still... it's worth noticing.
Following up last month's superb dark comedy with the (almost) unprintable name (reviewed here) comes yet another play that was also just recently a hit on Broadway: Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang's immensely funny CHINGLISH, now playing on SCR's Segerstrom Stage through February 24. A co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- and featuring almost the exact same cast from that Fall 2012 West Coast Premiere -- this witty, thoroughly engaging play examines the misunderstandings between two very diverse cultures that go well beyond a mere language barrier. Emerging from all the boisterous laughter is a play that truly illustrates the idea that for different cultures to really understand each other, they have to also really get each other, too.
Full of hilarious scenes and amusing back-and-forth exchanges between richly-depicted characters that speak in both English and Mandarin (thankfully, helpful -- and often humorous -- supertitles are projected above the actors), CHINGLISH gets its title from the common practice of Chinese mistranslations. In essence, Chinglish words are the mangled -- albeit well-intentioned -- Chinese "versions" of English words and phrases. For the benefit of English speakers in China, many of the country's signage often contain translations for things as simple as "crosswalk" or "have a nice day." Unfortunately, though, nuances in each others' culture and language usage make it very difficult for the Chinese to create mere literal translations of everything.
By not taking into account the plethora of situational connotations, modern slang, and specific idioms that may be involved in any given phrase, the results of these translations form unintentionally funny signs like "Tender Fragrant Grass, How Hardhearted to Trample Them" -- which, really, should just simply say "Keep Off The Grass." Some signs are even shockingly offensive: a directional sign that says "Deformed Man's Toilet" should really just say "Handicapped Restroom." For tourists, the signs offer a quick chuckle; for the Chinese, the signs are a source of shame and embarrassment.
It is this specific cultural phenomenon that incites an idea in American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Alex Moggridge). In hopes of saving his struggling, family-owned signage business in Cleveland, Ohio, he travels to the up-and-coming province of Guiyang, China in order to convince the city's political leaders to grant him an exclusive contract to produce the signage -- proper ones with correct English translations -- for their proposed sports stadium. With China being such a global superpower with plenty more pocket change than most companies in America, the idea seems to be an inspired, financially sound one.
But, as most situations that get dramatized in a play tend to become, things aren't necessarily easier said than done -- especially when you're trying to say it in a foreign language. "When doing business in China," explains Daniel during the play's opening lecture to an unknown group of foreign visitors, "always bring your own translator!"
But negotiations (or something like it) seem to have hit a snag, but, as Daniel's trusted expert in all things China, Peter explains that, "business in China is built on relationships... Guanxi." According to Peter, because of a non-existent legal system, contracts -- even signed ones -- have little to no validity here; but rather, it is the relationship that is forged between client and customer that really solidifies the deal. "You have to take the time and trouble to build an actual relationship," Peter adds.We flash back four years earlier. It turns out -- as it does with the garbled gibberish in translated Chinese signage -- even having a reliable go-between to translate English to Chinese and vice versa isn't all that's required to do business in China. With the help of his consultant friend Peter Timms (Brian Nishii), a British émigré that has been living in Guiyang for almost two decades, Daniel secures a meeting with Cai Guoliang (Raymond Ma), the city's Minister of Culture, and Vice Minister Xi Yan (the intriguing Michelle Krusiec) to sell them on the idea of giving his little Ohio signage company that lucrative business.