Talk of the town

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am


Broadway is without doubt one of the best things about New York. One out of every four visitors takes in a show, and the industry contributes about US$10 billion to the city's economy every year.

While shows such as The Lion King, Mamma Mia! and Wicked continue to attract huge crowds despite having played seven days a week for several years, lately they've been challenged by the young upstart Chinglish, written by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, best known for writing the late-1980s hit M. Butterfly.

Chinglish has shone a new light on the often hilarious mangling of the English language - something Hwang acknowledges would have been difficult for a non-Chinese playwright to have tackled.

'Chinglish could only have come out of the Chinese diaspora. I think we Chinese-Americans have a deep and unique understanding of US attitudes towards China,' Hwang says. 'To me, the proof that we're connecting with non-Chinese Americans, Asian-Americans and Chinese nationals is that they're all laughing together in the theatre every night. This would be difficult for anyone but an artist from the Chinese diaspora to have pulled off.'

The New York Times said Chinglish was one of the biggest commercial risks on Broadway this season - going up against new plays such as Other Desert Cities and Venus in Fur - but has been shepherded to success by Hwang and his team, which includes five members from Hong Kong: lead actress Jennifer Lim, producer Lily Fan, translator Candace Chong Mui-ngam, costume designer Anita Yavich and cultural adviser Joanna C. Lee. Not bad for a city with- out anything even slightly resembling Broadway.

Hwang has given Chinglish a whole new meaning. It no longer just means charming but heavily accented English, or mistranslated Chinese signs such as those found on In the play, it represents the miscommunication between cultures, the things that get lost in translation (any idea what 'deformed man's toilet' could mean, for example?).

For myself, a Canadian-Chinese, the play brought back memories of my time in Beijing, where I was expected to understand Putonghua perfectly because of my Chinese face. During my first week there, I could barely say the address of my hotel but found myself judging on a local version of American Idol. A Japanese and Western judge had translators, but not me: I had to muddle through in Cantonese. Cab drivers, noticing my poor Putonghua, literally took me for a ride. And then there were the countless e-mails, text messages and PowerPoint presentations in Chinese - for me, they may as well have been in Russian.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry as I watched the play. But as I sat there in a warm seat at the Longacre Theatre, I felt a wave of horror as it hit me: Chinglish is not a noun but a verb. I had been Chinglished all those years I lived in Beijing.