For David Henry Hwang’s ‘Chinglish,’ a case of bad timing in China


David Henry Hwang knows firsthand about the difficulties Westerners can face while doing business in China.

His latest play, “Chinglish,” a comedy that opened on Broadway in 2011 and is now having its local premiere at South Coast Repertory through Feb. 24, tells the story of an inexperienced American businessman who owns a sign company and his attempts to navigate the country’s mix of free-for-all capitalism and Communist Party politics.

David Henry Hwang: An article about playwright David Henry Hwang in the Feb. 9 Calendar section said that his latest play, “Chinglish,” tells the story of an inexperienced American businessman who owns a sign company and his attempts to navigate China’s mix of free-for-all capitalism and Community Party politics. The latter reference should have been to the Communist Party. —

The Tony Award-winning dramatist learned his own lessons while trying to get the play produced in mainland China — it would have been his first work to be officially produced there — only to see his efforts fall apart.


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Instead of going to China, “Chinglish” will play briefly at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in early March immediately following its run in Costa Mesa. The Hong Kong engagement is being co-financed by South Coast and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where the production opened in August.

The Hong Kong trip is a compromise for Hwang, though he said part of his plan was to eventually bring the play to the former British colony.

The playwright recounted his version of recent events during a trip to L.A. in December and by phone from his home in Brooklyn.

“I wanted to open it in a big city [in China] and tour it. That was my dream,” he said. The playwright thought the substance and tone of the play — as the title suggests, the protagonist faces numerous linguistic hurdles — would generate interest among cosmopolitan Chinese audiences.

He said he began talks with Chinese theater producers early last year, while the play was riding a wave of critical acclaim during its Broadway run. “I thought we had a good shot at it,” he said.

Then an unrelated international scandal intervened.

In April 2012, the story broke involving Bo Xilai, a formerly high-ranking Chinese politician in Chongqing, and his wife, Gu Kailai, the latter of whom was accused of murdering Neil Heywood, a British expatriate businessman. The controversy reportedly involved a disagreement among Heywood, the couple and the couple’s son, who was educated in England.

Gu stood trial last year and confessed to poisoning Heywood. She received a suspended death sentence.

The scandal uncannily mirrors significant portions of the “Chinglish” plot. The play features a fictional British expatriate businessman named Peter Timms who has close personal and professional ties to a politically powerful Chinese couple. Timms gradually learns that the couple has been plotting against him behind his back.

The fictional Chinese couple also has a son who has studied abroad in England with the help of Timms.

Hwang wrote “Chinglish” before the scandal made international headlines, and said the parallels are completely coincidental. He said that he never met Heywood, the real British businessman, during his research for the play and that Timms “is a composite of certain expats I’d met over there.”

Producers in China backed away from “Chinglish” after the story of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai landed in the news, the playwright said.

“They felt it would not be a good moment to do the play over there and it wouldn’t get approved” by Chinese authorities, he said. He emphasized that talks were in the early phases and no dates or venues had been finalized.

Hwang declined to name the producers because he is working on another project with them.

Though many of his plays are set in China, or deal with characters of Chinese descent, none of Hwang’s stage works has ever been produced on the mainland. “M. Butterfly,” his Tony-winning 1988 drama about the affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese spy posing as a woman, is still banned.

In 2009, a production of the play in Shanghai, starring the jazz musician and sometime drag performer Coco Zhao, was shut down by police. Hwang said that “M. Butterfly” is available in book format in China.

The Hong Kong Arts Festival will present the Asia premiere of “Chinglish” for eight performances starting March 1 at the 1,200-seat Lyric Theatre. Tisa Ho, the festival’s executive director, said that the organization has received no pressure regarding the play.

“It’s an American play, and an American production. It’s an American narrative,” said Ho on the phone from Hong Kong.

The festival is a prestigious showcase for international groups. This year’s edition includes the Chicago Symphony, New York’s American Ballet Theatre and the touring revival of “Einstein on the Beach,” by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

“Chinglish,” which features many scenes in Mandarin, is presented in the U.S. with English surtitles that appear within the stage’s proscenium. For Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the spoken language, the play will necessitate a second set of surtitles, in Chinese, that will be projected outside the proscenium.

Hwang said the prospect of getting “Chinglish” produced in mainland China any time soon appears remote.

“Until this case falls out of the public memory, I don’t think we have a shot,” he said. “Maybe we can revisit it in three years.”


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