ArtsWest’s production of Chinglish is the Seattle premiere of David Henry Hwang’s most recent play. Hwang, most known for M. Butterfly, continues to tackle American and western perceptions of Asia through culture and politics. Chinglish, follows Daniel Cavanaugh, an American businessman, aiming to strike a deal with Minister Cai of Guiyang. However, as Daniel will find out, doing business in China is not as simple as signing a contract.
Hilarity ensues through Hwang’s wit and satire as Daniel attempts to navigate China’s social and cultural norms. In particular, Daniel’s immersion in the social etiquette of guanxi, or as many Chinese Americans will know as saving face, has the main character misinterpreting the signs. Guanxi describes the social relationship between peoples. Rather than an individual being a representative of oneself, the individual is a representative of a greater collective such as family and nation. In developing guanxi with the other characters, Daniel begins to change by seeing the connection between honesty and credibility. Through language, Hwang’s characters scramble to find the proper translations to communicate their needs and desires to one another. The multiple meanings of words in English and Mandarin has this bilingual cast blurting out all the wrong words.
More particularly, Hwang’s Chinglish hits on an important note about U.S. and China relations. There is a huge misinterpretation between China and the U.S. that Hwang conveys through his characters, many of whom carry their own baggage and ideas of what it means to be Chinese or American. However, Daniel’s attempt to strike a deal with minister Cai speaks larger to U.S. globalization entering China through big companies. Daniel symbolizes the white foreigner entering China, which is reminiscent of western colonization of Asia. Hwang is hitting at a contemporary issue about western neocolonialism through the control of markets and economies in Asia and around the world. Although China has undergone rapid modernization and emerged as an economic and political force in the past few years, Hwang comments that it still yields to the United States and the West.
Although Evan Whitfield did an excellent job in portraying the naive Daniel Cavanaugh, Kathy Hsieh’s performance of Vice Minister Xi Yan stole the show. Hsieh captured the complexity of Xi Yan, a political official caught in a loveless marriage who still reminisces when love once existed. Hsieh’s Xi Yan plays multiple personas of friend, foe, and comrade that is difficult to disentangle her loyalties. Other notable cast members include Audrey Fan and Serin Ngai of Sex in Seattle. Also Hsieh, Ngai, and Moses Yim were all in the Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
Overall, ArtsWest’s production of Chinglish is not one to miss. Not often are there productions with Asian American actors or a bilingual cast that can speak both English and Mandarin. The energy of the actors, director, and artistic staff was able to bring this production to life.
Chinglish. Written by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Annie Lareau. Duration: 2 hours with 10 minute intermission. Showing at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W. March 5 to March 29, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m.