Opinion: 'Chinglish' playwright: Overcome language barriers and laugh together
David Henry Hwang's parents grew up in China, but raised their kids "100% American."
December 27th, 2011
08:46 AM ET

Opinion: 'Chinglish' playwright: Overcome language barriers and laugh together

Editor's note:  David Henry Hwang’s plays include "M. Butterfly" (1988 Tony Award, 1989 Pulitzer Prize Finalist), "Golden Child" (1998 Tony Award nomination, 1997 OBIE Award), "Yellow Face" (2008 OBIE Award, 2008 Pulitzer Prize Finalist), FOB (1981 OBIE Award), "The Dance and the Railroad" (1982 Drama Desk Award nomination), "Family Devotions" (1982 Drama Desk Award nomination) and "Bondage." "Chinglish" is a comedy about miscommunication.

By David Henry Hwang

As a kid,  China was almost as mysterious to me as to my non-Asian friends. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American baby boomer born and raised in Los Angeles. My immigrant parents chose to raise their children as 100% American. We didn’t practice Chinese customs; I never even knew the date of Chinese New Year. Because they spoke different Chinese dialects, it was easier for my parents to communicate in English, so my sisters and I grew up as typical monolingual Americans.

I thought of my ethnicity as nothing more than an interesting detail - like having red hair. Still, if I knew a particular movie or TV program was going to feature Asian characters, I would go out of my way not to watch it. I somehow knew the portrayal would be demeaning, embarrassing, and leave me feeling “icky.”

I started writing plays in college with no intention of telling Chinese or Asian-American stories. As I learned to create more from my unconscious, however, they started appearing on my page. Clearly, some part of me was extremely interested in my ethnicity, but my conscious mind hadn’t figured that out yet. Even when I turned to writing Asian-American plays, however, my emphasis remained on being American. We were tired of being perpetual foreigners; one’s forbears might have arrived in this country two or three generations ago, but people would still say to us, “Oh, you speak such good English!”

In 1993, I first visited China with my parents and siblings, on a “roots trip” to see where my father grew up. I returned in 2005, and have continued to travel there once or twice a year. China has become interested in Broadway-style musicals, and I happen to be the only even nominally-Chinese person who’s ever written a Broadway show. I expected that “real” Chinese people would be vaguely ashamed of me. I didn’t know the customs, and had to communicate through translators. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that they accepted me as a Chinese - an “overseas Chinese,” but one of them nonetheless.

On one visit, I was taken to a brand new cultural center in Shanghai, which was gorgeous except for the ridiculously translated signs. For instance, the handicapped restrooms said, “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” I began to think of using these signs as a jumping-off point to write a play about doing business in China today, one which would tackle the issue of language. In most of our plays and movies, when an American character goes to, say, Brazil, everyone speaks English - with a Brazilian accent. I imagined my Chinese characters having the dignity of their own language, with an American audience reading the translations through projected supertitles. In short, I wanted to write a bilingual play - without being bilingual. Luckily, I was friends with a wonderful Hong Kong-based playwright, Candace Mui Ngam Chong, who agreed to become my translator.

The result is my new comedy, "Chinglish," which recently opened on Broadway and explores the many ways human beings misunderstand one another. So, do audiences understand the play?

"Chinglish" is about an American businessman in China.

Based on audience feedback, I’m happy to report that theatergoers appreciate and love how "Chinglish" illuminates the joys and challenges of communication. Chinese nationals and Asian-Americans appreciate the three-dimensional portrayals; many have told us that the show makes them feel “proud.” Others simply find the story and themes universal, particularly its central romance. Those with experience in China tell us we’ve “nailed” how it feels to live and work there, and ask me how I managed to understand this.

Therein lies a surprising revelation about myself as an Asian-American. Language is only the most superficial barrier to communication. Even with translation, people of different cultures often fail to grasp true meaning, because underlying assumptions can differ so radically. In China, though I had to overcome the language barrier, the deeper cultural mindset - how I was expected to act in the meeting or at a dinner, or behave around my hosts - felt surprisingly natural. Deep inside, I knew more about being Chinese than I had even been aware.

Today, I see younger Asian-Americans embracing the idea of multiple identities. In an ever-shrinking world, with routine movement across national borders, we don’t necessarily have to choose between one culture and another. Instead, we can embrace all the influences that make us who we are.

This is what I’ve tried to create in "Chinglish": an East-West comedy which embraces both sides, denigrating neither. So, as someone who once avoided portrayals of Asians in entertainment, my greatest satisfaction comes from hearing Asians and non-Asian audience members, sitting side by side at the Longacre Theatre - caught up in the play, and laughing together.

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Laughing baby videos

    I am really impressed together with your writing abilities and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid subject matter or did you modify it your self? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it's rare to peer a great blog like this one nowadays..

    April 3, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  2. michelle

    Hey check out (and like) an awesome video interview with the talented playwright of the Broadway play "Chinglish"David Henry Hwang at: http://culturecatch.com/vidcast/david-henry-hwang

    January 18, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Taron

    Learn how to speak a foreign language! Being able to speak another language opens many opportunities for you. Just give it a try! It can be challenging, but it's very rewarding!

    January 9, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dennis

      I have to agree with you. Teaching children a second language especially opens up many doors and opportunities for their professional and personal future.

      January 10, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nl20051405

    Just as Obama just mentioned" In 5 minutes no child left behind" through human languages.

    January 7, 2012 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  5. michelle

    Hey check out (and like) an awesome video interview with the talented playwright David Henry Hwang at: http://culturecatch.com/vidcast/david-henry-hwang

    January 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Zoundsman

    Very honest with himself. I agree that one has the option of embracing all of their influences. Why do we have to
    identify with either/or culture? Not me, forget it. The world changed when Europe and Asia met. One of the original, creative inventors of a broken English Language were the Portuguese Explorers (when they landed in Asia).
    Till this day, language holds the key to opening doors and creating understanding.
    Looking forward to this new Hwang Creation!

    December 31, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Kim

    It's great to see an Asian American writing plays that include Asian American characters , and adressing themes and issues that affect Asian Americans.

    DHHwang, you represent us very well......thank you!!! You rock!!!

    December 30, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Drea

    I have loved David Henry Hwang's writing since M. Butterfly. I can't wait for this play to reach Arizona

    December 29, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dee W. Ickerman

      Oh let me guess you are some one who has never lived on a board town

      January 7, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. 雪人


    December 29, 2011 at 3:19 am | Report abuse |
  10. newlife

    Very proud of the writer.

    December 29, 2011 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
  11. oldtimer

    Me like to read article like this one. Me enjoy it.

    December 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • BeaverClever

      You Ingrish bery good.

      December 29, 2011 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
  12. Chin_enlish

    No long no see article like this.

    December 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • BeaverClever

      Me so horney.....

      December 29, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  13. First_timer

    It is good to know how culture and cross culture fusion work.

    December 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |