When Chinglish opened on Broadway last year, it got great reviews but not a lot of audience love. What a difference an international murder mystery/corruption scandal/Communist Party political crisis makes. Author David Henry Hwang talks about the amazing—yet coincidental—similarities between his latest play and China’s Bo Xilai scandal. (Hint: the cast of characters for both includes corrupt provincial government officials, scheming high-powered wives, spoiled sons at elite Western schools, and naïve foreign businessmen who have no idea what they’ve gotten into.) The Berkeley Rep production, which begins previews this Friday, will travel to Hong Kong next year.
Chinglish may seem like it’s been ripped from the headlines, but you wrote it back in 2011. What was your inspiration, if not current events?
I’ve been traveling to China a fair amount over the last four or five years, essentially because China’s become very interested in Broadway-style musicals and I happen to be the only even nominally Chinese person who’s written one [Aida in 2000, the reworked Flower Drum Song in 2002]. So I would get called over for a lot of readings and it was a great opportunity for me to learn more about what’s going on over there today. I took Mandarin in college [at Stanford] but I’m not bilingual, so I’ve always used a translator. On one trip I visited this beautiful new arts center where everything was perfect except for the badly translated signs.
Like in the play, where the main character talks about the sign for a handicapped restroom that’s translated as “Deformed Man’s Toilet”?
Yes. I began to think of using that as a jumping off point to write a play about China today, but one that would deal mostly with the issue of language and cross-cultural misunderstanding.
And then, this past March, the Bo Xilai scandal broke, and the play became about so much more. Talk about great timing.
Yeah, it would have been even better timing if it had happened while the show was still on Broadway.
When the play first came out, some Chinese complained that the romance at the heart of it —an affair between an American businessman and the wife of a Communist Party official—couldn’t actually happen. But Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was accused of killing a British businessman amid rumors that they’d been having an affair. And there are lots of other parallels between the play and real life.
Honestly, I just feel like I was trying to write a play that felt as truthful to the dynamics in China today as I could make it. For instance, in this play, someone gets taken down for corruption and it’s really the cover for a power struggle—which is basically what’s happened in the Bo Xilai case. That’s a pretty common dynamic in China. Most of the time when people get taken down for corruption, it’s not actually the corruption. The corruption is the excuse for something else that’s going on.
Your director, Leigh Silverman, jokes that you’re clairvoyant.
I don’t think it’s magical or anything. But it’s heartening that an event has come along that seems to affirm some of my perceptions of China. And it will be interesting to see how the context changes the way the play is perceived on the West Coast and in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the Bo Xilai case makes it less likely that we could do it in China in the near future. So in that respect, it’s a double-edged sword.