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Between East and West An Interview with David Henry Hwang

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Between East and West: An Interview with David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang’s new Broadway play, Chinglish, begins with an American sign manufacturer talking about his experiences in China, offering his insights about doing business in that country. Just how well he has succeeded in understanding his partners and business practices in a foreign culture becomes clear as the play progresses. The insightful and witty comedy, written in both English and Mandarin (translated very effectively with subtitles projected onto the set) is the latest from the author of the 1988 Tony and Drama Desk award-winning play M. Butterfly, and is currently playing at the Longacre Theater. Chinglish offers a lively and thought-provoking look at a cross-cultural exchange that is likely to continue to figure prominently in the first half of this century.

Hwang made his mark as a playwright with FOB (an Asian-American derogative term for new immigrants who arrive in in the U.S. “Fresh Off the Boat” from Asia) which was produced in New York at the Public Theater in 1980. In the intervening years, the California-born playwright, now 54, has become one of the preeminent Asian-American voices in the theater. He achieved international recognition with M. Butterfly, which is loosely based on a true story about a French diplomat who fell in love with a Peking Opera star, who also happened to be a Chinese government spy, allegedly without realizing that “she” was really a man. In addition to his plays, Hwang work includes librettos for music theater works by Philip Glass, several screenplays and the books for the Disney musicals Aida and Tarzan. He was nominated for a Tony in 1998 for his second play on Broadway, Golden Child, which is inspired by stories about his ancestors related to him by his Chinese maternal grandmother. After a decade’s absence, he returned to the New York stage in 2007 with Yellow Face, a comedy in which he examined his own evolving feelings regarding the controversy in the early nineties caused by the casting of a Caucasian actor as the male lead in Miss Saigon. The Obie-winning play, also a finalist that year for the Pulitzer, was staged at the Public Theater under the direction of Leigh Silverman, who also directed Chinglish. Hwang talked recently to The House Next Door about his new work.

Did Chinglish come out of your experiences visiting China?

I’ve been going to China a fair amount for the past five or six years. The first time I ever went there was in 1993, but more recently, oddly, it was because China is interested in Broadway musicals. People would call me to talk about these musical projects. Nothing ever came of it, except that it gave me a great opportunity to learn more about what’s going on there. On one occasion I visited this brand new art center. Everything was gorgeous—it was all Italian marble, Brazilian woods, a Japanese sound system—but there were these really badly translated signs. The handicapped restroom said “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” So I began thinking about doing a show that would be about doing business in China today—a little bit Glengarry Glen Ross, but with the focus on language. Because it seems to me negotiating the language barrier is such a huge part of that experience.

Do you speak Mandarin yourself?

I’m not actually bilingual. I took Mandarin in college, but, if anything, the dialect I speak is Fujianese, my maternal grandmother’s dialect. When I realized I wanted to do a bilingual play I asked Candace Chong, who is a successful playwright in her own right in Hong Kong, to help me with the translations. Just coincidentally Candace has become very famous recently because she is the librettist of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the opera [about the pioneering Chinese Nationalist political leader] that just got cancelled in Beijing for reasons that are controversial.

How would you describe Chinglish?

I think the play is about how people misunderstand each other on various levels. On the most superficial level there is language; we literally don’t know what the other person is saying. But even when they do understand the words, sometimes there are cultural values which are different, and things that we believe are intrinsic, which are, I think, much more culturally conditioned. So a business which, in this country, has become infamous, might be a big celebrity in China just because they have heard about it. Similarly, I think in many old-world cultures, not just in Asia but in Europe as well, there is a notion of marriage being an institution and that you don’t expect to be in romantic love with your partner throughout the whole marriage. In America, I think, we tend to feel Oh, you fall out of love with someone, i.e. romantic love, so maybe you should move on and go to a different relationship. So these ideas like love and like honesty, which we assume are intrinsic, actually have different cultural interpretations.

Did you set the play in a Chinese provincial city for a specific reason?

I seem to have an unusually close relationship, for an American, with the province of Guizhou. It’s actually the poorest province in China, an inland province between Sichuan and Hunan. It’s also the province that is very much on the brink of change, because Hu Jintao, the current Chinese Paramount Leader was the Provincial Party Secretary in Guizhou before he took over leadership of the country. This play is set in the capital city of Guiyang, which has about four million people, but only about 500 foreigners. The play is about a white American from the Midwest. He’s not from New York or L.A., so I wanted him to go to an equivalent city in China and draw those parallels. Also, in the play, there’s a good reason why he chooses not to go a big city, because of his own past.

Like M. Butterfly, Chinglish depicts an encounter between China and the West. Is there any connection between the two plays?

It has been 23 years since M. Butterfly. A lot of the critical consensus coming out of Chicago [where Chinglish played this Spring] is that this is sort of my follow-up to M. Butterfly. I guess I understand that, but I didn’t think about that at the time. I really thought I wanted to write a play about miscommunication about business. When I do a play I have a personal question that I’m asking. In my case the image of China had turned about 180 degrees since I was kid. How do I feel about the rise of China? I think writing Chinglish helped me to learn that I actually have very complicated feelings about this. There are things that I appreciate and there are things that I have some trepidation about. And yes, it did end up being also a story about a white guy who goes to Asia and falls in love with an Asian woman and there are surprises. But the device of M. Butterfly was to deceive the audience because the central plot point is that [the opera singer] Song Lee Ling is a man and we try to fool the audience for two hours. If anything, the technique in Chinglish is quite is opposite: it’s transparency. We know, because of the translations, everything that everybody on stage is saying to each other, but not all the characters know what they are saying to each other.

What are your thoughts about the future of Sino-American relations?

I heard that between 2016 and 2025 China will be the world’s greatest economy. I think the reality is that getting into a war would be a bad idea for everybody. So we have to accept that we are in a place where the only sensible option is to figure out how we can partner on things and to have mutual respect for each other. Americans are very Ameri-centric and Chinese are very China-centric. It is a challenge to get them to see things from the other person’s point of view, but they are going to have to do it. We can’t destroy them and they can’t destroy us, so we are going to have to figure a way to exist. What I find interesting, particularly now, is in this country we have such a free market fundamentalism and this whole school of thought that the less government intervenes in an economy the better, because the government will always screw it up. Then you have China with a strong centralized economic planning situation where the government is involved in everything and they have had this amazing economic growth in the last 20 years. Now it is unlikely that the growth will continue and probably in the next 10 years the economy is going to slow down, but still, what does it say about our belief that an economy works best when the government has nothing to do with it? It’s a really interesting political contradiction.

What effect do you think the rise of China will have on Asian Americans?

I would not have anticipated, when I was growing up, that China would become cool. So at the moment there are a fair amount of benefits for Asian Americans. But that can turn on a dime. It’s one of the things I wrote about in Yellow Face. Hopefully the U.S. and China will continue to have an amicable relationship over the next 20 to 30 years. But if there is, God forbid, a war, or even a lot of economic conflict like we had with Japan in the 1980s, we’re going to be the first victims of that.

What did the Chinese make of you when you were over there?

M. Butterfly the play has never been done in China and M. Butterfly the movie is banned, but because it was banned all the artists and intelligentsia saw it. So people who meet me know me in that context. As I started going there more recently to places where people know what it is I do here, I always felt that they would think, “you don’t speak Chinese,” “you, like, suck as a Chinese.” But, actually people kind of embraced me and are proud of me. I think it is just, you know, China is so big and so diverse and has always accepted the notion that there are all sorts of different kinds Chinese. So I’m an overseas Chinese, but because I am Han, I still count as Chinese. It’s all a little bit racist really, but it’s kind of the good side of that.

Now that you are back on Broadway with a new play, what are your writing plans?

Between Golden Child and Yellow Face I went for 10 years without writing a play. Getting back to doing plays, getting excited, and feeling like I had something to say with Yellow Face led to Chinglish and now I seem to be on a play vibe at the moment. I feel like with Yellow Face I have said what I have wanted to say about multiculturalism, so now I’m more interested in this new international age that we are living in. There are two plays that I am curious about—one is I want to write something about the American colonial period in the Philippines, because I have so much Philippine in my personal history and I have never written about the Philippines. Also Americans don’t tend to think of us as a colonial power and people have forgotten that whole period. I’m also working on a show about [the actress] Tsai Chin—based on her memoir. She was in Golden Child and, in London, she was Comrade Chin in M. Butterfly, which is how we met.

Did writing Chinglish help to sort out the questions you had when you started the play?

I find my feelings about the rise of China are complicated and conflicted. And I am more fascinated by China right now than I was when I started writing the play—what the growth of China means to the world, the internal problems within China, and how it relates to the U.S. So, if anything, I think maybe I’m going into a period, Fillipino play notwithstanding, where the subject of U.S.-China relations is going to continue to interest me for a while. We’ll see.