By David Henry Hwang
Directed by Leigh Silverman
In Chinglish, playwright David Henry Hwang uses language as a metaphor for the customs and values that separate people from different cultures. The play opens with Daniel, an American businessman in his forties, lecturing a room of English-speaking entrepreneurs on how to develop business in China. He shows slides of several bilingual signs that feature amusingly inaccurate English translations. Daniel tells his audience that language is mysterious; words always carry more than their surface layer of meaning. For this reason, Daniel says, the first and last rule of doing business in China – especially for Americans – is to bring your own translator.
The play then flashes back to Guiyang, a Chinese provincial capital. Daniel, who speaks no Chinese, is interviewing Peter, a consultant from Australia who has spent the last twenty years living in China. Daniel hopes to secure a contract for Ohio Signage, his family’s small company, to manufacture signs for the new arts center in Guiyang. Peter assures Daniel that he can arrange a meeting with Cai, Guiyang’s Minister of Culture, but first Peter wants to be sure that Daniel won’t make the same mistakes made by so many other Americans. Peter tells Daniel that personal relationships are the only reliable way to do business in China because the Chinese legal system does not consistently enforce contracts. Daniel is shocked to hear that this process will require not a one-week visit to China but an eight-week stay. Peter also describes the difficult balance in Chinese business between the need to appear modest and the need to appear like a high-roller. Daniel decides to hire Peter and to stay in China for the next eight weeks.
True to his word, Peter arranges for Daniel to meet Cai and the Vice Minister of Culture, Xu. Peter interprets Daniel’s ideas into Chinese beautifully, but Cai and Xu have their own interpreter whose literal translations comically misconstrue Daniel’s meaning. Though Daniel fails to understand much of what is said, Peter exhibits not only his linguistic prowess but also his understanding of Chinese etiquette. Cai agrees to give Daniel’s business proposal serious consideration, but Vice Minister Xu seems affronted by the idea that China needs foreigners to solve its own problems. Cai, however, has not been offended. He offers to discuss their proposal further over dinner.
When Peter and Daniel arrive at the appointed restaurant for their dinner meeting, Cai isn’t there. He has sent Xu to tell them that he is not coming. Xu dismisses Peter so she can speak privately with Daniel. Using fragmented English, Xu explains to Daniel that Peter has no experience as a consultant. Instead, Peter is a language teacher who pulled strings to get Cai’s son admitted to university–for this reason, Cai owes Peter a favor. However, Cai cannot agree to Daniel’s proposal because he has already promised the signage job to his sister-in-law. Xu is forced to repeat this very sensitive information several times before Daniel understands. Over the course of their exchange, a spark ignites between them. Xu offers to help Daniel with his deal, but she asks him to keep their conversation a secret. She instructs him to tell Peter only that Cai has rejected the proposal.
As Xu leaves the restaurant, Peter returns. Daniel, unsure of whom to believe, does not immediately reveal all that he has learned about Peter. Instead, he asks Peter to guess what has just transpired. Peter guesses that Xu is going behind Cai’s back to sabotage the deal for her own personal reasons, perhaps something having to do with her husband’s connections. Daniel tells Peter about Cai’s plan to give the signage contract to someone else, but Peter refuses to believe it, assuring Daniel that Cai owes him a favor from Peter’s days as a teacher. Daniel tells Peter that he values Peter’s personal connections but asks for total honesty in the future. Peter promises Daniel that despite Xu’s interference, he will ensure that Daniel’s company gets the job.
Cai dodges numerous phone calls from Peter. In a moment alone with Xu, Cai complains about the stress he’s experiencing. He had hoped that Peter would ask for a small favor rather than a large business contract, and his sister-in-law has been pestering him about when she can begin making the signs. Xu tells him to be direct with Peter, but Cai insists that a foreigner will never understand the situation. Cai tells Xu that his wife is continuously nagging him about the contract. When he asks Xu if her husband’s political ambitions are ever a source of tension, Xu stalwartly defends her marriage. Cai deploys her to handle the problem with Peter.
In the lobby of Daniel’s hotel, Xu brings Daniel up to speed. She has come to see him without telling anyone, including her husband, a judge. Marriage, she says, lasts longer with little communication. Daniel asks her why she has offered to help him, and Xu explains that Daniel is a good man with an honest face. Daniel compliments Xu’s beautiful face. He kisses her. She slaps him but quietly asks his room number. After insulting him loudly, she storms off and later meets him in his hotel room.
After Xu and Daniel have slept together, Xu reminisces in Chinese about the excitement she felt at the beginning of her marriage. Daniel and Xu share a post-coital scene in which they do not understand every word the other speaks, but they occasionally comprehend the other’s meaning. Daniel confesses that he and his wife barely speak. Xu opines that marriage is better that way. Daniel asks Xu if she loves her husband. She says that he used to be her love, but now he is just her husband. After Daniel shares many intimate feelings with an uncomprehending Xu, she replies in Chinese that she enjoys watching his lips move.
In the next scene, Cai, Xu, Peter, and Daniel have a second meeting, this time with a another translator whose translation skills do not match Peter’s. Cai explains that he cannot approve Daniel’s proposal, and Peter is floored. He openly accuses Cai of reneging on their agreement. The translator awkwardly translates for Daniel while trying to conceal the details of Peter and Cai’s ongoing argument. Just as Daniel and Peter are preparing to leave, Peter has another outburst in which he reveals the nature of the favor that he did for Cai. He insults Cai’s son’s intelligence and accuses Cai of breaking his word easily because Peter is a foreigner. Peter exclaims that in his heart, he is Chinese. Though Peter realizes that he has destroyed his relationship with Cai, it is too late to repair the damage.
In Daniel’s hotel room, Daniel asks Xu for an explanation of what happened in the meeting. Xu’s explanation is brief. She doesn’t want to talk about business during their tryst. Daniel asks if there is still hope for the deal, and Xu says that hope depends on credibility. To prove his company’s credibility, Daniel shows Xu his company’s new website, which now includes a banner in Chinese that, unbeknownst to Daniel, says “Call us for fast free delivery.” Xu, laughing at the translation error, tells Daniel that Peter’s credibility is shot, so Daniel must fire Peter in order to salvage the deal.
Later, while Daniel snores softly, Xu wonders if his company has hired someone who speaks Chinese to answer the Chinese phone number listed on their website. But when she dials the number, Daniel’s cell phone rings. Daniel realizes what has happened and tries to explain. Xu, feeling betrayed, doubts that the company exists at all. After a heated argument, Daniel admits that Ohio Signage is in dire straits—it no longer has a factory or employees. He insists that the company’s condition is not his fault: for several years, his brother mismanaged the family business while Daniel worked as an executive at Enron. After the Enron scandal broke, Daniel nearly went to jail, and was in no position to salvage Ohio Signage. Daniel expects that this information will destroy his credibility, but shockingly, it has the opposite effect on Xu. She tells him that now the deal is possible.
Act Two opens with Peter trying to pick up a woman at a bar in Guiyang. The woman is so focused on the fact that Peter isn’t Chinese that she fails to notice his perfect command of the language. Peter speaks to her in Chinese, and she responds in poor English. After some small talk about English-speaking movie stars, Peter asks her to dance. Seeming to ignore the question, she gives him a thumbs-up and goes to dance by herself.
In another dubiously translated business meeting, Daniel and Xu present Daniel’s proposals to Judge Geming and Prosecutor Li. Li seems unconvinced by Daniel’s credentials until he mentions that he came to Ohio Signage after six years at Enron. Geming and Li listen with rapt attention. Name by name, they ask Daniel about infamous Enron executives. Geming calls Daniel the most famous financial figure ever to do business in Guiyang. Li notes that Cai’s rejection of Daniel’s proposal indicates corruption and warrants an investigation. Daniel wins the contract by a landslide.
He returns to his hotel to find Peter waiting in the lobby. Peter insists that the signage deal is still salvageable. Cai’s position in the Party is weak, Peter claims, and Cai is likely to be removed from his post. Just as Peter notes that Cai’s successor would be Xu, she walks into the lobby. Peter guesses that Daniel and Xu are having an affair. He begins to rail against Daniel for his dishonesty and threatens to blackmail Xu and Daniel. But Xu reminds Peter that he has lost all his credibility. Even if he exposes their affair, no one will believe him. Because he is a foreigner, he will never understand how things work in China. This insult is the last straw for Peter, who begins criticizing the Party for committing all manner of crimes against the people of China. Finally, Xu stops him. Daniel suggests that Peter return to Australia, but Peter says that he has tried that before–his home country seems foreign to him. Peter departs, defeated.
In Daniel and Xu’s hotel room, Xu luxuriates in the rejuvenating effects of their affair. Daniel tells her that he’s falling in love with her. He asks her to teach him to say “I love you” in Chinese and promises to end his marriage using the same honesty that won him the contract. Suddenly, Xu is brought up short. She does not want Daniel to tell his wife about the affair; in her opinion, concealing the truth would be more respectful. She explains that their affair, to her, is like a vacation from marriage as opposed to a reason to end a marriage. The two of them struggle to communicate clearly about what marriage should be. Daniel asks whether Xu offered to help him only so she could become Minister of Culture. She tells him that she will not be promoted. Instead, she helped Daniel in order to help her husband, the judge who approved Daniel’s proposal. The judge will now become Minister of Culture. Stunned, Daniel understands the complex intersection of his private and professional decisions in China.
Cai knows that he is going to be arrested. Before the police arrive at his home, Peter stops by to apologize for his part in the Minister’s downfall. The two men commiserate: Peter reveals that his teaching jobs have dried up because word has gotten out about his anti-Party outburst. Cai tells Peter that the bones of the people who built the Great Wall were ground down for building materials. Cai and Peter have both made personal sacrifices for China. According to Cai, that sacrifice makes Peter a little bit Chinese.
In the last scene of the play, Daniel finishes his lecture to the English-speaking businesspeople. Ohio Signage has flourished in China. Daniel thanks his wife for her support and says that the Chinese have taught him the value of family. He has studied some Chinese since he began his business there, but Daniel still does not speak the language. He concludes the play by telling his audience that whenever he goes to China, he still brings his own translator.