Business throughout the world is predominantly conducted in English and it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon. Yet China is a world power that has resisted this trend. David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish looks at the interactions between Westernised and Chinese cultures, in business, marriage and dedication to one’s partner. For all that it promotes itself as a light-hearted comedy, there are some intriguing insights into the differences between the two traditions, and the arrogance of a Western society that assumes that China will simply change to conduct itself in accordance with Anglo-American customs.
Hwang and director Andrew Keates, however, lend a limited amount of time to exploring these themes in depth, opting instead for a more superficial, somewhat slapstick alternative. Translators miscommunicate common phrases for easy laughs, stereotyping and caricature performances run rife and each punchline is hammed up for maximum hilarity and minimum impact. The effect sails dangerously close to pantomime, sacrificing the play’s overriding message in the process.
Of the more interesting parts of the play, the philosophy of guanxi – loosely interpreted as the relationships that individuals cultivate for mutual gain – is fascinating, but warrants greater exploration. Business, Chinglish suggests, is still largely state regulated and people are rewarded by currying favour with the relevant officials. This is most closely realised between leads Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) and Xi Yan (Candy Ma), as Daniel attempts to persuade the Minister of Culture Cai Guoliang (Lobo Chan) to hire his American company and provide signage for the new cultural centre. Xi Yan, as Vice-Minister, is initially frosty, but has her own agenda to help Daniel and subvert her boss for certain political gains. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design cleverly reflects the opening and shutting of doors necessary to achieve business success in this environment.
Candy Ma is the lynchpin in Chinglish, effectively communicating in broken English the cultural naivety painfully present in Daniel’s opinion of the country. She wins over the audience not by overacting every comedic line, but by displaying emotional subtly. The Vice-Minister’s motivations seem selfish and incomprehensible, but ultimately are a product of the difference between the two philosophies. Love is a Western religion, held aloft to the detriment of everything else. Not so in Chinglish, where commitment is the ultimate ideal, be it to a marriage, a career, or a philosophy. Love clouds commitment with affection and emotion.
The play’s other characters are performed competently and with impressively swift jumping between the two languages. The reliance on comedy works well with the ensemble roles, as these fleeting characters can simply be funny without being distracting. With the other main characters, particularly those played by Chan and Duncan Harte, Chinglish would benefit from a deeper connection its material. It’s this decision to focus on emphasising the comic differences in trying to fuse the two cultures that will ultimately divide opinion.
Chinglish is on until 22 April 2017 at the Park Theatre. Click here for more details.