A bilingual comedy with many implications
By Iride Aparicio
Photos by: Joyce Goldschmid
L-R Michael T. McCune, as Peter Timms, Chris Mahle as Daniel Cavanaugh, Phil Wong as Bing, Jeffrey Sun as Minister Cai Guoliang, Joyce F. Liu as Xi Yan, in the Palo Alto Players production of Chinglish
PALO ALTO, CA— PALO ALTO PLAYERS ended their 2014-2015 Season with CHINGLISH, a well-timed work, written by Awards-winning playwright DAVID HENRY HWAYNG, which demonstrates to American Business men the many pitfalls they may encounter trying to do business in China, without understanding the culture or speaking any of the Chinese languages.
In China, CHINGLISH is a noun. It is the name Chinese people give to a mix “language” (similar to Tex-Mex) that incorporates Chinese vocabulary constructions and English terms. This language is spoken in China by some Chinese, mostly by the bilingual (English/Chinese) speakers.
CHINGLISH the play, however, may better be described as a satirical comedy that demonstrates, with humor, the cultural differences between China and the United States. It looks funny, on the stage, to observe the “ways” used by the representatives of the two nations to present " how do they do business" to each other. We laugh at the “games the Chinese play on the Americans” (they demand relationships, accepting gifts is Ok, and for some, doing “back door” shady deals) and we laugh at the “game Cavanaugh, the American Business man, plays on the Chinese people.” (Representing his family’s business as Thriving, when he is broke and his business striving against bankruptcy) But as we watch the comedy, and laugh, we realize that maybe, there is some truth revealed in the story.
The comedy gets most of its laughs by being based on the hypothesis that people "assume" that the difference in languages lie solely in their vocabulary and that each word in a given language must have an equivalent word in the other language, which is is wrong. An English-speaking person learning Mandarin Chinese, will soon discover that the Mandarin language has a different structure, a Syntax different than the Syntax of the English language, and a completely different sound system. To complicate matters, Mandarin does not use verb tenses, so Mandarin does not use present, past or future tenses in its verbs, but relies in other cues to indicate them.
LIU as Xi Yan teaches Cavanaugh MAHLE how to do business in China
The audience learns about the poor translations the Chinese translators are doing when making English signs, at the beginning of the play. When talking to the Cultural Minister of Cai Guoliang, (JEFFREY SUN) Cavanaugh (MAHLE) The American Business man, who does not speak Mandarin, tries to pitch his idea of building correct English signs to him, by calling to his attention to the translations that Mandarin speakers are doing now: “The little grass is sleeping. Please do not Disturb it.” was the way the Mandarin-speaking Chinese translated the “Keep off the Grass.” American sign. Because another significant structural difference between Mandarin and English is plurals. a sign in English reading: “Don’t forget to carry your thing” was the way the translators translated: “Please be sure not to leave any belongings behind.”
The story in CHINGLISH is simple: Daniel Cavanaugh (CHRIS MAHLE) a Midwestern American business man, is in now in the Chinese capital of Guiyang, China trying to score a lucrative contract for his family’s sign-making firm, (before it goes bankrupt). When talking with the members of the Chinese government, however, the American business man tries to impress the Chinese Government, but what he is trying to tell them is mistranslated by their interpreter. The result of the mistranslations, and cultural misunderstandings, leads him to understand ‘back door” deals, and gets him involved into a love affair. and many surprises.
Becaise. Sadly, in the comedy, Cavanaugh finds many other things in the Chinese culture that are different. He discovers that the Chinese business men are masters in “Guanxi” which means that they always use “connections” when doing business. In China, l0 years ago, “success” depended 30 per cent Guanxi and 70 percent in talent. So he has to learn than in China, "The Art of relationships” is used in China for everything: from getting jobs, to business corruptions. He also discovers that his own translator, Peter Timms (MICHAEL T. McCUNE) was an “impostor.” An English man, who knows Mandarin and has lived in China for years, but who is not and never will be accepted as Chinese by the Chinese people.
And more important of all, Cavanaugh discovers that Chinese “business” has rules: a light handshake, means you are honest. exchanging business cards, is as good as a promise. In business it is “appropriate to send gifts.” Chinese command Respect, and do not appreciate people to ask them to do anything that they think it is beneath their rank. To do so could ruin the relationship.
L- R Isabel Anne To as Miss Zhao, Dianna Hua Chung as Prosecutor Li, Phil Wong as Judge and Mahle as Daniel Cavanaugh.
But perhaps the hardest lesson that Cavanaugh learns in this comedy is in his private life, when he falls in love. When he tries to kiss the woman he loves, when he learns about "marriage" in China and when he asks the woman he loves to become his wife. When at the end, his business enterprise succeeds. He had almost destroyed his marriage and his family, in the process of learning "How to do business in China."
Directed by LILY TUNG CRYSTAL, with English-subtitles to translate the Mandarin dialague spoken by some of the actors, the play presents to the audience a story, that is funny, at times, but at other times, dramatic. A story that makes us laugh, and think at the same time. The acting is in the play is very good, specially the acting of the two principal characters: MAHLE and LIU which has a lot of realism. We need also to mention that the sets by KUO-HAO LO are creative and represent perfectly the places where the action takes place. Another plus to his sets, is that they can be changed in seconds.
With CHINGLISH, who will play at the Lucille Stern theatre at 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto until June 28th. Palo Alto Players end another successful Season.
To buy tickets online: www.paplayers.org or by phone 650 329-0891