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AAAYA NorCal Recap: Transcending Translation – David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at Berkeley

(L-R) AAAYA NorCal President Chester Te, AAAYA NorCal Board Member David Hsiao, National AAAYA President Harry Chang, Tony Award Winning Playwright David Henry Hwang, AAAYA NorCal Past President Julie Wong at West Coast Premiere of Chinglish.

Article by Emilie Robert Wong(Daughter of Julie Wong TC ’86 and HS Senior at Lycee Francais La Perouse)

On August 25, over 100 members of AAAYA NorCal, the Yale Club of San Francisco, the Yale Club of Silicon Valley, friends from FF (the oldest Chinese American fraternity), and Stanford alums attended the West Coast premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at the Berkeley Rep. FF traces its origins back to a group of five Yale and five Columbia students who came up with the idea at a 1909 Harvard-Yale game at a time when Asians were excluded from joining such organizations. Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang has links to both Stanford (undergraduate) and Yale (School of Drama). Just a few days earlier, Hwang had received the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, US theatre’s richest prize. It is given out biennially, and the winner receives $200,000 dollars.

Chinglish dazzled an appreciative and enthusiastic crowd with its ripped-from-the-headlines story of an American business executive first seduced and then betrayed by the wife of a high-ranking Chinese official. In a curious case of life imitating art, while cultural consultants considered this part of the plot the least plausible aspect of Chinglish, the headlines about a similar incident involving Neil Heywood, Gu Kailai and her husband Bo actually appeared AFTER the play was written.  Technology took center stage with a stylishly automated set which served as a concrete metaphor for the difficulties of navigating the constantly shifting shoals of international trade and intercultural communication and the use of real time super-titles via a special computerized projector system that almost became another character in the play serving as an invisible translator for the audience.

Hwang has mastered the ability to communicate complex themes without sacrificing their complexity. His special talent is to cause audience members who are Chinese or have done business in China to sigh with satisfaction and laugh with glee, recognizing the actions that take place on stage as affectionate, authentic, and highly accurate reflections of their own experiences all the while making sure that nothing is lost in translation to a wider audience. Somehow Hwang manages to make everyone feel like part of the hometown crowd. He uses the depth and roundness of his characters to translate even untranslatable concepts like the Chinese notion of marriage as founded on “qing yi” and makes its meaning crystal clear, even to audience members steeped in the romantic tradition of love at first sight who haven’t a clue whether the intonation of “wo ai ni” means “I love you” or “Frog loves to pee.” Chinglish transcends translation. It holds up a mirror to our experiences and turns the mirror into a window through which we can see into each other’s worlds.

After the performance, playwright David Henry Hwang, director Leigh Silverman, Producer and Artistic Associate Lily Fan, and members of the amazing cast: Michelle Krusiec (Xi Yan), Larry Lei Zhang (Minister Cai), Alex Moggridge (Daniel Cavanaugh), Austin Ku (Judge Geming), Vivian Chiu (Zhao), and Celeste Den (Miss Qian/Prosecutor Li) participated in a lively and thought-provoking panel discussion exclusively for the AAAYA group. AAAYA National President Harry Chang organized the evening, which was the fourth event that AAAYA NorCal has sponsored with David Henry Hwang. Previous events included M. Butterfly and YellowFace with cast members and Yale alumni Francis Jue and Pun Bhandu at TheatreWorks in Mountain View and FOB with the Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club.

Chinglish will be playing at the Berkeley Rep through October  21, so if you missed the opening event, make the effort to see it before it goes on to its international debut in Hong Kong!


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