Monday, November 07, 2011


Ch’ing•lish delights while probing cultural differences

The Sapir-Whorf Principle theorizes that we are the language we use, that our beliefs, attitudes and values all center on our ability to use verbalization. Misunderstandings are created when there is a clash of languages used by communicators.

Tony winner David Henry Hwang’s Ch’ing•lish, now on stage in New York’s Longacre Theater, is a delightful and insightful proof of Sapir-Whorf.

Chinglish refers to spoken or written English that is influenced by the Chinese language. It is commonly applied to ungrammatical or nonsensical English in Chinese contexts.

"Be careful not to slip and fall” in English translates to “slip carefully” in Chinglish. “False Alarm!” becomes “The Siren Lies!,” “Don't Feed the Birds!” is stated as “The Fowl Cannot Eat,” and “quiet please“ is translated as “no noising!” Want to know how well you understand Chinglish? Go the play’s website and take a test:

In the play’s opening scene, Cleveland businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) is giving a presentation to fellow Ohio entrepreneurs about his experiences in obtaining a contract in a small Chinese city.

As we observe, a series of scenes portray the difficulty of overcoming the Chinese-English language barrier and customs, including the concept of guanxi (the social networks that operate in the Chinese business world). Interestingly, the production is presented in a mix of spoken English and Mandarin with the use of subtitles flashed on the scenery. This is surely a first in the history of Broadway.

The production, under the direction of Leigh Silverman, is delightful. The opening scene is nothing short of hilarious, as are all those segments in which the Chinese interpreters attempt to translate what Cavanaugh is saying. The chaos that results cannot be described, it has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Wilmes is believable and develops a textured character. Stephen Pucci, as Cavanaugh’s so-called business consultant, is excellent as he transforms from aide to fake. His breakdown scene is a laugh riot. Jennifer Lim, as Cavanaugh’s adversary turned lover and help-mate, gives a fine performance. The rest of cast is equally strong.

David Korin’s set design is intriguing. It’s fascinating watching the set pieces flow seamlessly on a turntable and wagons to form numerous settings.

Capsule judgement: Ch’iNg•lish is a fascinating and delightful study of the clash of cultures based on the languages we use.