You know those badly translated Chinese signs you see on the internet, where something inoffensive in Chinese turns out to mean “Fuck Vegetables” in English? That’s the starting point for the Park Theatre’s new play Chinglish.
Daniel Cavanaugh (Gyuri Sarossy), the owner of a well-established family-run sign-making company in Cleveland, Ohio, is pitching to make the English language signs for a new arts centre in the provinces of China. And with help from English teacher turned business consultant Peter Timms (Duncan Harte), he’s got a meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Lobo Chan) and his deputy Xi Yan (Candy Ma). Things are looking good. It’s then that he learns the first rule of doing business in China: always bring your own translator. Because if he was relying on hapless government translator Miss Qian (Siu-see Hung) to translate, it’d be no deal.
Soon after, Daniel learns the other rule of doing business in China: it’s about who you know and what side they’re on. And what initially looks like Xi Yan siding against Daniel and Peter to the benefit of the Minister, turns out to be something rather different.
If this all sounds like the sort of story you hear a lot – corruption and intrigue between Chinese government officials and foreign businesspeople – then yes, it is, and a very funny one as well, except writer David Henry Hwang cleverly turns the mirror on the Western world and makes Daniel every bit as deceitful and corrupt as the Chinese officials he’s pitching to. Not that that harms Daniel’s chances of making it in China. Far from it.
Chinglish is a clever and very topical play, performed in both English and Chinese (with English surtitles), which shows as deep an understanding of both Western and Chinese cultures as you’re likely to see on the London stage. The cast give excellent performances, with Candy Ma particularly outstanding as the ambitious Xi Yan, and Siu-see Hung, Windson Liong and Minhee Yeo hilarious as a series of woeful translators. The set is also very clever, and both as simple and complex as anything in the script.
Chinglish is at the Park Theatre until 22nd April.