review of the broadway play chinglish
Monday, October 24, 2011

Stay tuned! We're going to be giving away Chinglish tickets to two lucky readers next week. We'll post the contest details soon!

Last week Mary Kate and I were invited to see the new Broadway play Chinglish. We didn't know too much about it beforehand but we were both really excited to see it. If you have ever lived or traveled to China, you know about the hilarious signs and situations that can be created from translation errors from Chinese to English, or "Chinglish".  Most of the errors come from translating the meaning of Chinese characters literally without taking into account the possible implied meanings of the English words. For example, a sign for a handicapped restroom reads "Deformed Man Toilet" or the sign for a restaurant that's name should translate as "Good Restaurant Road" reads "Smart Noshery Makes You Slobber". (Do a Google image search for "chinglish sign" for a good laugh.)

Mary Kate took the photo below of the potato chip isle in a supermarket in Beijing. As you can see, someone translated "chips" to "crack"!  This might sound terrible but if the sign maker had pasted the four Chinese characters into Google Translate they would of ended up with "Dilated Food Products".

While things lost in translation are hilarious when printed on signs, confusion from differences in language, manners, and customs cause all sorts of problems in personal and business relationships in China. In the play, a female businesswoman keeps telling a visiting American businessman that she is "sleeping with him" when she really means she is tired.

The play centers around Daniel, a businessman from Cleveland. When the play opens he shows us a Powerpoint slide presentation with examples of signs in China with poor "Chinglish" translations. He says he sees an opportunity for his Ohio sign-making company to make signs used in the Chinese market that don't have these embarrassing errors. In the next scene Daniel arrives in a small city in China where he is going to pitch his company's services to the local government. They are building a new "cultural center" building and he wants the contract to create all of the building's signs.

Daniel hires a young Australian man named Peter to be his translator and advise him on the ins and outs of doing business in China. Peter gives Daniel good advice on how to build guanxi (relationships) and is a great translator (the actor's Chinese is perfect!) but he has his own agenda. During the course of the play, Daniel runs the risk of losing the contract, gets involved with Xi Yan a married female bureaucrat that could make or break the deal, and has to come clean about some details he has not been honest about.

Mary Kate and I loved this play. All of the actors play their roles pitch perfectly and there was never a false note. I laughed and laughed at the situations because I have lived through very similar ones myself. The set design is fantastic. The set rotates around the stage to reveal multiple locations (a restaurant, and office, a hotel, a lobby, a house). They must have flown in the props because everything down to the light sockets and lamp on the hotel bedside table is exactly as they are in China. We also really liked the music that is played in between scenes. Chinese pop music on a whole is not much to write home about but the music in the play (remixed songs by Leehom Wang) is really good. I even downloaded a few of his songs from iTunes.

My only complaint with the play is that the way the American businessman conducts himself makes him an unsympathetic protagonist. I'm not saying that people like him do not exist in China. There are plenty of foreigners in China who are there because they have failed back home or want to exploit their foreigner status. However, I found myself not caring or even not wanting Daniel to succeed.

We enthusiastically recommend this play even if you've never been to China. The jokes are not lost in translation.

A few days ago I watched the pilot episode for the new CBS show 2 Broke Girls. One of the show's main characters (Bryce Lee) is the same tired Asian character stereotype that is the butt of jokes and can't speaka da Engrish. I am so happy that there is a play like Chinglish that can respectfully and honestly illustrate the cultural differences between China and the West while having a sense of humor yet without resorting to stereotypes.

Article originally appeared on Feeding the Dragon (
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