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.
Thanks to everyone who came to the book party! We had such an amazing time and hope you did too. Special thanks to Lu Ming for creating paper cut portraits of guests at the party. . .
And to Brandon King from BKbooth.com for the ridiculously awesome photos! See all of the photos here. Also, thanks to Huang Xiansheng and his band for playing as well. They play on the NR line at the Prince Street stop in lower Manhattan.
A few months before our manuscript was due, our editor Jean sent us an email. Had we been thinking about a picture for the book cover? Did we already have a travel photo of us that would work? The publishing deadline was creeping up and she needed an image as soon as possible.
The truth was it hadn’t crossed our minds once. Nate and I were living in Beijing at the time . . . researching, writing, re-writing, cooking, traveling, photographing, recipe testing, eating. The cover? Somehow we thought that would just make itself. We looked through every last photo we had of us on the road in China. In every one of them we looked as rough as our travel accommodations had been: bunk-beds on multi-day-long train rides, overnight buses, $4 hostels, tents, village huts, yurts, etc. I eyed the copy of Everyday Italian that I had brought with me (the one where Giada De Laurentiis looks like a boobalicious goddess on the cover) and I knew Nate and I had to at least look presentable if this was going to sell. That would start with both of us leaving Nate’s apartment that we had been cooped up in for weeks cooking and writing like crazy and fueled by zillions of cans of Chinese Red Bull. Out into the sunlight we went.
We location scouted around the city—all the famous spots: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Gulou. But in the end, we settled on a hidden winding hutong alleyway in Anmen, just south of Tiananmen Square. Beijing is a massive city (NYC feels small in comparison!) with skyscrapers and shopping centers going up like erector sets, but its real charm lies in its back roads and off-the-map noodle shops.
The alley on the book cover is actually the narrowest alley in Beijing. We caused quite the scene that day--blocking it mid-day with our bicycles, a photographer and a full lighting set. The tricky part was explaining what we were doing! Two foreigners taking a photograph for a book could mean trouble . . .
What we said instead was that we were taking wedding photos--a very common sight in China. This was completely understandable. So there I was, doing a "wedding photo shoot" with my brother and drawing a huge crowd. "Get closer!" people chided. “Wishing you one-hundred years of good companionship”, went someone’s well wishes. "Why are you posing on bicycles with baskets full of groceries?”another asked.
Thanks to Jonney Leijonhufvud, an amazing photographer and friend who lives in Beijing, the shot we got for the cover captures the chaotic charm and endearing spontaneity of China. The woman on the right next to us on the cover was a confused passerby. I think she’s thinking “That is one ugly wedding outfit.” The woman behind her owns the dumpling shop to the right and she kept bringing out her cat so that he could join us for the photos. Just behind us, but out of sight, a man on a tricycle loaded with recycled plastic bottles is screaming at Nate to move so he can pass through the alley. The bikes we’re on are the same ones we rode all around the 50 square mile city, pedaling groceries home from the market to cook and test for the book. Those are bean thread noodles in my basket and the that’s a bitter melon, radishes, and yard-long green bean in Nate’s.
After beginning our book six years ago, it comes out in stores today. We couldn’t be more thrilled! When we go into a bookstore this afternoon and see it on the shelves, it'll be an amazing thrill. Most of all, we are excited to show you our story of China--its history, delicious foods, friendly people, amazing culture, and adventures down every alley.