Thursday, June 23, 2011

Business Cards: A Question of Character(s)

By Ken Smith, Chinglish Cultural Advisor

Today Chinglish Cultural Advisor Ken Smith continues his series on the extensive research process that went into the development of this awesome new play. You can read about his role in this process here, and get a recap of one of his research trips to Guiyang here. Meanwhile, for a preview of this fascinating new play in action, check out our video library for production and rehearsal films. Or, better yet, come see the show in all its glory! It is showing now through July 24.

How authentic is Chinglish? We’re under threat of death not to spoil any surprises. Also, in the interest of a leaner, tighter script, much of the play’s cultural “authenticity”—like having a clueless American businessman not knowing that he should fight over the check—has wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor. But we can say that by the time previews started last weekend, each of the cast members were carrying actual business cards with their character names in Chinese (below).

This may be just a small example, but it shows the level of detail the Goodman’s props department has put into recreating a little slice of China. It’s also a touch that should resonate for anyone who’s ever done business across the Pacific, where status-conscious Asians always need a name card to figure out exactly who they’re dealing with.

The prop cards were modeled on actual name cards from government officials and western businessmen we met in Guizhou, and most of the Chinese cast members had some input in making their own cards. Some actors playing multiple characters in Chinglish also carry multiple cards. (One cast member even wondered half-seriously if his card would impress women.) We didn’t expect, though, that such a tiny production detail would illustrate the complexities of translation in the play. Or that it would end up modifying the script itself.

Having written Chinglish in, well, English, David Henry Hwang used Romanized names for his characters. Only when we began designing the business cards did we realize that Vice Minister Xu Yan’s given name could mean either “dazzlingly beautiful” (艳) or “swallow” (燕), as in the bird, depending on the Chinese character and tonal pronunciation of “Yan.” But combined with the family name Xu, it could mean “fulfill a verbal promise” (许言). Prosecutor Li had the opposite problem, since she had only a family name—and a business card with only a single character (李).

For the record—at least for now—actress Jennifer Lim now plays “Fulfill a Verbal Promise,” Prosecutor Li’s given name is now “Danfei” (丹扉), the actual Chinese name of actress Angela Lin, and Larry Zhang—in a walk-on role as a driver—has no lines but still carries a business card (above) with his real Chinese name, “Zhang Lei” (张磊).

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