Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chinglish: A Journey to its Guizhou Roots

By Ken Smith, Chinglish Cultural Advisor

On Saturday night Chinglish had the first of its nine previews that precede the official opening next Monday night. You can read all about the preview process from playwright David Henry Hwang himself in his Chinglish journals at You Offend Me You Offend My Family, and Broadway’s Best Shows. For now, Chinglish Cultural Advisor Ken Smith is back with part two in his series on the extensive research that went into the development of this play.

Chinglish had already gone through a couple of drafts when my wife Joanna and I started getting the emails. Playwright David Henry Hwang initially told us that, in order to feel the frustrations of the play’s central character, director Leigh Silverman actually wanted to land in provincial China after a 20-hour flight, and sit in business meetings without being able to understand a single word. David, for his part, wanted to see if his recollections of our trip in 2005 that initially inspired the play were still relevant in 2010, since five years in China is like two decades in the rest of the world.

Once the play’s producers decided to join us, the journey took on much greater focus—as well as a bigger hotel bill. We started in Shanghai in July 2010, coinciding with the World Expo—a glimpse of China at its most developed—before traveling across the country to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, China’s poorest province and a latecomer to its booming economy.

[Above: Guiyang, the setting of Chinglish, is an economically poor city of about four million people now in the midst of an aggressive construction boom, with all the urban disruption that goes with it. Here's Guiyang on a good day, surrounded by the mountains in the background. Photo by John A. Wells.]

[Above: And this is Guiyang on a bad day, with the air quality of a construction zone.]

[Left: The Guiyang Grand Theatre, the center of conflict in Chinglish, is a mark of the city's newfound prosperity.]

Why Guiyang? It’s a long story, but for now let’s say that the ambitions of Guizhou (a province rather comparable to West Virginia) far outstrip its local talent. Back in 2002, Joanna and I found ourselves—without formal anthropological training or record company experience—co-music directors of a series of recordings devoted to Chinese minority music. Lee Wai Kit, the Hong Kong publisher and businessman who brought us into the project—without any real museum experience—soon found himself running an eco-museum that has since won international awards for cultural preservation. Our Guizhou guanxi was good.

Following the theme of the play, our Chinglish tour had two objectives: meet with American businessmen in China, and interact with local officials. The first was easy; Guiyang may be a city of four million people but socially it’s still a small town, especially where the American expat network is concerned. Just head to the local coffee shop, where businessman Chris DeLong (from Indiana) found opportunities in a land where even Starbucks hasn’t ventured.

Meeting officials was a bit more strategic. Unlike Shanghai or Beijing, where locals are rather jaded by westerners, Guiyang still takes an innocent delight in getting noticed by people from abroad. They’ve heard much about Shanghai’s recent love affair with Broadway, but have little experience with it themselves.

[Right: Officials, media and cultural workers in Guiyang come out to hear playwright David Henry Hwang compare Broadway to non-profit theater in his talk, "The Artist in the Age of Commerce."]

Being affiliated with prominent cultural organizations, we were able through Wai Kit to set up a public talk with “distinguished Broadway playwright David Henry Hwang”—who, not incidentally, had put Guizhou on the theatrical map in his previous play Yellow Face. Because of good relations with the media, we traveled around town with an “embedded press corps” of 20 writers and photographers shadowing our every move. Soon the officials came out to meet us.

After our trip, the rewrites were fast and furious. Not that
Chinglish changed so much in it storyline or its dramatic sweep, but subsequent drafts were filled with finely etched details. David’s characters seemed more firmly rooted in the Guizhou soil, and if Leigh didn’t know before what it was like to sit in chaotic business meetings in China, she certainly does now.

[Left: The Chinglish team meets for lunch with local artists, shadowed by the local press corps (standing). ]

[Top photo of Guiyang by John A. Wells. All other photos courtesy of the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop.]

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