Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chinglish Offstage: The Role of a Cultural Advisor

By Ken Smith, Chinglish Cultural Advisor

My wife Joanna Lee and I used to be China consultants, but after the thrashing the consultants receive in Chinglish we’ve now changed our title to “advisors.” The job description, though, is pretty much the same: resident authenticity police for a bilingual, cross-cultural play about an American businessman in China. How does one become a China “advisor”? As David Henry Hwang’s businessman says early in the play, every story is different, each deal giving birth to its own unique journey. From there (he soon finds out), those journeys are generally steered by guanxi, the distinctly Chinese spin on the idea of connections and relationships.

Joanna’s and my journey started nearly 10 years ago, when we began meeting Western artists who wanted to come to China and Chinese artists wanting to come to the West. Thanks to our own guanxi—I was a journalist with some diversions in book publishing and public relations; Joanna was an academic with a broad range of arts administrative experience—we could always find someone to help those artists with whatever they happened to need.

David Henry Hwang’s “Guizhou period,” as he sometimes calls it, began when he heard some village music that Joanna and I had recorded from that province back in 2003. The Dong people, one of the minority populations in that corner of the country, became a dramatic coda in his play Yellow Face (currently running at Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project directed by the Goodman’s Associate Producer Steve Scott). Soon we were traveling to China together, introducing David to people from different fields, from expatriate businessmen to the head of the Shanghai Opera House, who engaged in a friendly debate about Puccini. (Zhang Guoyong, for the record, thinks Madama Butterfly is an astute portrayal of Asian values; David, as we learned from M. Butterfly, feels rather differently. The two agreed to disagree, and a few choice lines eventually worked their way into Yellow Face.)

The Shanghai parties were indistinguishable from a night out in London or Berlin, with David and Joanna being practically the only Chinese people. Roomfuls of colorful characters were on the make, hustling to close a deal and get back home. “You know,” David said at the time, “there’s a David Mamet play here about American businessmen in China.”

As we all know by now, there was actually a David Henry Hwang play waiting to be written. Last summer, in-between Chinglish workshops in New York, David traveled again to China, this time with director Leigh Silverman and the play’s producers, who were astonished to find that much of the play’s exaggerated humor turned out to be based in vérité.

Coming soon: traveling with the Chinglish team in China.

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