In my play Chinglish, which had a well-reviewed run on Broadway earlier this season, a Midwestern American businessman travels to the inland Chinese city of Guiyang in hopes of landing a contract for his firm, only to become enmeshed in multiple misunderstandings, from language to love. The play, a comedy, seemed to strike audiences as one small step toward greater cultural understanding.
Chinese nationals with whom I spoke after the show, however, sometimes raised one quibble about my script, which includes an extramarital affair between the American businessman and the wife of a Communist Party official. This, they said, might make for good drama, but couldn’t actually happen in China. Such a woman would never enter into a close relationship with a foreign man.
Against that backdrop, the dramatic fall of former Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai has been particularly fascinating. The developing scandal is set in the inland Chinese city of Chongqing, where Bo rose to become a party leader, with a cast of characters that includes his wife, Gu Kailai, who is being investigated in the mysterious death of British businessman Neil Heywood. Bo, meanwhile, has been stripped of his government post. As the story broke, I began receiving email from journalists and China experts who had seen my show. Chinglish à la Agatha Christie!” wrote one. “Chinglish as a murder mystery!” suggested another.
It’s true that the Bo story has taken similarities between art and life to a whole new level. The play features a British consultant who arranges for the son of a Chinese official to be admitted to an English university. Neil Heywood got Bo’s son into England’s Harrow School. In Chinglish, an official is arrested on corruption charges, which serve as a pretext for a behind-the-scenes power struggle. Similarly, the downfall of Bo and his wife is widely regarded as a bid to remove him from office in advance of a major Chinese leadership transition.
More than two decades ago, I wrote another play, M. Butterfly, inspired by the true story of a French diplomat’s 20-year affair with a Chinese citizen, who turned out to be (A) a spy and (B) a man in drag. In those days, Western nations dominated the world. A European man involved with a Chinese woman could still live the fantasy of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which a richer and more powerful Western male dominates a stereotypically submissive and self-sacrificing Asian female.
Today, recession-battered Westerners seeking a foothold in booming China must assimilate to its customs and ways of doing business. I experienced this firsthand starting in 2005, when I began traveling there regularly. As a Chinese-American born in Los Angeles, I was raised with few customs from my parents’ homeland. Yet China had become interested in Broadway musicals, and I happen to be the only even-nominally Chinese person who has ever written a Broadway show, so I found myself there discussing proposals for productions. These ideas ultimately amounted to nothing, but provided me with an amazing opportunity to learn about China today.
Though I took a couple of years of Mandarin in college, I basically speak only English. Like any monolingual American, I needed an interpreter for my Chinese meetings. On one trip, I was taken to a brand-new cultural center, which featured gorgeous Brazilian wood, Italian marble, state-of-the-art Japanese sound systems. The lone flaw was the signage, which had been translated into laughable English, commonly known as “Chinglish.” The handicapped restrooms, for instance, were labeled “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” I began imagining a play about doing business in China that would deal with the issue of language. Roughly one-quarter of the dialogue in Chinglish is in Mandarin, with English translations projected onto a screen for non-Chinese speakers.
Just as the English supertitles allow Western audiences to understand what would otherwise remain mysterious, I wanted the story to illuminate differences between Chinese and American cultural assumptions. Though I’d often heard stories about foreign firms and deals gone wrong, I still had more to learn. An early draft of my play, for instance, included a scene where a British consultant visits a disgraced Chinese official in prison. Our show’s cultural advisers spoke with numerous experts before deciding that such a scenario would be impossible; no such visit would ever be allowed. So I rewrote it.
In today’s China, unlike that of M. Butterfly, a Western man involved with an Asian woman might well end up as the submissive partner. So has any news outlet suggested a sexual relationship between Madame Gu and Neil Heywood? Not in China. Between the lines, however, one can read implications: Madame Gu grew “too close” to a foreign businessman, leading to his murder, she suffered from “bouts of depression,” she apparently asked those in her “inner circle” to “divorce their spouses” and swear allegiance to her and her husband. Still, to my knowledge, no article in China has explicitly suggested a romantic affair.
The story in Hong Kong, however is different. There, on April 12, the Apple Daily published a piece headlined: CUCKOLDED BO ORDERED THE KILLING. GU KAILAI RUMORED TO BE ROMANTICALLY INVOLVED WITH MURDERED BRITISH BUSINESSMAN.
It read: “There are rumors that Heywood was murdered because he knew the secrets about the Bo family fortune and had an affair with Mrs. Bo. There are even rumors that Bo was angered he was cuckolded so he ordered the killing. ... Some reports claim that two days after the death of Neil Heywood, Gu Kailai and Heywood’s widow met at a Chong-qing cafe with military police guarding the entrance and clearing out all other customers. According to these reports, people could hear Gu weeping, and in the end, Heywood’s widow agreed to forgo an autopsy. The official report would declare excessive alcohol as the cause of death, and the body would be cremated.”
That piece came two days after a government announcement that Madame Gu was under investigation for the “intentional homicide” of Heywood, and that Bo had been stripped of his party roles. The Apple Daily version of events may be sensationalized fiction. But it at least made explicit the suspicions of many people.
Still, it’s unlikely we’ll ever learn the true facts of this case. For Chinese officials, obsessed with “face,” the real scandal is that ordinary Chinese, even foreigners, have seen the inner workings of the nation’s ruling elite. Chinglish uses power struggles, plot twists, and translated supertitles to make transparent what is normally hidden to outsiders. In the real China, though truth may be as strange as fiction, it is almost always less transparent.
David Henry Hwang is a Tony-award- winning playwright. He has been nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize.