Stranger Than Fiction

By Hwang, David Henry | Newsweek, April 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Stranger Than Fiction


Hwang, David Henry, Newsweek


Byline: David Henry Hwang

A British businessman's death mirrors a Broadway hit.

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 a 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.

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