Lost in funny translations

The cast of Chinglish include (from far left) Daniel Jenkins, Audrey Luo, Adrian Pang, Oon Shu An and Matt Grey.
The cast of Chinglish include (from far left) Daniel Jenkins, Audrey Luo, Adrian Pang, Oon Shu An and Matt Grey.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN FOR PANGDEMONIUM

Pangdemonium's staging of David Hwang's bilingual comedy Chinglish looks at language and cultural miscommunication

Actor Adrian Pang has been dreaming in Mandarin lately.

"That's a good thing," his co-star Audrey Luo assures him.

But the award-winning actor is not amused.

"I wake up exhausted. My brain is - I get a headache," the English- educated thespian exclaims.

Everyone at the interview says this simply means he is "in the zone".


  • WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3, National Library Building

    WHEN: Oct 9 to 25, 8pm (Tuesday to Saturday and Oct 25), 3pm (Saturday and Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $25 to $70 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Some mature content and coarse language

"Oh my God, it's the twilight zone," he mutters, then puts on a cheeky sing-song accent, "the twi-right zone!"

Pang is preparing for his theatre company's upcoming play, Chinglish, where he will take on the role of fictional culture minister Cai Guo Liang, a bit of a pushover with a penchant for communism.

While the leading actor has had experience performing in Mandarin - including Jack Neo's romantic comedy I Do, I Do (2005) and the popular Chinese-language television serial Portrait Of Home (Tong Xin Yuan; for which he earned two nominations at the Star Awards) - this is the first theatre production that has required he speak the language as though he were from the People's Republic of China.

Chinglish, by the Tony Award- winning Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang, looks at the breakdown in communication that happens when an American businessman goes to China to resurrect his sign-making business. He quickly realises that what is lost in translation is not just language, but also culture.

Theatre company Pangdemonium will stage the bilingual comedy from Oct 9 to 25 at the Drama Centre Theatre, with a starry line-up that includes veteran TV host Guo Liang in his debut with the company as well as seasoned actors Daniel Jenkins and Matt Grey.

The term "chinglish" also refers to the bizarre Chinese-to-English translations that have tickled many a visitor to China.

Hwang recounted one of his visits in an interview with The New York Times, where the English signs for a handicapped restroom were, unfortunately, translated as "Deformed Man's Toilet".

Chinglish not only pokes fun at ignorances of language, but also looks at the gulf between cultures as they attempt to navigate the tricky nuances of transactional relationships - be they "guanxi" (Mandarin for personal connections) or romantic love.

Director Tracie Pang says: "What David Henry Hwang was also exploring was both countries' (the United States and China) strange fascination with each other.

"The Western and the Chinese way of doing business is so different and yet there is a reliance on each other for this business future to continue and to grow."

She adds: "Although as an Asian country, we feel that much closer to China, Singapore is so Westernised in everything that it does that I feel the issues the play brings up are still very pertinent to the Singapore business community."

Earlier this year, she directed a critically acclaimed production of Tribes, which relied heavily on sign language.

She quips that she found that an "easier" experience than this: "This is all tones and I can't tell the difference between one tone and the next."

But this language barrier has also made her more observant of other things.

"As a director, it's making me attentive to other things. I've become very attentive to body language, to the tonal quality in the way they say things, so that I can pick up on things and say - 'that doesn't feel like the right intention' even though I don't necessarily understand the line that they're saying."

Actress Luo, who has also taken on the role of Chinese-language coach for Chinglish, was particularly impressed with her British co-star Grey's "very accurate" command of hanyu pinyin. "He can sight-read very well. He can even do the 'ng' and the 'sh' and 'si' sounds very well."

Grey, who had to learn Mandarin for this play, had a panic attack when rehearsing his lines. He plays Peter Timms, a British expatriate living in China who speaks passable Mandarin.

He was so worried about the text that he started memorising his lines last October, a year before the production.

He would wake up at 6am every day and rehearse for an hour, but the lines just did not seem to stick - he would do something else for half an hour and realise he had forgotten everything.

But he kept at it and the lines began to sink in. Nearly a year later, he has gained some confidence. "I think I know the Chinese lines better than the English ones."

Grey, a long-time Singapore resident whose wife is from Beijing, says she has been "a wonderful coach over the past 12 months", constantly listening to his lines and making sure he has his pronunciation just right.

He says he related to the play immediately. "It's one of those plays that works on different levels because it's very funny and entertaining on one level but, on the other hand, it really has a wider implication for how different cultures communicate with one another across the globe."

  • Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline 'Lost in funny translations'. Print Edition | Subscribe