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October 19, 2015

ChinglishPic1(Picture courtesy of Pangdemonium!)

Event: “Chinglish” presented by Pangdemonium
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 9th – 25th Oct 2015

A Closer Look, Will Funny

Although “Chinglish” is the final production in Pangdemonium’s “Transformation Trilogy” 2015 season, it certainly represents a first for the company in a number of respects.

It’s the first bilingual play they’ve ever put up, it features TV personality Guo Liang in his theatrical debut, and it’s probably also the first time you’ll see Matt Grey speaking Mandarin on stage (and a whole lot of it at that!).

“Chinglish” is a 2011 play written by David Henry Hwang, who famously wrote the Tony Award-winning play “M. Butterfly”, and tells of the adventures of an American sign-making businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Daniel Jenkins) as he attempts to forge deals in the Far East, knowing next to nothing of the Chinese language, and much less so of the mystical concept of “guanxi”.

Along the way he teams up with a “consultant” (Matt Grey) – an Englishman who has been living in China for many years and has an admirable grasp of the Chinese language – to advise him accordingly and help him pull the necessary strings in order to secure a favourable business appointment with the Minister of Culture (Adrian Pang).

There is also the struggling translator aide Audrey Luo, who has a penchant for making hilarious literal translations from Chinese to English and vice versa, thus providing the bulk of the show’s laughs, as well as the sultry Vice Minister (Oon Shu An), a key ally of Daniel who eventually finds herself tangled in a prickly web of lust with him.

The charm of the show lies in the premise of having a Westerner thrown right in the thick of a fairly small, insignificant province in China, and seeing him fumble his way around the completely unfamiliar language and culture of the land, as well as the many “lost in translation” jokes that the playwright cleverly constructs when the characters attempt to translate from one language to the other.

Incidentally, it is especially in a country like Singapore, where most people are fairly familiar with both English and Chinese, that this play works particularly well, as the audience is able to grasp the subtlety in the phrases of both languages and laugh at the occasional absurdity of literal translations.

Pangdemonium has assembled yet another particularly stellar cast for this production, with Daniel Jenkins and Oon Shu An ably carrying the bulk of the load, while Matt Grey blows everyone’s socks off with the considerable fluency of his Mandarin, what with the many lines he was tasked with.

Audrey Luo was perhaps underused playing the various translator aides which mainly served as comic relief, but boy did she milk the laughs whenever she came on.

Adrian Pang does the best with the rather thinly fleshed-out role he was given, while one wonders why it was necessary to cast Guo Liang in this production.

Not that Guo Liang didn’t do a good job – he played Judge Xu Geming as well as anyone could have asked for – but it just puzzles me why a TV personality was specially chosen to play this particular role in the play.

The set design by Eucien Chia – probably one of the more beautiful ones I’ve seen in awhile – was both a revolving platform as well as a tastefully-designed backdrop which suggests the shape of a Chinese pagoda.

Of the many backdrops I’ve seen, this one is easily one of the most memorable.

“Chinglish” attempts to bring out the complexities of doing business in China, with the potential pitfalls that come with it, and while it it succeeds in creating moments of entertaining comedy, it seldom goes beneath the surface of what seems to resemble a light-hearted farce.

The pace of the play does tend to sag at times, especially in the second act, and at times you wonder where all this is heading.

Nonetheless, despite my quibbles with the plodding script, “Chinglish” remains a fairly entertaining romp through the sometimes wild and zany world that is business in China.

It guarantees a laugh, and it makes you smile, but like a decently-translated phrase, it sometimes fails to go beyond the superficial and articulate its deeper meaning and subtlety.

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