ASR Theater ~~ “Chinglish” – A Comic Masterpiece With Depth

By George Maguire

While on a visit to China, Chinese-American dramatist David Henry Hwang saw a sign in a men’s room: “Deformed Man’s Toilet”. Wildly mistranslated from “Handicapped Restroom,” this misnomer was the inspiration for the multi-award winning writer (Gold Child, M Butterfly, FOB, the Disney cartoon Tarzan etc,) to dig deeper into the cultural phenomenon of mistranslation, both grammatically and culturally, between American and Chinese people. The phenomenon is examined with great hilarity in Chinglish at San Francisco Playhouse.

We have come a long way from the Hollywood casting of white actors as Asian stereotypes: Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney in Tea House of the August Moon, John Wayne as Genghis Kahn, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, and many others.

…Stunningly directed by Jeffrey Lo, SF Playhouse’s wonderful production (of Chinglish) is a winner…

What sets Chinglish apart is that it not only lampoons the language divide, with merry misfiring mirth, but also reaches deeply into the geo-political realities of what such misfires can and indeed do create.

The political economic power of the current Chinese economy is a frightening reminder to America of where we now stand in the world and how far the Chinese have come. Hwang’s script has been updated since the play’s 2011 opening. to reflect both the Sino-American political landscape and modern conveniences like cellphones.

American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin) has an encounter with vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish,” performing May 4 – June 10. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Chinglish tells the story of David Cavanaugh (Michael Barret Austin), the owner of a family sign making firm in Cleveland. Newly arrived in China, he’s prepared to make a proposal for signage at a new cultural arts center in the town of Guiyang. He is richly seen by Chinese officials as the genius who was responsible for Enron when the topic is introduced.

Peter Timms (Matthew Bohrer) and minister Cai Guoliang (Alex Hsu) discuss Guānxi and the complications of business in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The Minister of Culture (a very funny and ultimately deeply poignant Alex Hsu) is accompanied by his associate Xi Yan (a stately and multi-faceted Nicole Tung). Ms. Yan has her own agendas playing out as a relationship develops between herself and Cavanaugh.

In one hilarious post-coital scene, Cavanaugh attempts to say “I love you,” but the tonal resonance of Mandarin Chinese translates it first as “my fifth aunt” and then “my frog needs to pee!”

Vice minister Xi Yan (Nicole Tung) makes a confession to Peter Timms (Matthew Bohrer) in SF Playhouse’s “Chinglish.” — Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The ever-changing conversational mishaps presented by the worst possible, most inept Chinese translations are projected onto set designer Andrea Bechert’s imaginative sliding screens, and beautifully realized under Wen-Ling Liao’s luminous lights, and projection designer Spense Matubang’s glowing translations.

Stunningly directed by Jeffrey Lo, SF Playhouse’s wonderful production is a winner. One major translation not misinterpreted is “All persons get screwed!” Therein lies the premise of this wonderful and prescient Chinglish.


ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor and director. and a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. He is a Professor Emeritus of Solano College. Contact:


Written byDavid Henry Hwang
Directed byJeffrey Lo
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru June 10th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

Other Voices….

"...achieves the sort of momentum that sends audiences into the ether."The New York Times
"...great frisky fun, with savory chemistry between its leads and a refreshingly grown-up undercoating of well-earned melancholy."Vulture.Com
"No shortage of laughs."Hollywood Reporter