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Interview with Asian-American Playwright, Librettist, and Screenwriter David Henry Hwang

Aired March 29, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): It's called, "Chinglish" - a play about a naive American in China, wading through the miscommunication and misunderstandings between the cultures. A scenario that would later be mirrored in real life.

But for the playwright, David Henry Hwang, the manipulation of language is not just designed to tickle audiences' brains.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You rolled a big crap.


RAJPAL (voiceover): Rather, it's become the entry point for a serious study of the Chinese-American cultural divide. And it's not the first time he's done it. All of his plays, from his Tony Award - nominated, "Golden Child", to the Pulitzer Prize - nominated, "Dance and the Railroad", explore the role of Asian-Americans in the modern world.

But it would be his 1988 play, turned film, "M. Butterfly", that would be his introduction to fame. His first Tony Award - winning piece, it would become a film directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jeremy Irons.

JEREMY IRONS, ACTOR: My name is Rene Gallimard. Also known as Madame Butterfly.

RAJPAL (voiceover): This week, we're on stage with David Henry Hwang in Hong Kong. To find out what it is about his ancestral roots that fascinates him so much. And why, maybe, his next project about Bruce Lee shouldn't be a musical.

DAVID HENRY HWANG, PLAYWRIGHT, LIBRETTIST, SCREENWRITER: Whenever we try to make Bruce Lee sing, it felt very, kind of South Park, in not a good way.


RAJPAL: David Henry Hwang, thank you very much for joining us here, on "Talk Asia". We're on the set where your play, "Chinglish" is being performed here, in Hong Kong. I understand it was inspired by your many visits to China. What was it about those particular visits that struck a chord in you?

HWANG: Well, I started traveling to China pretty regularly in '05. And, because China has become very interested in Broadway-style shows. And I happen to be the only even nominally Chinese person who's written a Broadway show. So various people wanted to have meetings about, you know, all these potentially big projects. None of which has ever resulted in anything except it gave me the opportunity to kind of start learning about China. And witness some of the amazing changes happening there.

And so, on one trip, I was taken to a brand new cultural center. And it was still under construction. It was gorgeous with the Italian marble and the Brazilian wood, except for these really badly translated Chinglishy signs. Like a handicapped restroom said, "Deformed Man's Toilet". And I began thinking about using these signs as a jumping off point to write a play about doing business in China today. But one that would deal with the issue of language. Essentially, I wanted to write a bilingual play.

RAJPAL: There are parts of the play where this American businessman goes to China, has an extramarital affair with the wife of a Communist Party official. Now, when we look at the news the last year or so, that's what actually happened. Were you surprised by that?

HWANG: Well, you know, we had closed on Broadway for about a month when, you know, the Bo Xilai case - who was the former party chief in Chongqing - broke and his wife was accused and eventually convicted of murdering the businessman Neil Heywood. You know, when that broke, I started to get emails from reporters and friends over here who said, "Oh, this is just like "Chinglish", except as a murder mystery". Or "Chinglish" a la Agatha Christie.

And yes, I mean, I obviously was surprised that there were sort of coincidences between my play and this actual case. On the other hand, I feel like, you know, the play really just tries to explore certain patterns that I perceive exist when it comes to China today. For instance, the idea that if an official gets accused of corruption, it's not necessarily about the corruption, there's some other agenda. There's some power struggle going on and the corruption becomes the excuse for taking the person down.

RAJPAL: So, in a sense, when all of that happened, did you feel almost as if - vindicated within your art?

HWANG: Well, I guess I felt like - because there were some people who said to me, "Oh, well, you know, a Chinese male official might have an affair with a foreigner, but, you know, a Chinese - a woman would never have an affair with a foreigner". Which always felt to me like wishful thinking.

And so, yes, it's very sad for those individuals who were involved in the actual case, but good for the play that it does seem to reflect reality.

RAJPAL: How important is it for you to have any of your plays shown in China?

HWANG: Well, I'm very curious about what the reaction will be in China. And, I guess, as a Chinese American and somebody who has been become increasingly, kind of, interested in the U.S. - China relationship, I'd like to see how a Chinese audience reacts to it. I mean, in some way, that was the same feeling I had coming here, to Hong Kong. Like, how would the Hong Kong audience react?

What I was hoping that they would kind of embrace it as their own and be able to identify with the situations in the play and that it would end up being even, you know, funnier and a better comedy because of that degree of identification. But I wasn't sure. And so, it's been very reassuring to see that that has actually come to happen here, in Hong Kong.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She said, you make possible the entire [UNCLEAR].

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no. I didn't.



RAJPAL: Quite a few of your plays have dealt with the idea of the misconception, the misperceptions that the West may have of the East - of China. How has that changed, do you think, over the years?

HWANG: Well, you know, the play that I'm probably still best known for is "M. Butterfly" which was based on the true story of a French diplomat who had an affair with a Chinese actress who turned out to be, A, a spy, and B, a man in drag. And the diplomat claimed that he never knew the true gender of his lover.

Now that's another play that can't be performed in China. But, you know, back then, 25 years ago, that was sort of an East-West romance that I wrote in which it was clear that the Western character, the French diplomat, had all of the sort of power and the wealth and was coming in a position of strength.

So now, we go 25 years later, to "Chinglish" in which there's also an East-West Romance, but in this case, it's the Chinese woman who has all the agency. And the American businessman, who is trying to come in and get a contract, is the one who is in the sort of submissive position, as it were. And it seems to me that that represents - is a representation of the power shift that's taken place of the past 25, 30 years.

RAJPAL: Is there a sense that the Americans, though, themselves, would feel, perhaps a sense of fear or insecurity when it comes to China?

HWANG: It's a strange combination. I think there's a certain amount of admiration for China in America combined with insecurity, fear, and hostility. So, I feel particularly like, even in the late 90s, we went through this period when America was gearing up for China to be the next big enemy. And you had a series of repercussions that took place to Chinese-Americans.

And then, I feel like 9-11 happened and America went, "Oh, wait, no, we've got to, you know, deal with the Middle East". But now that those conflicts are maybe beginning to wind down, there's more attention again on China. And that kind of insecurity and fear and hostility from some corners about the rise of China.


RAJPAL: You were described as the most famous Asian-American playwright in the history of American theater. What do you think of that description?




IRONS: There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Slender women in cheongsams and kimonos.


RAJPAL: What was it, do you think, about "M. Butterfly" that really connected with the American public? You won a Tony Award for it, numerous other awards as well.

HWANG: I mean, I think that "M. Butterfly" touched a lot of hot button issues at the moment when the culture was beginning to change. I mean, I think it hit the zeitgeist in a good way. So, yes, it was about a kind of East-West power struggle and also the power struggle between men and women and also this sort of, you know, what does it mean to be gay? What does it mean to be straight? There are a lot of those dichotomies that the play touched on. At a moment when the culture was sort of asking a lot of those questions, too. And so, I think it just hit the culture in a useful way.

RAJPAL: When that came to be, "M. Butterfly", you were described as the most famous Asian-American playwright in the history of American theater. What do you think of that description? "Asian-American playwright in American theater".

HWANG: Right, well, I mean, I guess it's, you know, literally true. But I mean, I've sort of struggled with this kind of Asian-American label over the course of my career. And I don't feel like it's really - the label has really limited me from doing what I want to do. Including some projects that, you know, have had nothing to do with East-West issues or Asia. And then the third thing I start to feel is, you know, everybody gets labeled to one extent or another. And in a way, it allows people just to have a handle on, "Well, he's that Asian-American playwright".

RAJPAL: Tell me about "FOB". Or "F.O.B." as some people call it.

HWANG: Well, "FOB" was my first play to be produced in New York. And I wrote it to be done in my dorm in college when I was a senior. Which I did. I staged my own production of it with, you know, kids in the dorm being the actors. And then, about 14 months later, due to a variety of fortuitous circumstances, it opened Off Broadway in New York at the Public Theater.

And it was kind of about the conflicts between FOBs or "fresh off the boat" Chinese-Americans and people like me who would be called ABCs or "American born Chinese".

RAJPAL: Tell me about growing up in Los Angeles. What was that like for you?

HWANG: I think, since I grew up largely in the 1960s, during a time when everybody was still kind of much more assimilationist, and certainly my parents were. So we weren't particularly - they weren't particularly interested in raising us as Chinese. They were interested in raising us as, you know, quote, unquote "typical Americans", whatever that meant.

So I didn't learn Chinese. I didn't know when Chinese New Year was. And really not until I got to college and I started writing plays and I found that these issues started appearing on the page for me - things like immigration and clash of cultures and assimilation. And I learned that some part of me was therefore incredibly interested in these issues, but my conscious mind hadn't figured that out.

RAJPAL: It was quite unusual, isn't it? For parents - immigrant parents - to not really hold on tightly to their culture and their traditions? Because I know a lot of Asian families, when they move to another country, they really hold on to their traditions really, really tightly.

HWANG: Yes, in my case, my father in particular was very interested in - he wasn't, you know, -- didn't like China that much until, you know, the end of his life when he decided he liked it again. But while we were kids, he'd left China and he was interested in America. And he loved America and he wanted to be an American and he wanted to have American kids.

RAJPAL: Tell me about the relationship you had with your dad.

HWANG: It's complicated. My father, you know, passed away in '05 and he was originally from Shanghai and he was, you know, very brash and outspoken and in some ways he was - people always said, "Oh, he's not a traditional Chinese". And one of the things that was unusual about him in a positive sense, was that he was ambivalent at best about my becoming a playwright when I started writing in college. But I wrote my first play, FOB, and my dad wanted to take a look - and he'd never seen a play before - so he saw some swear words. And he was like, "Oh, I send you to this fancy school and you write this junk?"

But then, he told my mom, when I staged it in the dorm, "OK, we're going to go and see it. And if it's good, we'll encourage him. And if it's bad, we'll tell him to stop". And, at the end of the performance, he was in tears. He was, like, very moved by it. And, after that, he was very encouraging. Which, I think, is pretty impressive for an immigrant Chinese father to accept the notion that his oldest child and only son is going to become a playwright.

RAJPAL: What does he think of your success?

HWANG: He was very proud of my success. And he would kind of carry my, you know, newspaper clippings around and show people. And so, you know, there were some times that I felt he was trying to appropriate and kind of own me. But by and large, you know, that is a - all things being equal, that's a better problem to have than your parent deciding that they're just hostile to your career.

RAJPAL: Do you ever feel or - how much of the scripts that you've written were, perhaps, conversations that you wished you could have had with your parents?

HWANG: Certainly, I mean, my father appears as a character in many of my plays in different guises, but even as himself in my play, "Yellow Face" in 2007 - where the lead character is a playwright named D. H. H. who wrote "M. Butterfly". And his father is a Shanghainese Banker named H. Y. H. So I think that - I don't know if they're conversations, so much, that I wanted to have with my parents as much as ways for me to kind of explore and try to understand my relationship, particularly with my father.


HWANG: Well, whenever we tried to make Bruce Lee sing, it felt very, kind of, South Park in not a good way.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm an honest man, right?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And good, honest men tell their wives the truth.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good, honest man respecting the wife.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I respect my wife.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By lying to her?




RAJPAL: With "Chinglish" being here and also having it shown in the U.S. - the Signature Theater having shown a series of your plays. Do you feel, when that happened - when the theater came to you and said, "We're going to devote a series to you". Was that a moment where you felt, "I've made it"?

HWANG: I don't know that, as a playwright, or, at least, me - I don't know that I'm ever comfortable enough going, "OK, like, I've finally arrived".


HWANG: I think it continues to be a process and I continue to want to try to do better. But a lot of my idols of American playwrights have had seasons at the Signature Theater, whether it's, you know, Edward Albee or August Wilson or, you know, Kushner or Arthur Miller. So, to be included and invited to be part of that group was very heady. And a wonderful kind of dream.

On the other hand, I was feeling like, "Oh, what 's it going to be like to kind of revive some of my old plays and how am I going to feel about them?" So there's a part of this that's like, you know, going back into your college yearbook and looking at your old pictures. And I was a little nervous about that. But we've revived two of my old plays now. "Golden Child" from the late '90s and "Dance and the Railroad", which was a play from 1981, when I was 23.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got to practice more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you lost a bunch of money?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, you have gold hidden in all your shirt linings, eh?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here, in America, losing is no problem. You know, end of the year bonus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right, after I get that I'll laugh at what I lost.


RAJPAL: What makes a good play? A good script?

HWANG: I think the most important thing is that the author has to be exploring something important to him or herself. So it's really an act of self-discovery. And I think that has to happen in any work of art. And then, whether other people react to it - whether it becomes popular, whether critics like it, whether audiences like it - in a sense, that's the icing on the cake. It's not the cake itself. The cake is the self- exploration.

RAJPAL: What about writing for film? And what about writing for television?

HWANG: Well, I've written for film for , you know, a couple decades and, like most screenwriters, I've written more movies that haven't gotten made than moves that have. But, you know, a few of my films have gotten made. And I feel that the difference is that film is essentially is a director's medium. So when I go into that kind of situation, I know that I'm going to advocate for my position, but in the final analysis, I'm kind of serving the director and it's going to be his or her vision that prevails.

RAJPAL: When you look at American cinema today, do you feel it is still a very Caucasian-led industry?

HWANG: Yes. I mean, I feel like one of the things that American cinema or television or theater has not been able to do successfully yet is really diversify to the extent that it represents the population that's actually watching. And, you know, what's kind of interesting to me is that, like, on television, even the reality programming tends to be more diverse than scripted programming.

Which says to me that the audience is ready for it, but the people who are creating the work are sometimes, I think, nervous about writing minority characters. They're afraid that they might be inadvertently offensive. They don't really know how to create these characters. And so, scripted television - and film - ends up being much less diverse than reality - reality programming - which is a strange irony.

RAJPAL: What do you think it will take for major roles - leading roles - to be written for Asians? Written for those who are not necessarily part of the majority of white Americans?

HWANG: Well, I think that Hollywood recognizes that this needs to happen. But there's not really a clear sense of how they're going to do it. And, again, everybody's very risk-averse in Hollywood. So there's the fear that you're going to decide, "OK, well let's do a program with an Asian lead" and then it doesn't do well. And it's just safer to make the choices that have already been made before.

What's interesting to me, right now, is that new media is much more open to diverse faces. And so, for instance, on YouTube, a lot of the biggest stars on YouTube are Asian-Americans.

RAJPAL: See, I find it incredibly shocking that, in this day and age, we're at 2013 and we're still having conversations like this.

HWANG: Yes, progress has been slow. I mean, again, if you look at - from when I started in the business, 30 years ago - there has been a fair amount of progress. But if you, you know, look at it in sort of the five or 10-year time frame, it hasn't changed as much and as quickly as it should or one would expect it to, just given the kind of economic efficiencies of what it would mean - the benefits of becoming more diverse.

RAJPAL: What are you working on right now?

HWANG: The next new show that I'm going to do is about Bruce Lee. It's a play called "Kung Fu". And we're going to premier it at Signature Theater in New York about a year from now, in early 2014. At first, I envisioned it as a musical. So, for a long time, during the -

RAJPAL: Bruce Lee, the musical?

HWANG: -- I tried to work on a Bruce Lee musical. And it didn't - you know, I couldn't get it right and it didn't - whenever we tried to make Bruce Lee sing, it felt very kind of South Park in not a good way.

But then a few years ago, I started thinking of it as a play with movement, because it's about martial arts and music, because there would be underscoring. But no songs. So, sometimes I'd think, "Oh, it's a dancical".

RAJPAL: Next thing you know, you'll see it on "Glee".

HWANG: Right. Well, once I had that idea, then I found I was able to write a first draft that I was happy with.

RAJPAL: Mr. Hwang, it's such a pleasure.

HWANG: Thanks for having me.

RAJPAL: Thank you.

HWANG: Really fun.