David Henry Hwang

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Few people could turn their identity issues into an award-laden career quite like David Henry Hwang. The great Chinese American playwright talks to Edmund Lee ahead of a Hong Kong production of his play, Yellow Face.


Having built a vastly acclaimed oeuvre that faces up to the confounding absurdities in everything from gender stereotypes and ethnic prejudices to linguistic confusion and the American notion of professional ethics, David Henry Hwang is nonetheless bemused by the recent turns of events surrounding him.

“You know, it’s interesting,” the playwright and librettist says in a convoluted manner that’s slightly uncharacteristic of his usual eloquent chatter. “I find myself this year, in the past 12 months… I’ve been getting a lot of, kind of, lifetime achievement honours.” That’s true – and the plaudits also include an upcoming season at New York’s Signature Theatre which is entirely devoted to his plays. “I feel like I somehow skipped the mid-career awards,” he chuckles. “I think I’m a little young but – hey! – it’s really nice to be recognised. I guess I started doing this young,” says the 54-year-old whose first play, the Obie Award-winning FOB, premiered in 1980. “You know, people talk about my history and what my work means to them. It’s kind of nice!”

This week’s revival of his mockumentary play Yellow Face, which is co-presented here by the Hong Kong Players and Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, may be a mere footnote to Hwang’s cultural legacy – although, if you listen to him closely enough, it does seem like a small relief amid the playwright’s ongoing effort to stage his plays in China. “Certainly, M. Butterfly can’t be done in China,” he says of the iconic work that was a Broadway hit and won a Tony Award for Best Play before being turned into a 1993 movie by David Cronenberg. “They did try to do a production of it two years ago in Shanghai, in English, in a 100-seat theatre for five performances – but they got shut down after two.”

Hwang is holding out hope that his hit Broadway comedy on miscommunication – the mainland China-set Chinglish (2011), which was inspired by the playwright’s observations during his regular visits to the country – will sooner or later make it to the Chinese stage. “But who knows?” he adds. One day after our interview, the political scandal surrounding former Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai sweeps the world, uncannily echoing the play’s portrayal of an extramarital affair between an American businessman and a Communist Party official’s wife. With apologies to Hwang, the earliest chance for the Chinese population to catch Chinglish could now be the pirated DVDs of its upcoming film adaptation, which may start shooting as soon as its director, Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow), releases his The Fast and the Furious 6 in mid-2013.

In any case, it’ll be interesting to finally witness, whenever that may be, the audience’s reception at the other end of the irony. “Well, yeah,” says Hwang, yet to be noticed for Chinglish’s new-found resonance in China. “Even it’ll be interesting to see how Yellow Face gets received in Hong Kong. I think it’s an interesting moment to bring a play that’s to some extent about Chinese American identity to Hong Kong, because it’s my understanding that there’s a lot of discussion right now about the extent [to which] Hong Kong [people] should be considered Chinese. It’s parallel to the question we deal with as Chinese Americans.”

Hwang is referring to both his own ethnic experience and the racial and cultural stereotypes that have been palpably exposed in his best known plays. Growing up under an immigrant father – Los Angeles banker Henry Y Hwang – who fully embraced the American Dream, the playwright recalls that he wasn’t exactly aware of questions about identities during his formative years. “I think I had a lot of questions about my identity but I didn’t know how to ask these questions as a child. I learned to ask them through writing these plays and becoming a playwright,” he explains.

So which came first: becoming a playwright or sorting out his own identity issues? “Um, becoming a playwright came first. I didn’t know that I was going to write about some of these issues. But the summer before my senior year in college, I took a playwriting workshop with Sam Shepard, the great American Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Sam and others taught us students to write more from our unconscious or subconscious. And, when I did that, I began to see these issues appearing in my work: things like immigration, assimilation and clash of cultures – so, clearly, some part of me was very interested in these issues but my conscious mind didn’t know that until I discovered it through the writing.”

With Yellow Face, a semi-autobiographical portrait that mixes fact and fiction to exorcise various demons in its writer’s life, Hwang has perhaps found the perfect mechanism in turning his emotional turmoil into a form of expression that’s at once poignant and hilarious. According to him, the idea of making his protagonist a version of himself, conveniently called DHH in the play, is a consequence of being habitually cast as himself in movies, including Greg Pak’s short Asian Pride Porn (2000). “I’d often written – as many authors do – autobiographical characters [before Yellow Face],” says Hwang, “but this is the first time I’ve done a play where I put myself into it and name the character after myself.”

In its fascinating blend of real-life events with backstage drama, Yellow Face is overtly comprised of (versions of) three incidents in Hwang’s life: the ‘intense and upsetting’ backlash to a protest led by him against the casting of a Caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce, as the Vietnamese lead in the American production of Miss Saigon in 1990; the failure of his play, Face Value (1993), which was based on the Miss Saigon controversy and closed during its Broadway previews; and the ‘yellow peril’ witchhunts in the political sphere in late 1990s, during which Hwang’s banker father was sucked into the New York Times’s persistent investigations into Clinton campaign-finance improprieties.

Yellow Face premiered at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum and New York’s Public Theatre, before winning the 2008 Obie Award and marking the second time that Hwang was made a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “You know, it’d be nice to win,” he quips. To many viewers, however, the most striking aspect of the play isn’t simply the way it taunts political correctness – nor even the fact that most of it has actually happened – but rather the self-depreciating humour that Hwang has sprinkled throughout a story so close to himself. In the ‘comedy about mistaken racial identity’, the character DHH, after protesting against the Miss Saigon casting, will mistakenly cast a Caucasian actor into an Asian role in his own play, before going on to cover it up by ridiculously claiming the actor is ‘Siberian Jew’.

“One of the things it tries to do is to poke fun at me for being an ethnic role model,” says Hwang when asked about his memory of the earlier productions. “It has been long enough. We used to take ourselves very seriously in terms of our politics. At this point, I think there’s a recognition that multiculturalism, [which] was once a new idea, is now certainly not. We can look back and go ‘whoa, it was a good idea to introduce to America – and there were some silly things about it’. And we can laugh at the silly things about it while at the same time recognising that it was an important social movement.”

So does he expect to see a colour-blind or post-racial world at any point in the future? Hwang lets out a big sigh. “I don’t…” He pauses. “No, I don’t really…” Another pause. “Certainly not within my life time – it’s not going to happen. Look, I do think that people, despite the fact that there’s always prejudice, are more open now to the people who look different or believe different things [from them]. Just as a broad generalisation. People are probably more tolerant in the median now than, say, 150 years ago, when you’d never seen someone on the television from another country. But I still feel like there’s a human tendency to separate and create tribes. I don’t have a lot of hope that we will eliminate these prejudices among human beings.”

In other words – and on a more positive note – David Henry Hwang’s works will probably remain relevant for many generations to come. “Yeah,” he laughs. “Yes, I guess that’s the good part.”

Yellow Face is performed at Sheung Wan Civic Centre’s HKRep Black Box Theatre Apr 25-28. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.

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