David Henry Hwang is a playwright who has been producing plays, musicals and operas for three decades. He won the Tony Award for his play M. BUTTERFLY and also writes for movies and television. This is the first of (hopefully) a series of blogs where David will open up about his worst career moves and unleash his Asian Shame.
She may not have been the first to say it, but I always attribute this quote to Ann Harada, the sensational actress who created the role of “Christmas Eve” in AVENUE Q on Broadway: “Jews may have guilt, but we Asians have Shame!” Though I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a long career as a writer, with my share of successes, I feel compelled to reveal the episodes of my professional life that have left me feeling most Ashamed. In fact, I’m going to post them on the internet, to experience Public Shame.
I am SO sorry (kowtow, kowtow, slap-own-face) for having written this 2001 NBC miniseries and inflicting it upon the world. For this crime, I really do deserve to be left stranded on a desert island with Frank Chin.
How did it happen? Try to think back to the late-1990’s. Hallmark Hall of Fame had produced a number of epic TV miniseries based on classic literary (aka public domain) sources: remember MERLIN starring Sam Neill and Helena Bonham Carter? GULLIVER’S TRAVELS with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen? These shows didn’t change the world, but they were good, solid TV entertainment, I thought — tasteful, pedigree productions. So when Hallmark approached me in 1998 with the idea to make a miniseries based on a Chinese literary source, I was at least intrigued. When they told me they wanted to base it on JOURNEY TO THE WEST, however, I started to get a little nervous.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST, one of the four great Chinese classical novels, has inspired everything from Chinese operas to anime to mangas to soft-core porn. Its breakout character, The Monkey King, a warrior and trickster-god, has been beloved by generations of Chinese. The problem with JOURNEY TO THE WEST, from an adaptation standpoint, is its utter lack of narrative drive. It’s one hundred chapters long, ninety-three being completely self-contained adventures. Which means, you could basically reshuffle those ninety-three episodes into any random order, and the overall story would remain the same (literary scholars may disagree, but, at least in terms of a Broadway-style musical or TV miniseries, it’d be the same story).
Still, I took the meeting with the Hallmark Development Executive. There, I learned they would have to cast a white star in the lead. Every now and then, I encounter some situation that makes me think, “Wow, the hard-core APA cultural conspiracy theorists are right!” So, let’s see: JTTW is an allegory for the arrival of Buddhism in China, which means the action of the novel is set around the first century CE in China. And there’s a white guy in it … Hmmm.
I passed on the project, only to be called back to meet the head of Hallmark itself. This guy is a legend: a Hungarian anti-Nazi and anti-Communist underground fighter who reportedly arrived in the U.S. in 1950 with five dollars in his pocket. Determined to make a JTTW miniseries, possibly at the urging of his new Singaporean wife, he told me this would be a breakthrough in presenting Chinese culture to the West — he would hire a Chinese director like Chen Kaige, we’d all be floating down the Yangzi scouting locations. In short, he seduced me. And I took the job.
Needless to say, we didn’t get a Chinese director, I never saw the former Hungarian freedom fighter again, and I’m still waiting for that trip down the Yangzi, just for pleasure since the film ended up being shot in Prague. More importantly, the miniseries, er, did not exactly prove a breakthrough in presenting Chinese culture to the West. Turns out, hey, it wasn’t such a good idea after all to shoehorn a white guy (in this case, Thomas Gibson of DHARMA AND GREG) into a story set in early imperial China! I’ve had a lot of flops in my career, but the ones that don’t feature Asian or Asian American storylines are merely artistic failures, which are minor compared to feeling you’ve let down an entire culture. Now, that’s shameful.
Editor’s note: FYI, just for fun, here’s THE LOST EMPIRE trailer. Sorry, David, couldn’t resist: