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DHH

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.

THE LOST EMPIRE

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0yB-S7Lxjg&feature=related

23 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your story of shame, David. Looking forward to hearing more and, yes, I will hound you repeatedly until you write them.

  2. David. THAT WAS AWESOME! So appreciate how raw and honest you were about your experience. I’m totally OFFENDED in the best possible of ways.

  3. Aw, thanks, guys. Yes, Philip, for the privilege of becoming an Offender, I will humiliate myself repeatedly.

  4. JTTW was yours?!!!! What a deliciously horrible offense! I wonder if Thomas felt like he wasn’t supposed to be there? Can’t wait for the next confession. This is hilarious!

  5. Oops, The Lost Empire, but you know what I meant.

  6. What ever happened to the Bruce Lee musical slated for the 2010/2011 season? Last I read about it, in 2008, it was to be called “Bruce Lee: Journey to the West”.
    Did this idea die a quick death?

  7. Derek: Still working on “Bruce Lee.” It’s still happening, just very slowly.

  8. by the way, this is a different david, not the playwright.

    the trailer was so ridiculous i kept thinking it must be a satire.

    to david, i’m sorry, man. i read an interview a few years ago where you reflected shamefully on your part in this show. it must’ve really scarred you professionally, but i’ve always thought that having self-reflective people in the industry who are sometimes ashamed of the choices they unwittingly or sometimes are forced to make to pay the mortgage, then that’s a heckuva lot better than having asian american media workers who don’t care and will profiteer at the community’s expense. you’ve given yourself enough lashes; no reason to hold onto the shame.

  9. Wow, David (not me), thank you for your generosity. Are you Asian? You’re going to make a great Father (if you choose to and aren’t one already)!

  10. david: i’m both, and i’m an assistant professor of media studies. i love the site because i can digitally escape from the ivory tower and listen to and join in on the conversations by the media workers/bloggers here. take care, man.

  11. Good thing you aren’t Japanese or you’d be missing some sections of your fingers or lower intestines at this point. Thanks for sharing/reconfirming my APA conspiracy theories.

  12. hey David and David,
    This is David. I’m not the playwright or professor but am an assistant to this guy named David, who had an issue with David’s statement about David. So I told David to post a comment to David in order for David to clear up some of the points that he made about David.
    Lol,
    David

  13. @David. LOL.

    I love how the trailer doesn’t even mention you, which is even more shameful.

    Anyways, I love your liberttos (I missed the Oscars in 2004 to watch a performance of Ainadamar) and can’t wait to see the Bruce Lee musical!

  14. Russell Wong looks like the Asian Wolfman or Asian Eddie Munster

  15. This is why I love this site. Thanks David (the playwright):)

  16. Thanks so much for sharing this story. I can understand how the need to pay the mortgage/eat sometimes leads to having to conform with the people who pay the check.

  17. Classic. The swarm of the Davids cracks me up.

  18. Ironically, this movie still could have been called “Dharma and Greg”!

  19. Amazing post David! Can’t wait for your next installment. Hope to meet all our guest offenders one day.

  20. David, thats not so shameful, you gotta earn a living somehow. plus russell wong looks quite cool in it. or am i tired?

  21. This is hilarious! Poor Russel Wong! The Davids were extra funny on the comments. I actually don’t escape to this blog — I teach it to my students! ha!

  22. Thank you for sharing, David. You were put in a really bad position…appreciate your honesty and transparency. I hope that if one of my screenplays ever goes into production, the people I am working with abide by the principles I stand on. I know it’s a jungle out there.