From the author of the Broadway play M. Butterfly, Golden Child travels across time and place from contemporary America to mainland China in 1918 and depicts the challenges of a culture in transition to the influences of western civilization.
POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This play includes a scene describing a suicide being carried out.
Playwright David Henry Hwang grew up hearing amazing, almost mythical stories of his great grandfather's life, a life crafted by the choice to swap Confucianism for Christianity, boldly breaking with Chinese tradition when he decided to let his daughter grow up with unbound feet. Such decisions would impact future generations and came to inspire Hwang to write the play Golden Child.
The timeline of the story alternates between a small village in Southeast China during the Winter 1918 - Spring 1919 and Manhattan in the late 1990s. The opening scene combines the two when Andrew Kwong in Manhattan, awakens with a start one night, puts on a robe and begins to take on the personality of his grandfather, Tieng-Bin. Andrew converses with Ahn, his grandmother. She appears to him as a young girl of ten but her voice is that of an elderly woman. This conversation between them eases the audience into the transition to early 20th century China, where we are soon fully immersed.
In the village of Amoy, we meet the three wives of Tieng-Bin, a prosperous land owner: first wife Siu-Yong, second wife Luan, and third wife Eling. Tieng-Bin has recently returned home after a three year absence. He'd been living in the Phillipines for business and now that he is back, man and wives settle into a nice dinner where everyone gets reacquainted. The conversation starts to shift into Tieng-Bin telling of his observations in the Phillipines, mainly the growing influence of Christianity and western culture throughout the area and how that got him thinking about his own upbringing. At first he claims that he merely finds western ideas interesting, the inventions amusing --- some of these inventions he presents to his wives as gifts. First wife Siu-Yong's response to her gift, a cuckoo clock, was the best: "I'm sure it will do wonders for my insomnia."
His traditional wives are suspicious, especially 2nd wife Luan, who fears that their polygamous lifestyle will soon be threatened by Tieng-Bin's experiences. Though the play does incorporate serious cultural themes, the bickering and shade-throwing between the wives ends up offering comic relief. Though Siu-Yong is one of the most entertaining of the bunch at the start of the play, later on I was disturbed by the manipulative nature of some of her conversations with her daughter, Ahn (Andrew's grandmother from the opening scene).
In the later portions of this story, Tieng-Bin introduces his wives to Reverend Baines, a minister from England Tieng-Bin became acquainted with during his travels. The wives come to know Baines as "white devil". At first I was confused as to why Baines' lines were presented in broken English, as this play is printed in English (my reasoning being "wouldn't the characters understand each other just fine?"). There aren't really too many clues within the text regarding language barrier. Then it dawned on me that what was likely going on was that Baines was probably actually speaking in poor Chinese, so, when translated, his words would come out as oddly constructed. But I do love Baines line that says "You must not fear to speak the truth you know in your soul."
While the story comes off somewhat light-hearted in the early scenes (but mildly snarky, hinting at underlying feelings of discontent to surface later), closer to the end there is a noticeable shift toward the more serious, as discussions between the characters growing increasingly tense as they all finally address the strains they feel as, culturally, the old ways clash against the new.
"It's not that I want to forget my family, quite the opposite. But to be Chinese -- means to feel a whole web of obligation -- obligation? --- dating back 5,000 years. I am afraid of dishonoring my ancestors, even the ones dead for centuries. All the time, I feel ghosts -- sitting on my back, whispering in my ear -- keeping me from living life as I see fit."
An interesting story, but one that didn't REALLY grab me til just before the climactic end. This script may fall under the type of plays where the words alone just aren't enough and perhaps infinitely more is gained by seeing it on stage.