Giving 'Charlie Chan' A Second Chance

Charlie Chan
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
By Yunte Huang
Hardcover, 354 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $26.95
Read An Excerpt

Depending on your cultural politics, you'll find the following scene from the 1934 film Charlie Chan in London either charming or wince-making: Our venerable detective is being congratulated by a British official for his cleverness in discovering the true identity of a dastardly criminal. The actor who played Charlie Chan in that and 40 other films was Warner Oland; like Sidney Toler, the actor who succeeded him in the role, Oland was Caucasian — Swedish, in fact! But, to Hollywood, Oland looked vaguely Asiatic. To play Chan, Oland merely brushed his eyebrows up and had a few drinks to make his speech more halting and to put a grin on his face — like the perpetually congenial Chinese sleuth. Offensive, right?

But, before we condemn Oland's "Yellowface" incarnation of Charlie Chan, consider this next curious bit of film history: In 1933, Oland made a trip to Shanghai, where he was celebrated by movie audiences there for bringing to life the first positive Chinese character in American film. (After all, compared with the venal Dr. Fu Manchu, whom Oland had also played in the movies, Chan was a hero.) The nascent Chinese film industry then got busy making a series of homegrown Charlie Chan movies. According to contemporary accounts, the Chinese actor who played Chan scrupulously copied the white Oland's Chinese screen mannerisms and speech. Cultural cross-pollination at work at its most endearing — or dismaying.

That film anecdote appears in Yunte Huang's fascinating and sometimes maddening new work of cultural history called, simply, Charlie Chan. Huang was born in China and is now a professor of English in the U.S.; this is his first book intended to appeal to a popular audience. It reads as though it were composed by Charlie Chan's "No. 1 son" — frenetically dashing off in a hundred directions all at once; some illuminating, some just plain "Gee Pop!" loony. Setting out to investigate the vexed meaning and legacy of the figure of Charlie Chan, Huang also explores, among other subjects, the history of Chinese immigration to America; the career of Clarence Darrow; sandalwood and sugar cane production in the Hawaiian Islands; the history of aphorisms in English beginning with Benjamin Franklin; and, finally, his own immigration saga from student in Beijing to owner of a Chinese takeout joint in Alabama to academic.

Yunte Huang i i

Yunte Huang is an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of four other scholarly books. Miriam Berkley hide caption

itoggle caption Miriam Berkley
Yunte Huang

Yunte Huang is an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of four other scholarly books.

Miriam Berkley

But Charlie Chan is such a marvelous — and controversial — figure that the subject alone here more than makes up for any infelicities in Huang's style. One of the real finds this book presents is the tale of Chan's real-life counterpart, Chang Apana, the heretofore forgotten Chinese-American detective who was the inspiration for the six Charlie Chan novels that first began appearing in 1925, written by yet another white guy, Earl Derr Biggers. Apana joined the Honolulu Police Force in 1898; standing all of a wiry 5 feet tall, he arrested gamblers, opium addicts and escaped lepers, using a leather bullwhip that he made himself. As Huang chronicles, though, Apana's famous bullwhip was useless against the anti-Asian racism that prevailed within the police force and society of his time.

The suspicion that Charlie Chan himself is nothing but a racist stereotype has led many contemporary Asian-American critics to dismiss him as a "Yellow Uncle Tom" and helped precipitate "The Great Chan Ban" of the old movies from TV network schedules. Huang, however, loves Chan and sees in him something more empowering: a Chinese incarnation of the American trickster or con artist figure: "He reminds me of Monkey King. In Chinese folk myth, Monkey King is an invisible trickster who hides his weapon in his ear. ... Charlie Chan is that Monkey King, concealing his aphoristic barbs inside his tummy." Huang's mishmash book, with its profusion of Chan material, will certainly complicate, not quell, the debate over Chan's legacy; but, as the great detective himself said, "Mind like parachute — only function when open."

Excerpt: 'Charlie Chan'

Charlie Chan
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
By Yunte Huang
Hardcover, 354 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $26.95

In the spring of 2002, I was scheduled to give a talk on my new book, Transpacific Displacement, followed by that rite of passage most authors come both to anticipate and to dread, the book signing. Without my knowledge, an amiable secretary in the English Department at Harvard, where I was then teaching, made a flyer for the event at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. Her concoction was — how shall we say it — an intriguing collage. My name and the book title were highlighted in bold, with a map of the Pacific Rim fading out in the background. A silhouette of the Swedish actor Warner Oland, playing Charlie Chan, stood atop the sprawling, vast Asian continent and peered menacingly in the direction of North America. The secretary told me that she, a Caucasian woman in her late fifties, had grown up watching Charlie Chan movies. My inveterate -wisecracking — which I was not shy to dispense around the -department — had reminded her of her favorite, aphorism-spouting Chinese detective. Given my affection for her and my own sense of civility, I did not dare question her creative enterprise, informing her that this image of a bellicose Chan would be offensive to most Asian Americans. I did not initiate that conversation because I knew it would take a book's worth of pages to explain the tortured legacy of Charlie Chan in America, even to myself. Instead, I thanked her in my polite Chinese manner for her sprightly design. And now I have written this book about Charlie Chan, in part to carry on my imaginary dialogue with this well-meaning lady.

So, who is Charlie Chan?

To most Caucasian Americans, he is a funny, beloved, albeit somewhat inscrutable — that last adjective already a bit loaded — character who talks wisely and acts even more wisely. But to many Asian Americans, he remains a pernicious example of a racist stereotype, a Yellow Uncle Tom, if you will; the type of Chinaman, passive and unsavory, who conveys himself in broken English. In this book, however, I would like to propose a more complicated view. As a ubiquitous cultural icon, whose influence on the twentieth century remains virtually unexamined, Charlie Chan does not yield easily to ideological reduction. "Truth," to quote our honorable detective, "like football — receive many kicks before reaching goal."

To write about Charlie Chan is to write about the undulations of the American cultural experience. Like a blackface minstrel, Charlie Chan carries both the stigma of racial parody and the stimulus of creative imitation. It is no coincidence that Stepin Fetchit, the most celebrated black comic actor in the 1930s, and one of the most reviled since the civil rights movement, had also starred in Charlie Chan movies. Fetchit played a lazy, inarticulate, and easily frightened Negro. And so did Mantan Moreland, another popular black comedian, who brought to the Chan movies his extraordinary vaudeville talent. Charlie Chan's racial ventriloquism in the hands of such white actors as Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters finds strong historical parallels with Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, and Nigger Jim. Before jumping to any ideologically reductive conclusion, we should pause and think: What would American culture be without minstrelsy, jazz, haiku, Zen, karate, the blues, or anime — without, in other words, the incessant transfusion (and co-opting) of diverse cultural traditions and creative energies?

A glance at Charlie Chan's fictional biography reveals just how far his nimble steps have taken him into the American psyche. Most Americans don't realize that he is based on a real person: Chang Apana, a legendary Honolulu police officer, whose biography will make up a large part of this book. Like Apana, Charlie Chan came of age in colonial Hawaii, riven by endemic racial tension. As a young man, he worked as a houseboy for a rich white family in Honolulu. As a detective, he traveled extensively in the islands, the American West, Asia, and Europe. He stood witness to the plights and sufferings of his fellow Chinese as indentured laborers on sugarcane plantations, as gold miners bullied by their white competitors, as railroad builders taking on the most dangerous jobs, and as laundrymen toiling away with steam and starch, supposedly muttering, "No tickee, no washee." Some of these ethnic experiences and stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in American culture that even as late as the 1990s, a Republican senator would use the infamous phrase, "Not a Chinaman's chance," when addressing the loss of manufacturing jobs to China at a congressional hearing. Abercrombie & Fitch would sell T-shirts that read, "Wong Brothers Laundry Service. Two Wongs Can Make It White." In many ways, Charlie Chan is a distillation of the collective experience of Asian Americans, his résumé a history of the Chinese in America.

Although Charlie Chan embodies some stereotypical traits, his fictional creator, the early twentieth-century novelist Earl Derr Biggers, succeeded in minting a unique and appealing image. As a Chinaman, Charlie Chan is like a multilayered Chinese box or a Russian doll. He may have slanted eyes, a chubby and inscrutable face, and a dark goatee, but he prefers Western suits to his native garments and wears a Panama hat in the tropical sun. He is no fan of tea; he prefers to drink sarsaparilla. Moreover, unlike a timid, inarticulate Chinaman, Chan is voluble and enjoys spouting fortune-cookie witticisms that are alternately befuddling and enlightening. This is the strength of his character: his beguiling Oriental charm, his Confucian analects turned into singsong Chinatown blues.

When Chan debuted on the silver screen in 1926, anti-Chinese hysteria had already quieted down on the West Coast and in Hawaii. A series of anti-Chinese laws in place since 1882 had effectively limited immigration from China. America was ready for an image of a Chinaman more benign than the chimera of a decade earlier, Dr. Fu Manchu, a Mongol Satan who plotted to take over the West. Chan's Hollywood career took off. The film series had a grand run of more than two decades, and Chan became one of America's most beloved movie characters.

Being the country's first beloved Chinaman is not, however, the only legacy of Charlie Chan. In the decades after World War II, his influence reached into the hard-boiled world of film noir, where characters with Chinese names and Charlie Chan mustaches loom ominously in the dark background. Terms such as Shanghai, Manchurian, and opium den ricochet around like eerie echoes from a stylized underworld. Chinatown becomes synonymous with all that is rotten in the sordid urban space of midcentury America, standing in abject contrast to the clean, white, suburban sprawls of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. In the hackneyed symbolism of Chinatown and the clichéd notion of Chinese inscrutability, Charlie Chan has maintained a haunting presence.

Given the perpetuation of this insidious brand of Orientalism, it was hardly surprising that Asian American activists and writers, pioneers such as Frank Chin and Jessica Hagedorn, began a campaign in the 1980s to heighten the public's awareness of these negative racial tropes and deeply trenched stereotypes. Given this climate of silence that had stilled debate or scrutiny for decades, one can hardly blame Hagedorn for pronouncing, "Charlie Chan is dead." Carrying the historical weight of the Asian American experience, Hagedorn's shocking rhetoric was necessary to create a new consciousness, to make all Americans aware of how Charlie Chan had been used in the past to reinforce negative cultural symbols. But, contrary to Hagedorn's dramatic pronouncement, rumors of Chan's death may have been exaggerated. Newly restored versions of the old movies are being released on DVD every year to enthusiastic response, Web sites extol his mystique, and spoofs and sequels are produced constantly. We can no longer explain Chan's longevity by referring simply to the persistence of racism. There is a deeper American story we need to retrieve and properly frame.

As a detective, Charlie Chan should take his place in film history alongside sagacious gentlemen like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, and Lieutenant Columbo, yet his ethnic identity marks him as different. Charlie Chan is far from the emasculated Chinaman his critics have claimed he is. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the movies and novels would know that Chan can be as mentally brazen and combative as Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. His courage matches that of his real-life original, Chang Apana, who, despite his diminutive height, walked dangerous beats carrying a coiled bullwhip and caught dozens of criminals singlehandedly without firing a shot.

But the core strength of Chan's character lies in his pseudo-Confucian, aphoristic wisdom. Unlike the Kung Fu movies, which showcase a Chinese penchant for ass-kicking and sword-brandishing, Chan reveals the Chinaman as a sage: a wise, calm, responsible, and commonsensical man who also happens to be a hilarious wisecracker. These depictions prepared television audiences of the 1970s for Kung Fu, featuring David Carradine as a Shaolin master wandering the American West and fighting for justice in a constant sea of flashbacks. There is even a good deal of Charlie Chan's wit in the torqued physicality of Jackie Chan's slapstick.

For me, a real Chinaman, who didn't grow up in this country but hasn't been shielded from the arrows of American racism, it is fascinating that Charlie Chan is an American original, "made in the U.S.A." Make no mistake: Charlie Chan is an American stereotype of the Chinaman. Anyone who believes that Chan is Chinese would probably also believe that the fortune cookie is a Chinese invention. Charlie Chan is as American as Jack Kerouac, that stalwart of the American hipster who was born French Canadian and spoke the dialect of joual as his first language. Call it the melting pot or the pu pu platter, but Brahmin Boston is where the chop suey of Charlie Chan was first stir-fried by the Harvard-educated Biggers, only to be recast later by wisecracking screenwriters and directors in bronzed and lacquered Hollywood. What Stanley Crouch calls cultural miscegenation as the catalyst of the American experience has found another exemplar in Charlie Chan. Simply put, Charlie Chan's Chinatown beat, like jazz, is a distinctly American brand, not a Chinese import.

My goal in writing this book, then, is to demonstrate that Charlie Chan, America's most identifiable Chinaman, epitomizes both the racist heritage and the creative genius of this nation's culture. To my chagrin, because I am a big fan of the genre, this book is no high-speed detective fiction with gun molls and badinage. The mystery of Charlie Chan is as deep as any "Confucius say." I have had to unravel it by tracing several dry streams to the source of long dormant wells. It wasn't hard to get them roiling again, like an old and faithful geyser in the American psyche that dependably gives insult. The clues I found in these backwaters would not always converge, but I have come to see this as the true nature of American legends: they need something foreign to make them live again. Hollywood has always known this, with such directors as Billy Wilder and Ang Lee producing scalding interpretations of the most American of stories. But I must confess that I am not in the packaging business. The legends that Hollywood perpetuates can never be entirely circumscribed, wrapped up with string. Instead, in my far-flung research and peripatetic travels, I found not one but four unique stories of Charlie Chan.

The first story, of course, is the man himself, beginning with Chang Apana, the bullwhip-toting Cantonese detective in Honolulu. Then there is Earl Biggers's story, unwinding from the cornfields of small-town Ohio to the old-boy parlors of Harvard Yard, followed by Chan's reinvention on the silver screen, a legend annealed in Hollywood and America's racial tensions. And, finally, there is Chan's haunting presence during the era of postmodern politics and ethnic pride in contemporary America. Each of these streams is a story in itself, a slice of bona fide Americana. Together, they form the biography of Charlie Chan, the honorable detective whose labyrinthine matrix we have only now begun to fathom.

Excerpted from Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. Copyright 2010 by Yunte Huang. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co.

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