LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Charlie Chan movies have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. He was the not politically correct Chinese American detective played by an actor who was not Chinese, doling out wisdom while fighting crime.
(Soundbite of movie)
Mr. WARNER OLAND (Actor): (As Charlie Chan) There is old saying: Death is a black camel that kneels unbitten at every gate. Tonight, black camel has knelt here.
WERTHEIMER: The first Chan film was in the 1920s. It was based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers, inspired by a real-life Hawaiian detective. Yunte Huang, an English professor at the University of California Santa Barbara has written a book about the real Charlie Chan. Yunte Huang's first encounter with the fictional character was in 1994.
Professor YUNTE HUANG (University of California Santa Barbara): When I was a student in Buffalo, one day I went to an estate sale and I found these two Charlie Chan novels. I had never been to an estate sale before because they don't really exist in China. And Linda, you may know that the Chinese almost never buy stuff from the dead. So I was literally terrified to buy these two books, but I did anyway, and I took them home and I was immediately hooked.
And after Buffalo I went to teach at Harvard, and by that point I already knew that E.D. Biggers, the creator of Charlie Chan, was a Harvard man. Through reading and researching on Biggers, I was really astonished to discover that there was a real Charlie Chan and he had been neglected in history.
WERTHEIMER: Well, now, the real Charlie Chan, who was he?
Prof. HUANG: Well, his name is Chang Apana. He was a five-foot-tall Cantonese cop in Honolulu in the early 20th century. He had been a paniolo, that's Hawaiian for cowboy before he joined the police force in 1898, just when Hawaii was annexed by the United States.
As a police officer, he worked almost the most dangerous beats in Chinatown, carrying a bullwhip. And he was a master of disguise. And one time he single-handedly arrested 40 people without firing a shot.
WERTHEIMER: You describe that in the prologue to the book. I wonder if you could just read a little bit.
Prof. HUANG: Sure.
Climbing up the rickety stairs to the second floor, he turned and faced the room packed with gamblers, all Chinese, huddling over games of Fan-Tan, Pai Gow, Craps, and Mahjong. The air was a mix of smut and smoke, the den ringing with (unintelligible) jeers(ph) and the sound of clicking dice and Mahjong tiles.
He observed the ballyhoo through his dark lenses. Someone at the Mahjong table looked up and immediately recognized the face of the infamous cop whose name elicits shutters from the spines of Honolulu criminals. Chai Lo(ph) - before the Cantonese cry for cop drop to the ground, a five-foot bullwhip had uncoiled like a hissing rattlesnake from the detective's waist.
One crisp snap of the whip and the entire room froze like a gambling hall diorama under glass. Only clouds of cigarette smoke still wavered, the afterthoughts of exploded firecrackers not sure where to settle in the deafening silence.
Many there had already heard of and some had even tasted the might of this unusual weapon wielded by the former rough-riding paniolo. Resisting arrest will be futile, even though they knew he had, as usual, brought no backup. His whip had spoken louder than any law or gun.
WERTHEIMER: Now, Earl Derr Biggers obviously took liberties with the Honolulu detective and changed him from a Hawaiian cowboy into a more stereotypical character.
Prof. HUANG: That's true. I mean even physically, you know, like I said, Chang Apana was five-foot tall and he's really skinny and wiry. The Charlie Chan in the movies and novels and - you know what he looks like.
WERTHEIMER: Sort of a portly fellow with a beard and...
Prof. HUANG: With dainty steps and...
WERTHEIMER: ...rather formally dressed.
Prof. HUANG: Right, exactly.
WETHEIMER: The Charlie Chan novels came out at a time when the United States was involved in one of its fairly frequent outbursts of nativism. There was a lot of hostility to immigrants of all kinds, but particularly Chinese on the West Coast. But the Charlie Chan novels were very popular, and then the movies, which followed them, were also very popular.
Prof HUANG: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: How do those two things go together? America for Americans and loving Charlie Chan.
Prof. HUANG: Right. Yeah, Charlie Chan, like I said, it's really it's a kind of real mystery in many ways. So at his origin, really, when he first appeared, you know, in 1925, that was right after the infamous Johnson-Reed Act was passed in the United States. It was really the first kind of legislative, shall we say, racism against foreigners.
WERTHEIMER: The Johnson-Reed Act limited immigration.
Prof. HUANG: Yes. Mostly from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, really, and the other group was Japanese. So Charlie Chan appearing at that critical moment when the country just closed its door, you know, to so-called foreigners, with all of his exoticism, aphorisms, et cetera, et cetera, and this is really a strange kind of love-hate relationship.
And it really manifests itself later on in Asian-American reactions to Charlie Chan. On the one side you have a lot of people who really love this kind of beloved character. On the other hand, he's also hated by Asian-Americans.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that it had something to do with the fact that the character who played Charlie Chan was not Chinese? That was -
Prof. HUANG: Oh, absolutely.
WERTHEIMER: The one we most often think of is Warner Oland, who is Swedish.
Prof. HUANG: Exactly, yes. In the book I call this kind of, you know, yellow face, so-called, to go along with, you know, the American traditions of black face, red face, et cetera, et cetera. (Unintelligible) let's say of this kind of racist legacy on the one hand, and really the creative genius of this great country on the other hand.
WERTHEIMER: Charlie Chan movies were big hits in Asia, especially in China, where apparently the idea of yellow face, a European playing Charlie Chan, was not a problem.
Prof. HUANG: You know, I grew up in China, and I used to watch a lot of Chinese operas. And it is a very common thing in Chinese opera to do these kind of ventriloquism, or to have cross-dressing, for instance. So performing the other - that kind of imitation - is always part of this kind of artistic culture of China.
And so in the '30s, when, you know, Charlie Chan movies were being shown in Shanghai or Beijing or major cities in China, people flocked to the theaters and, you know, and they loved him - especially with his kind of pseudo fortune-cookie aphorisms. It was quite, you know, an attraction to Chinese at the time.
WERTHEIMER: Professor Huang, thank you very much for joining us.
Prof. HUANG: Well, thank you for having me.
WERTHEIMER: Yunte Huang is a professor of English at the University of California Santa Barbara. His new book is called "Charlie Chan."
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: What do you think about that fortune cookie wisdom from Charlie Chan?
Prof. HUANG: They're great, how can you not like them?
WETHEIMER: Actions speak louder than French.
Prof. HUANG: Tongue often hang man quicker than rope.
WERTHEIMER: Smart fly keep out of gravy.
Prof. HUANG: Man who flirt with dynamite sometimes fly with angels.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.